Ancient organic molecules discovery on Mars

This NASA video from today in the USA says about itself:

The Curiosity rover has discovered ancient organic molecules on Mars, embedded within sedimentary rocks that are billions of years old. News Release: here.

From Chemical & Engineering News today:

Ancient organic molecules found on Mars

Curiosity rover also reports data on the red planet’s mysterious methane plumes

by Mark Peplow

Wherever life flourishes, it leaves a calling card written in organic molecules—and researchers have spent decades hoping to uncover these telltale signatures on Mars.

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has now given those hopes a considerable boost after finding organic deposits trapped in exposed rocks that were formed roughly 3.5 billion years ago (Science 2018). The rover’s discovery at Gale Crater shows that organic molecules were present when that part of the red planet hosted a potentially habitable lake. It also proves that these traces can survive through the ages, ready to be discovered by robot explorers.

“We started this search 40 years ago, and now we finally have a set of organic molecules that tells us this stuff is preserved near the surface,” says Jennifer L. Eigenbrode of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who led the study.

Curiosity gathered mudstone samples and gradually heated them to 860 ºC, using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry to study the gases produced. It identified a smorgasbord of molecules, including thiophene, methylthiophenes, and methanethiol, which are probably fragments from larger organic macromolecules in the sediment. These organic deposits may be something like kerogen, the fossilized organic matter found in sedimentary rocks on Earth that contains a jumble of waxy hydrocarbons and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

The organic compounds that were originally transformed into martian kerogen could have come from three possible sources—geological activity, meteorites, or living organisms—but Curiosity’s data offer no insight on that question. “The most plausible source of these organics is from outside the planet,” says Inge Loes ten Kate, an astrobiologist at Utrecht University, who was not involved in the research. She notes that roughly 100 to 300 metric tons of organic molecules arrive on Mars every year, hitching a ride on interplanetary dust particles. “Three billion years ago, it was much more hectic in the solar system”, ten Kate says, so there would have been much larger deliveries of organics via interplanetary travelers.

Curiosity had previously detected chlorocarbons in martian soil, which were probably generated by reactions with the abundant perchlorate found on the planet’s surface. In contrast, the mudstone samples have delivered “what we expect of natural organic matter,” Eigenbrode says.

Methane mystery

Meanwhile, the rover’s infrared spectrometer has been tackling the long-standing puzzle of martian methane (Science 2018). Orbiting Mars probes, along with telescopes on Earth, have previously seen occasional plumes of methane in the planet’s atmosphere, raising speculation that the gas could have come from geological activity or even methane-producing organisms.

Curiosity has taken methane measurements over 55 Earth months, spanning three martian years, which now reveal that the atmospheric concentration of the gas varies seasonally between 0.24 and 0.65 parts per billion by volume. “This is the first time that Mars methane has shown any repeatability”, says Christopher R. Webster at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who led the work. “It always seemed kind of random before.”

The rover also saw brief spikes in methane concentration to about 7 ppbv, which is consistent with previous remote observations of plumes, says Michael J. Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who has been chasing martian methane for more than 15 years but was not involved in Curiosity’s latest findings. “The ground-based detection is very important because it confirms the methane is there,” he says.

The methane’s source is still an open question. But Webster’s team says that the seasonal cycle rules out one of the leading suggestions: that organic molecules, delivered to the surface by meteorites and space dust, were broken down by ultraviolet light to produce the gas.

Instead, the cyclical nature of the data suggests that methane could be stored deep underground in icy crystals called clathrates and slowly escape to the planet’s topsoils. Laboratory experiments suggest that the soil could temporarily hang on to the gas, releasing more of it in the warmer martian summer to produce the seasonal cycles.

Mars’s newest satellite, the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), could help confirm that idea. It began to survey the whole planet for methane in April. “We’re all waiting with bated breath to see what they find,” Webster says. TGO should also measure the carbon isotope ratios in the methane it detects, which may provide hints at a biological or geological origin. And in 2021, ESA expects to land a rover on Mars that could drill up to 2 meters below the surface, where there might be better-preserved organics compared with the ones collected at Gale Crater, Eigenbrode says.

