Friday, September 30, 2011

Martian Life's Last Stand in the Trenches?

Scientists have found water-bearing deposits on Mars that are out of step with what was happening elsewhere on the planet, raising the prospect that the sites could have hosted Martian life's last stand.

The deposits are a type of clay called smectites, which contain a blend of silica with aluminum, iron or magnesium. They form in the presence of water.

The deposits were found in an unlikely locale -- roughly 30 feet up from the ground inside two troughs in Noctis Labyrinthus ("the labyrinth of the night"), a maze-like system of deep valleys located near the western end of the massive Valles Marineris canyon that cuts across the face of Mars.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

19 September 1955: Plant Life on Mars?

Originally published in the Manchester Guardian on 19 September 1955

The sudden appearance of a large dark spot on the surface of the planet Mars was announced yesterday by the National Geographic Society in Washington. It was also claimed that this discovery supported the conclusion "that Mars is not a dead world, that the darkening is due to the growth of plant life." The observation has been made by Dr E. C. Slipher, the director of the Lowell Observatory, in South Africa.

Dr Slipher has spent a large part of his long life (he is nearly 80) photographing the surface of Mars.

This event is certainly remarkable, but it is unlikely that scientists will accept the suggestion that the appearance of this spot is evidence of vegetable life on the planet. Professor Znedik Kopal of Manchester University said last night that the claim "must be taken with a pinch of salt." The difficulty is that there are at least two ways of accounting for the appearance of dark spots on the surface of the planet and simple photography of them cannot decide between the two theories.

It is, however, clear that the dark spots must be produced by some active mechanism. Most of the surface of the planet is covered with a thick layer of sandy dust (it is a desert), and it is known that winds with speeds of several miles a second blow in the thin Martian atmosphere. Any dark material on the surface would rapidly become covered with a thin layer of obscuring dust if there were not some way in which it was regenerated.

The assumption that the dark patches are areas of vegetation has been common, for several decades. The difficulty is to see how any vegetation could grow in the planet's strange atmosphere.

The most favoured of the alternative theories is that the dark spots are caused by volcanic activity. Each black area would be brought about by pumice dust from an active volcano falling on the sandy desert and concealing it from view. This supposes that the volcanoes remain active for a considerable length of time, but there is no direct way of proving or disproving this.

To distinguish between these theories experiments are now being carried out in several laboratories throughout the world. In the end the question will be decided by the colour of the light which the spots reflect. When accurate measurements of the proportions of red, blue, and yellow light from the spots are available, these will be compared with laboratory measurements of the light reflected from pumice, lava, and vegetation. The prize will go to that material which best simulates the behaviour of the spots.

© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

WHO WAS Dr. E.C. Slipher?

Earl Carl Slipher was born on a farm near Mulberry, Indiana on March 25, 1883. He began his higher education at Indiana University, where he received his B.A. degree in 1906 and his M.A. degree in 1908. He earned this M.A. through the Laurence Fellowship, which allowed him to work toward his master's degree at Lowell Observatory from 1906 to 1908. He received honorary LL.D degrees from the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University in 1960.
Slipher began his lifelong career as a planetary astronomer in 1907 when he observed Mars during an expedition to the Andes led by David Todd and supported by Percival Lowell. He became an astronomer at Lowell Observatory in 1908. At this institution, he became one of the first people to use multiple image printing, in which several images taken in close succession are superimposed onto one photographic plate in order to improve the information content in any given picture. In 1918, he became one of the first people to standardize his photographic plates for photometric measures, a procedure which is now universally used.
In 1939, 1954 and 1956, Slipher led expeditions to the Lamont-Hussey Observatory at Blemfontein, South Africa in order to observe Mars while it was in opposition. He was also instrumental in organizing the International Mars Committee (1954), which was designed to coordinate observatories around the world in order to observe Mars continuously for several months before and after an opposition. In 1960, Slipher headed an United States Air Force project designed to update the techniques used to observe Mars. Slipher was also the acting director of Lowell Observatory from January 3rd, 1957 until September 1958.
Slipher did not, however, limit his activities to the confines of Lowell Observatory. He was the mayor of Flagstaff (1918-1920), a Flagstaff city council member (1917), a State Legislature member (from which position he resigned in 1933), and a member of the Flagstaff draft board (1940-1945).

