Home Is Where the Mars Rover Is

Now that Opportunity’s mission is complete, many wistfully lament about “bringing our robot home.” There’s just one problem: it’s already home.

A rendering of Opportunity on Mars [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

I am fascinated with how we anthropomorphize robots, particularly space robots. We call them “brave,” “pioneers” and even give them genders — usually a “she.” We get emotional when they reach the end of their missions, saying they’ve “died” or, as I like to say, “gone to Silicon Heaven.” But these robots are, for all intents and purposes, tools. Sure, they expand the reach of our senses, allowing us to see strange new worlds and parts of the universe where humans fear to tread, but they’re an assembly of electronics, metal, plastic, sensors, transmitters, wheels and solar panels. They don’t have emotions. They don’t breathe. They don’t philosophize about the incredible feats of exploration they are undertaking. They don’t have genders.

Still, we fall in love. When watching Curiosity land on Mars from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I teared up, full of joy that the six-wheeled hulk of a rover — that I’d met personally in JPL’s clean room a couple of years before — had safely landed on the Red Planet. After watching NASA’s InSight lander touch down on Elysium Planitia, again via JPL’s media room last year, there it was again, I was in love. I’m already anthropomorphizing the heck out of that mission, seeing InSight’s landing as another “heartbeat” on Mars. When the European Rosetta mission found Philae lying on its side like a discarded child’s toy on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, I jumped up from my desk with joy. When Cassini’s mission at Saturn ended in 2017, I was miserable. When the Chinese rover Yutu rolled off its lander in 2014, I realized I was cheering the robot on. When Spirit got stuck in a sand trap in Gusev Crater, I set up a Google alert for any and all news on the recovery efforts.

These emotions aren’t just for the exciting science and engineering strides humanity makes, there’s a certain inspirational character that each robot brings. Undoubtedly, this character naturally emerges from the wonderful scientists and engineers who design and build these amazing machines, and the social media managers who often “speak” for their robots in first person. But if you strip away the science, the technology and the people who build them, we still personalize our beloved robots, giving them their own character and creating a cartoon personality. I believe that’s a beautiful trait in the human condition (except a few flawed cultural and stereotypical missteps) and can be used to great effect to captivate the general public with the science that these robots do.

Opportunity’s landing site inside Eagle crater [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

So there’s no great surprise about the outpouring of emotion for last week’s announcement that NASA called off the communications efforts with Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity. This kick-ass robot traveled 28 miles and lasted nearly 15 years, until a global dust storm in early 2018 starved it of sunlight. It landed on Mars way back in 2004, with its twin, Spirit, beginning its Martian reign with a hole-in-one, literally — after bouncing and rolling across the regolith after its entry and descent, encased inside a genius airbag system, it plopped inside the tiny Eagle crater. We’ve collectively lived through Opportunity’s adventures and the groundbreaking science it has done. There’s a huge number of terrific robot obituaries out there, so I won’t duplicate those efforts here. There is, however, a recurring sentiment that is somewhat misplaced, though entirely innocent.

Opportunity — like Spirit and all the Mars rovers and landers that have come and gone — died at home.

This may sound like an odd statement, but there seems to be this fascination with “returning” our space robots to Earth. I’ve seen cartoons of the Dr Who traveling through time to “rescue” Opportunity. People have argued for the case of future Mars astronauts returning these artifacts to terrestrial museums. There’s that touching XKCD cartoon of Spirit being “stranded” on Mars after NASA declared it lost in 2010, that is being resurfaced for Opportunity. We want our dusty Mars rover back!

Dusty rover [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

It’s understandable, that rover has been continuously exploring Mars for a decade and a half, many of its fans, including myself, could check in on Opportunity’s adventures daily, browsing the latest batch of raw images that were uploaded to the NASA servers. We love that thing. In the tradition of military service members who die abroad, we go to great efforts to bring their bodies home so they can repatriated; we want to repatriate our science service member back to Earth.

But Opportunity is a robot that was designed for Mars. Every single design consideration took the Martian environment into account. The Red Planet’s gravity is roughly 1/3rd that of Earth, so the weight on its actuators and chassis are 2/3rds less than what they’d experience on our planet. Its motors are too under powered to reliably drive the robot forward on Earth. On Mars, they’re perfect. Granted, the mass of the Mars Exploration Rovers (approximately 185 kg) are a lot less than their supersized cousin, Curiosity (899 kg), but if Opportunity and Spirit had a 90-day mission exploring the dunes of the Californian Mojave Desert, I’m betting they wouldn’t get very far; they would be under-powered and grind to a halt. They’d also likely overheat as they were designed to withstand the incredibly low temperatures on the Martian surface.

The robots we send to Mars are undeniably Martian. If we’re going to anthropomorphize these beautiful machines, let’s think about what they’d want. I’m guessing they’d want to stay on that dusty terrain and not return to the alien place where they were constructed. And, in doing so, they become the first generation of archaeological sites on the Red Planet that, one day, the first biological Martians will visit.