These lines of evidence could eventually help resolve questions about our own origins. Mars and Earth were once quite similar places, ten Kate says, yet life apparently failed to gain a foothold on the red planet. “Was there really no life on Mars, or did it just not survive?” she says. The answer could shed light on the crucial conditions needed to nurture the first life-forms on our own world.

See also here.

Opportunity rover waits out a huge dust storm on Mars. The 14-year-old craft has weathered storms before, but none this big, by Lisa Grossman, 5:56pm, June 11, 2018.


Spacecraft New Horizons in Kuiper Belt

This 4 June 2018 Sky News video says about itself:

The New Horizons spacecraft is about to leave hibernation to begin preparations for its January 2019 flyby of the Kuiper Belt object (KBO) 2014 MU69, nicknamed “Ultima Thule”.

The flyby, set to occur in the early morning of January 1, 2019, will be the second for New Horizons, following its historic 2015 Pluto flyby.

It will also be the furthest flyby from Earth ever performed by a spacecraft.

Initial searches for a post-Pluto flyby target for New Horizons began in 2011, 4 years before its flyby of Pluto. The New Horizons team was aiming for potential KBOs around 50-100km in diameter.

At first, only large ground-based telescopes were used in the search but were unable to find any KBOs that New Horizons could reach with its limited fuel supply.

Eventually, the Hubble Space Telescope took over the search, and discovered three possible targets for the flyby, given the temporary names “PT1”, “PT2”, and “PT3”, with the “PT” standing for “Potential Target”. PT1 and PT3 were seen as the best targets, while PT2 was dropped due to it being further away from New Horizon’s path than the two others.

Both PT1 and PT3 had their advantages and disadvantages. For example, PT1 would require less fuel to get to than PT3, but is likely smaller than PT3.

On August 28, 2015, the New Horizons team announced they had chosen PT1 – which was given the temporary name “2014 MU69” – as the flyby target. From multiple observations by Hubble and other ground-based telescopes, MU69 was determined to be red, around 30km in diameter, and potentially a binary system.

By observing MU69’s shape as it passed in front of background stars – called on occultation – astronomers found that MU69 may be double-lobed – meaning that it could be comprised of two large, connected sections – or a binary system, composed of two similar objects orbiting each other.

An example of a binary system is Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. Although they are not the same size, both objects orbit around a barycenter – a point of gravity between the two objects.

In October and November 2015, four maneuvers were performed by New Horizon’s hydrazine-fueled engines to set it up for a flyby of MU69 in January 2019.

In 2017, two small correction maneuvers were performed with the engines in order to further refine the flyby. On March 13, 2018, using public input from online polls and user-submitted names, MU69 was given the nickname “Ultima Thule” by the New Horizons team – meaning beyond the borders of the known world.

New Horizons will begin its approach phase of the MU69 flyby on August 16, 2018, when it will begin imaging MU69 and the area around it to begin acquiring data about the KBO and its surroundings. Also, New Horizons will look for potential debris that could pose a hazard to itself, such as moons or rings. Should any potential dangers be found, New Horizons has four planned opportunities to make trajectory changes from early October to early December 2018.

By Lisa Grossman, 10:51am, June 5, 2018:

New Horizons wakes up to begin Kuiper Belt exploration

The spacecraft will fly past a small rock nicknamed Ultima Thule on New Year’s Day

The spacecraft that raced past Pluto is back and ready to explore a whole new world.

NASA’s New Horizons probe woke up at 10:55 p.m. EDT on June 4 after a nearly six-month slumber, and news of the event reached Earth several hours later. The craft is now getting ready to fly past a small Kuiper Belt object called Ultima Thule (SN Online: 3/14/18).

New Horizons went into the last of a series of sleep modes on December 22, 2017, resting before continuing its exploration of the Kuiper Belt, the zone of small icy celestial bodies beyond Neptune (SN: 6/27/15, p. 16).

Hibernation is part of normal spacecraft operations, says mission principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute who is based in Boulder, Colo. “It saves wear and tear on the system, and it frees up personnel to do flyby planning.”

“IT’S HAPPENING! IT’S HAPPENING!” Stern tweeted in the early hours of June 5. “Flyby preparations for Ultima Thule begin shortly!”

In its next act, New Horizons will fly past the distant rock of Ultima Thule (also known as 2014 MU69) on New Year’s Day in 2019. Earlier observations suggest that Ultima Thule, no more than 30 kilometers long, could actually be two smaller objects orbiting each other (SN Online: 12/12/17). The team will know more when New Horizons’ first images after waking up arrive at Earth in August 2018.