E.C. Slipher died in Flagstaff, Arizona on August 7, 1964 at the age of 81

Monday, September 19, 2011

NASA Selects University of Texas at Arlington chemistry professor's technology to determine if there is life on Mars.

This schematic diagram of an ion chromatography run depicts how elution time correlates to output peak data. Diagram courtesy of Madison Area Technical College. Copyright 2006 by the Biotechnology Project at MATC.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration believes that a University of Texas at Arlington chemistry professor's technology may hold the key for determining whether life could exist on Mars and could even help humans explore the Red Planet someday.

Purnendu "Sandy" Dasgupta has been awarded a $1.2 million grant to develop an ion chromatograph that is durable enough to withstand extraterrestrial extremes and sensitive enough to pick out differences between ions.

"He's developed a new system for testing the chemical composition of the soil on Mars," said Pamela Jansma, dean of UTA's College of Science. "We don't understand much about Martian soil, so for any kind of new technology to be able to adapt to the conditions of the Martian surface is new."

An ion chromatograph separates and detects ions, which are atoms or molecules bearing an electrical charge. The device can identify a broad range of ions.

"By creating an easily portable and robustly designed ion chromatograph, we're hoping to rapidly expand scientists' knowledge of extraterrestrial geology and geochemistry," Dasgupta stated. "With this machine, we should be able to unequivocally answer if organic ions are present."

Finding organic ions in Martian soil could lead to identifying organic compounds, which are necessary for life to exist.

Dasgupta's project was one of eight nationwide to be funded recently by grants from NASA's astrobiology program.

"Every scientist deep down is fascinated with the solar system and curious about whether there's life elsewhere," Jansma said. "This type of research captivates people."

Dasgupta will design and build an open tubular ion chromatograph that weighs no more than 3 kilograms. Researchers and students will test it in Chile's Atacama Desert, one of the most arid, barren places on Earth.

After that, they'll refine the machine for use on Mars.

Dasgupta's collaborators on the project include professors from Texas Tech and Tufts universities and a NASA research scientist.

The four-year time frame is a plus to students: "As it goes from conceptual stages to the prototype to field research, you can really see the process associated with research and development," Jansma said. "Students can really see it from start to finish. How exciting to have something that is intended to go another planet."

"It's enough time to take undergraduate and graduate students, involve them in an innovative project, and then they can use what they're doing for their graduate research," Jansma said. "It's also broad enough and of sufficient interest to so many people."

Some typical applications of ion chromatography include:
•Drinking water analysis for pollution and other constituents
•Determination of water chemistries in aquatic ecosystems
•Determination of sugar and salt content in foods
•Isolation of select proteins

Current research in the Dasgupta group include:

Chip-scale instruments,
Novel detection and data transform schemes in chromatography,
Iodine nutrition of women and infants and the effects of perchlorate thereon,
Development of iodine and Selenium analyzers,
Green analysis of arsenic in drinking water,
Measurement of cyanide in saliva, blood, and breath towards rapid treatment of cyanide poisoning,
Rapid analysis of trace heavy metals in atmospheric aerosol to act as conservative tracers,
Absolute Charge detection in solution and its many ramifications.

The research in the Dasgupta lab is targeted towards finding the best solution to a problem and is not married to any specific technique. Laboratory-built instrumentation are as commonly used as commercial chromatographs, mass spectrometers, etc. and are often preferred.