A Martian’s shadow [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Listening to Winds On Alien Worlds Is More Complicated Than it Sounds

InSight’s recording of Martian winds isn’t what you’d hear if you were on the planet yourself

Artist’s impression of the European Huygens lander that descended through Titan’s atmosphere and landed on the Saturn moon’s surface [ESA]

We live in a world where spacecraft are now routinely landing on other worlds and recording their sounds. Soviet probes aimed at Venus captured the thunder and howling winds on the volcanic world, giving us the first ever audio recording captured beyond Earth. We’ve been able to reconstruct the sound of alien rain on Saturn’s moon Titan. And now, for the first time, we get to hear the low hum of Martian winds sweeping down the planes. Except not exactly. You see, while InSight did in fact record a 10 to 15 mile per hour draft on Martian, the recording’s pitch had to be dialed up and its frequency sped up roughly 100 times for the human ear to make any real sense of it. But why is it so hard to hear them otherwise?

Unlike Venus or Titan, Mars has an extremely thin, barely there atmosphere stripped away by solar winds and with virtually no protection from its weak magnetosphere. It’s so thin and fragile that it might actually make the planet impossible to terraform if we ever wanted to try to make it even a little more like our world. Even hurricane force winds would feel like a gentle breeze because there’s just not enough air to impart any meaningful kinetic energy. So, if you were able to stand on the surface of Mars without a spacesuit, you’d probably hear and feel nothing, hence NASA had to help us out so we could get some appreciation of what they were able to record, which is still exquisitely haunting and beautiful in the end.

What about winds on other planets and moons?

With extremely thick atmospheres, you’d have absolutely no problem hearing and feeling the full force of the wind on worlds like Venus, Jupiter and the other gas giants, and of course, Titan. In the turbulent clouds of gas giants, the winds would never stop and without anything solid to act as a brake, gusts can howl at astonishing speeds. Neptune boasts the fastest winds in the solar system at 1,200 miles per hour, with Saturn not far behind as 1,118 mile per hour gales whip around its equator, making Jupiter seem almost inert by comparison with peak wind speeds of 384 miles per hour around its Great Red Spot.

Exactly how hard that wind would hit you will depend on your altitude in the gas giants’ vast atmospheres but analogies with the impacts of anything between a tornado and a freight train come to mind. At this point, we would consider the kinetic energy of winds on Venus and Titan because they have solid surfaces and very thick atmospheres, but on both worlds, a very odd and interesting thing happens as you descend through the clouds. That atmospheric thickness means that gasses are compressed as you get close and closer to the surface and winds very quickly die down under the mass of the air through which they have to move.

On Titan, winds reach maybe 2 miles per hour at ground level at their strongest. On Venus, they peak at 3 miles per hour. Still, because there’s so much mass in motion, they would feel like a stiff breeze of 20 to 25 miles per hour if we note that the gusts in question are strong enough to scatter small rocks and use the Beaufort scale to translate that into comparable conditions right here on Earth. You would certainly hear it as well, deeper and more ominous than you’d expect, with absolutely no need to increase the pitch or speed up frequency for your ear to know what’s happening.

So, in case you ever look at the night sky and wonder about how different other planets are from the one on which you’re standing, consider that something seemingly as simple as the sound of moving air can be vastly different from world to world, what you’d consider a gentle breeze could be imperceptible on one planet and blow an umbrella out of your hand on another, and that sometimes, to appreciate what our robotic probes are detecting, we need to specially process the data they’ve gathered so you can even start making sense of it.

[This article originally appeared on World of Weird Things]

InSight Mars Lander Gets Used to Its New Digs, Snaps a Selfie

The NASA mission looks like it’s getting comfortable in Elysium Planitia.

The view from InSight’s Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC), which is attached to the lander’s robotic arm, looking over the flat and rock-strewn plane of Elysium Planetia, on sol 14 of its mission. The lens flare is caused by the Sun that is just out of shot [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Like any self-respecting social media influencer, Mars’s latest resident is hard at work snapping photos of its new digs. The robot has even thrown in a beautiful selfie for good measure.

NASA’s InSight lander touched down on the Red Planet on Nov. 26 and since then its mission controllers have been hard at work checking out the instrumentation and surroundings. Using its Instrument Deployment Camera, or IDC, InSight has been giving us a tour of its permanent home. Fans on social media have even been nominating names for the rocks that can be seen embedded in the dusty regolith — the only rocks we’ll see close up for the duration of the mission. 

Dusty with a dash of small rocks, perfect ground for InSight’s work [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Very early on, NASA scientists knew they’d landed in the right place. The beautifully-flat plain of Elysium Planitia has a landscape that is in stark contrast to Curiosity’s Mount Sharp environment; instead of seeing a smorgasbord of geological features — created by ancient water action and ongoing aeolian (wind-blown) processes — Elysium is flat, dusty and appears to only have small-ish rocks strewn over its surface. You see, InSight cares little for what’s on the surface; the science it’s after lies below the stationary lander, all the way to the planet’s core.