Scientists think that Ultima Thule has existed near its current orbit 6.5 billion kilometers from Earth, at a temperature of –240° Celsius, for most of the solar system’s 4.6-billion-year history. “As such, MU69 will be the most primitive body ever studied by any spacecraft,” the team writes in the June Space Science Reviews.

Newly discovered beetle species named after astronaut, Leonardo Dicaprio

This video says about itself:

BREAKING! Leonardo DiCaprio awarded an impressive insect honor

1 May 2018

Meet Grouvellinus leonardodicaprioi.

Translated from Dutch NOS TV today:

Bornean riffe beetle now known as Grouvellinus andrekuipersi

There was already a tulip named after him and a planetoid, but since today astronaut André Kuipers is also the proud name giver of a new beetle species; the Grouvellinus andrekuipersi.

The beetle was discovered during an expedition in Borneo, organized by biologist Menno Schilthuizen. During the same expedition another beetle was found, named after the American actor Leonardo DiCaprio.


De Groot wrote a competition for an original name for the beetle and biology student Auke-Florian Hiemstra suggested naming the insect after André Kuipers because of his great commitment to the environment.

“As an astronaut, Kuipers saw the earth from space and experienced the “Overview Effect“. He suddenly saw how vulnerable the earth is and realized that we should be careful with our planet.”

Kuipers received the scientific publication in Zookeys from Hiemstra, in which the beetle is described with its new name.

Riffe beetle

The Grouvellinus andrekuipersi is a real riffe beetle. It was found in an area in Borneo with a lot of clean and fresh water. The beetles live on pieces of wood in streams and mainly eat the bacteria that grow on the wood. The Grouvellinus andrekuipersi probably only occurs in Borneo.

It is not the first time that animals and insects are named after celebrities. A [pistol] shrimp with bright pink scissors and a good sense of drumming was named after the British rock band Pink Floyd and a fly with heavy arms after Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Donald Trump was also named after an animal species. The moth Neopalpa donaldtrumpi has a yellow-orange ‘haircut’ that is very similar to that of the American president.

Mapping icebergs in Greenland

This video from the USA says about itself:

18 April 2018

How is mapping an iceberg similar to mapping an asteroid? They are actually much the same kind of a mission: they both involve using an autonomous vehicle in an extreme environment to map and explore a remote moving object.

Taking on the task of mapping icebergs, engineers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute developed the iceberg autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). During an expedition to Greenland in 2017, the research team successfully tested new control technologies that would allow the vehicle to safely travel parallel to complex vertical terrain (i.e., an iceberg). To do this the engineers outfitted the AUV with obstacle-avoidance sonars, aligned in the horizontal plane, to make sure the vehicle didn’t collide with anything. The vehicle also had a second sonar on it, aligned in the vertical plane, looking out the left side of the vehicle. This vertical sonar collected mapping data revealing what the target surface looked like.

The team ran several successful repeat missions on three different icebergs.

Video producer: Nancy Barr
Interview videographer: Todd Walsh
Video editor: Kyra Schlining
Music: (License N: TT000270144)
Illustration: Kelly Lance

For more information, see the MBARI 2017 Annual Report.

Celebrities’ names now on Pluto’s moon Charon

The International Astronomical Union selected for features on Pluto's moon Charon these 12 names out of a pool of selections that included characters from Lord of the Rings and Marvel comics

The International Astronomical Union selected for features on Pluto’s moon Charon these 12 names out of a pool of selections that included characters from Lord of the Rings and Marvel comics.

By Dan Garisto, 7:00am, April 20, 2018:

Celebrity names now mark places on Pluto’s moon Charon

Somewhere on the distant moon is a mountain with Stanley Kubrick’s name on it

Pluto’s largest moon, long seen as mysterious smudge at the outer reaches of our solar system, was revealed in 2015 closeup images to be pocked with craters, mountains and steep-sided depressions called chasmas. Now, 12 of those topographical features have names.