Students are necessarily trained in electronics and computer-interfacing and writing appropriate instrument control/data acquisition software. We foster builders, not users.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The search for life on Mars – MOD involved in mission sims via PLRP

September 12th, 2011
by Chris Bergin, NASA

NASA’s Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) are continuing to expand their involvement in exploration training and simulation by working with the international Pavilion Lake Research Project (PLRP) team on multi-hour missions – a precursor to deep space exploration missions, which will one day involve humans searching for signs of life on Mars.

PLRP – which began in 2008 – is a NASA and Canadian Space Agency (CSA) analog research program, which is ramping up its work in 2011 via the addition of new scientific, operational and technological objectives to its busy ten-day field deployment.

The Project is unique in focusing on both science and scientific operations research in the underwater environment of Kelly Lake, British Columbia, Canada. The PLRP team use DeepWorker submersible vehicles to explore, study and document rare freshwater carbonate rock formations that thrive in this lake, which in turn provides mission training opportunities for future deep space exploration.

The team are working on conducting safe, productive and discovery-based science in extreme environments. It is this knowledge that will form the basis of future exploration concepts for human research voyages to such destinations as near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) and Mars.

This training not only allows for gaining experience in conducting the science, but also utilizing it to ask one of the most important questions which exploration is being tasked with – the potential finding of proof there was once life on Mars.

“The Pavilion Lake Research Project (PLRP) is a NASA and CSA sponsored international, multidisciplinary, science and exploration effort to explain the origin of freshwater microbial in BC, Canada,” noted the August MOD presentation (available on L2). “Data trends provides information to identify signatures of ancient life on our own and other planets (for example Mars).”

The 60 strong team will be deeply involved in seven days of tasks, all tied into the upcoming October work to be conducted by the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) mission, along with the ongoing work being carried out by NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies (RATS) – both of which also now have MOD involvement.

“Single person submarines, scuba divers and other watercraft are used in around five hour exploration missions over seven days. Real time voice and video transmitted to science backroom team, CAPCOM, Flight Director and planning team in MCC (Mission Control Center),” added the presentation, showing where the MOD involvement will be, which includes a mobile, onsite, MCC.

“Provides an analog to human exploration missions (Mars or Asteroid) through methods developed at Pavilion & Kelly Lakes. Testing and simulating deep space communications and protocols.

Prototyping timeline viewer. Developing operational techniques. For the 2011 field season, customer requested real time planning support and a planning product for team situational awareness.”

As predicted by MOD Director Paul Hill, the team’s world class “Plan Train Fly (PTF)” approach is the obvious choice for such current missions, especially in light of MOD’s continued role in the end product, an actual deep space exploration mission.

Implemented MOD model of PLAN, TRAIN, FLY.

"PLAN: Developed a customer specific timeline and customized planning viewer for use on mobile devices (pre-mission, started Apr. 2011). Current ISS tools (Score) as a backbone for project specific planning products. Score Mobile (developed by ARC) at Kelly Lake as test bed for other exploration analogs,” listed the presentation.

“TRAIN: Inspired scientists to adopt an operational mindset. Introduced the roll of Flight Director and trained scientists to be Flight Directors. Instructed on uses of planning products. Instructed on communications techniques.

“FLY: Real time planning support through out the day’s ops. Improved efficiency of pilot time or resources. Provided situational awareness for all PLRP team members through Score Mobile. Assisted testing operations concepts in a NEA exploration environments (test bed for other analogs). Expanded operational knowledge base on maximizing science in exploration missions. Education and outreach.

With the PLRP team launching new tools – such as the Exploration Ground Data Systems developed at NASA’s Ames Research Center – the teams will be able to rapidly synthesize, manage and analyze large data sets, as well as plan and manage flight scheduling.

These tools also will be used to manage the “delayed communications” research that will build 50-second communication delays between the submarine pilot and the mission operations crew to simulate what it is like conducting science on asteroids with human explorers.

This “delayed comm” element is being utilized in MOD’s involvement with NEEMO and the Desert Rats.