Charon’s six most prominent craters were named for fictional explorers, including Dorothy who visited the fantastical land of Oz, time traveler Revati from the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata, and Nemo for the captain of the ship Nautilus in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Three chasmas received nautically themed names — Argo for the Greek ship sailed by Jason to retrieve the Golden Fleece, Caleuche for the mythological ghost ship said to travel off the Chilean coast, and Manjet for one of Egyptian sun god Ra’s vessels. The names for Charon’s mountains honor three real-life luminaries: film director Stanley Kubrick and science fiction writers Octavia E. Butler and Sir Arthur C. Clarke.

Before the International Astronomical Union announced the names April 11, scientists referred to Charon’s features with nicknames like “brown mountain” or “yellow mountain,” says Rita Schulz, a planetary scientist who heads the union’s Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature. In contrast, the new names have an appeal that “engages [the] public in science”, she says. And that, she adds, “is quite good.”

First global maps of Pluto and Charon show the worlds’ highs and lows. Made with New Horizons’ data, the charts reveal never-before-seen details. By Lisa Grossman, 4:50pm, July 13, 2018.

Astronomical latest news update

This 2015 video is called Black Holes Explained – From Birth to Death.

Astronomers can’t figure out why some black holes got so big so fast. These behemoths defy expectations of how quickly black holes feed. By Lisa Grossman, 7:00am, March 16, 2018.

Artificial Intelligence bests humans at mapping the moon. A computer algorithm found about 6,000 lunar craters that hadn’t been counted before. By Maria Temming, 3:53pm, March 15, 2018.

Dwarf planet Ceres may store underground brine that still gushes up today. Waterlogged minerals and changing ice add to evidence that Ceres is geologically active. By Lisa Grossman, 6:38pm, March 14, 2018.

New Horizons’ next target has been dubbed Ultima Thule. The name was chosen from about 34,000 submissions. By Mike Denison, 3:52pm, March 14, 2018.

British physicist Stephen Hawking, RIP

This video says about itself:

The Theory of Everything – Official Trailer (Universal Pictures) HD

The Theory of Everything is the story of the most brilliant and celebrated physicist of our time, Stephen Hawking, and Jane Wilde the arts student he fell in love with whilst studying at Cambridge in the 1960s. Little was expected from Stephen Hawking, a bright but shiftless student of cosmology, given just two years to live following the diagnosis of a fatal illness at 21 years of age.

He became galvanized, however, by the love of fellow Cambridge student, Jane Wilde, and he went on to be called the successor to Einstein, as well as a husband and father to their three children. Over the course of their marriage as Stephen’s body collapsed and his academic renown soared, fault lines were exposed that tested the lineaments of their relationship and dramatically altered the course of both of their lives.

From Reuters news agency today:

LONDON (Reuters) – Stephen Hawking, who sought to explain some of the most complicated questions of life while working under the shadow of a likely premature death, has died at 76.

* His children Lucy, Robert and Tim:

“He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years. His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humor inspired people across the world. He once said: ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him forever.”

* Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web:

“We have lost a colossal mind and a wonderful spirit. Rest in peace, Stephen Hawking.”

* Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge:

“Professor Hawking was a unique individual who will be remembered with warmth and affection not only in Cambridge but all over the world. His exceptional contributions to scientific knowledge and the popularization of science and mathematics have left an indelible legacy. His character was an inspiration to millions. He will be much missed.”

In 2016, a United States American Christian religious fundamentalist threatened to murder Stephen Hawking for not being a religious fundamentalist, but an atheist.

Stephen Hawking campaigned against Tony Blair’s Trident nuclear arms plans; continued by Blair‘s Conservative successors Cameron and May.

Hawking maintained a generally left-wing political stance throughout his life, declaring that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a “war crime”: here.

This 2014 video is about the book by Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time.

This video says about itself:

Memorable scene from Star Trek TNG, Season 6, Episode 26 The Descent (part 1). Lieutenant Commander Data is playing poker with the most famous physics scientists of our recent history, Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. Simulated on the holo-deck.

TRIBUTES ARE POURING IN FOR LEGENDARY PHYSICIST STEPHEN HAWKING Who died from complications due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at the age of 76. [HuffPost]

A brief history of Hawking’s scientific legacy. Professor Stephen Hawking changed the way we understand the universe and leaves a legacy of theory ranging from black holes to the quantum effect on time. By Professor Raymond R. Volkas, University of Melbourne.