MOD and PLRP will also use the new planning tools to better manage a dynamic and complex operations schedule, as well as gain a new degree of situational awareness about all field camp activities, with MOD sharing their expertise and experience gained from supporting mission operations for the space shuttle and International Space Station.

“Pushed the limits of current ISS tools in an exploration based environment. Developed prototype of timeline viewer tool (Score Mobile) for exploration missions. Kelly Lake 2011 field season used as test bed for other analogs,” added the MOD overview on their own benefits from being involved in the PLRP mission.

“Feeds into Next Gen viewer (NGPS). Demonstrated ability to provide operational services to a customer using the MOD model of Plan, Train, Fly. Grew knowledge base in order to provide better products and services to our future customers.

MOD also note that future work may include collaboration to incorporate a ‘Field Astronaut’ training concept for an ISS science experiment (ISTAR collaboration).

This year’s PLRP field team also includes a member from Google, who will help the team evolve its use of mapping activities and develop cutting-edge data integration platforms based on Google Earth.

NASA information added that in addition to achieving its science and technology goals, this year’s field test also will provide local teachers an opportunity to learn how a lake in their community will be used to train astronauts and scientists and prepare them for space exploration.

As previously summarized in the NEEMO overview, the first deep space exploration mission is likely to be to an asteroid, with the end goal set up for a crewed mission to Mars.

Mars Mission:

With the well-known uncertainty surrounding the long-term goals of the space program, no definitive mission planning has been created for a Mars mission. However, the post-Augustine Commission “Flexible Path” overviews did show what remains the only expansive review into a Mars mission outline of late.

Per the internal Flexible Path presentation – available on L2, and summarized in several articles – numerous HLVs (Heavy Lift Launch Vehicles – such as the Space Launch System) would launch the elements of the Mars Transport Vehicle (MTV) for assembly in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – of which there are several notional designs, all modular in appearance.

As overviewed in the presentation, a crew would undertake a mission of up to 650 days, with the opening target likely to be the Mars moon, Phobos.

“A human Mars Orbit/Phobos Mission represents an intermediate step between human exploration missions in near-Earth space and human missions to explore the surface of Mars,” opened the expansive section on the manned missions to Mars/Phobos.

“Key features could include demonstration of in-space hardware elements designed for Mars missions while accomplishing scientific and exploration objectives both at Mars and on Phobos.”

Such short-stay missions range from 550-650 days, with 30 to 40 days in the vicinity of Mars. Over 95 percent of the total mission time is spent in the deep-space interplanetary environment with the balance spent in the vicinity of Mars.

The reason Phobos is the likely first target of a Mars mission shows relevance to the science collection efforts being simulated by the missions taking place this year on Earth.

“The mystery of the origin of Phobos can be resolved, and its evolution since formation can be investigated by field geologists on site in contact with a larger team back on Earth. As a possible D-type (organics-rich with possible interior ice) asteroid, it offers science beyond what is readily available in the NEO population, and can shed light on the objects that delivered the initial inventory of water and organics to the surfaces of Earth and Mars,” the presentation continued.

“Returned samples would contain a record frozen very early in the formation of the solar system. The work would benefit significantly from a conjunction-class mission (540 days vs. 40 days at the target), since Phobos is a large and diverse body.

“Phobos has been a collector of ejected Martian surface material for billions of years. That material is a record of the history of early Mars that may not even be preserved on Mars itself due to weathering. Martian material should be readily recognizable by color for collection. These samples would be an important supplement to samples collected directly from the surface of Mars.

Challenges with communication from such a distant target are also cited, something which MOD will be gaining experience from via the NEEMO, Desert Rats and PLRP mission simulations.

Incidentally, the mission example used by the Flexible Path approach involves a fly-by of Venus on the return leg – and the closest humans have ever been to the Sun – along with possible flybys of several asteroids.

Regardless, such a mission becoming a reality remains many years away, with a huge amount of work and advances in human space flight required, even if the funding becomes available, likely resulting in such a mission being in the 2030s.

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