“The near-absence of rocks, hills and holes means it’ll be extremely safe for our instruments,” said InSight’s Principal Investigator Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement. “This might seem like a pretty plain piece of ground if it weren’t on Mars, but we’re glad to see that.”

One of InSight’s three legs can be seen here slightly sunken into the Martian regolith, showing us how soft and powdery the uppermost layers of the mission’s landing zone is. Oh, and that rock to the right? Luckily InSight missed it [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Now that InSight’s raw image archive is churning out new pictures daily, mission scientists are scoping out its “work space” directly in front of the lander’s robotic arm. Over the coming weeks, optimal positions for InSight’s two main experiments — the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS) and Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) —will be decided on and then commands will be sent to the lander to begin the painstaking task of retrieving them from its deck and setting them down on the ground. The main task will be to determine exact locations that are smooth, flat and contain small rocks that are no bigger than half an inch. This will ensure stable contact with the ground so seismic and heat flow measurements can be continuously carried out. InSight is basically going to give Mars an internal examination 24/7, listening to the slightest seismic waves like a doctor would listen to your heartbeat. And it looks like InSight has landed inside a depression, likely created by an ancient crater that has been filled with loose material over time — this is great news for HP3 that has a self-digging probe (called the “mole”) that will now have an easier task of burrowing meters underground.

But what about that selfie? Well, here you go:

InSight says hi! [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

This photo is a mosaic composed of 11 different images snapped by the lander’s robotic arm-mounted camera. You can see the lander’s open solar panels and stowed instrumentation on the deck, including SEIS and HP3. And no, the selfie isn’t a fake; by sticking a bunch of individual photos together, they’ve overlapped to edit out any trace of the arm itself. Curiosity does the same thing; so did Opportunity and Spirit. InSight’s older sibling, Phoenix also did it. Selfies are as much the rage on Mars as they are on Earth. Not only do they look cool, they are also useful for mission controllers to monitor the build-up of dust on solar panels, for example.

For now, as we await the science to start flowing in (well, there’s been some early science before the robot has even gotten started), enjoy checking back on InSight’s raw photos, it won’t be long until we’ll be browsing through potentially thousands of snaps from Elysium Planitia. Oh, and don’t forget about Curiosity that’s still going strong on the slopes of Mount Sharp!

Meanwhile, Curiosity Has Found Something Shiny On Mars

My precious…

This image was taken by Curiosity’s ChemCam: Remote Micro-Imager (CHEMCAM_RMI) on Sol 2242 (Nov. 26) [NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL]

It’s always fun to browse through the raw image archive for any Mars mission. You see rocks, dust, more rocks and more dust, but then you see something strange, sitting atop the dirt that is like nothing you’ve seen before.

Once, there was a piece of plastic on the ground in front of Curiosity. Plastic! Not alien plastic though, it was likely something that fell off the rover. Mars rover Opportunity even found strange “blueberries” scattered over Meridiani Planum that turned out to be spherical hematite inclusions, basically little balls of mineral that were formed via water action in Mars’ ancient past.

Now there’s a shiny rock just sitting there, in front of Curiosity. 

Mars isn’t known for its shiny objects. Everything is a ruddy color (because of the iron-oxide-laced dust that covers everything) and dull. So, when mission controllers saw this small shiny object, it became a focus of interest. They’ve even named it “Little Colonsay.” Don’t get too excited for an explanation that’s too outlandish, but it will be an interesting find if it turns out to be what scientists think it is.

“The planning team thinks it might be a meteorite because it is so shiny,” writes Susanne Schwenzer, Curiosity mission team member.

Meteorites have been discovered on Mars before by the Mars rovers — and Curiosity is no stranger to finding space rocks strewn on the ground — though it would still be a rare find by Curiosity if it does turn out to be a (likely) metallic chunk of space rock. As pointed out by Schwenzer, the team intend to carry out further analysis of the sample, as well as some other interesting rocks, with Curiosity’s ChemCam instrument to decipher what it’s made of.

So as we welcome the InSight mission to the Red Planet to begin its unprecedented study of Mars’ interior, always remember there’s still plenty of gems sitting on the surface waiting to be found.

We Have a New Robot Heartbeat On Mars

After following InSight’s journey and dramatic landing on Mars, I’m now emotionally attached to the space robot.

The view from InSight’s Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC) that is attached to its robotic arm [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

It’s funny how our perception of the robots we send into space changes with the experiences we have with them. Take NASA’s InSight lander, for example.

I was thrilled to be able to see the mission launch on May 5 from my backyard. I was following the launch feed from my office in the early hours of the morning — lift-off was just after 4 a.m., so I was particularly proud that I hadn’t fallen asleep in my home office. Going outside, I looked to the northwest in hopes of glimpsing the light of the Atlas V-401 rocket as it rose into the dark pre-dawn skies. After I’d seen confirmation via the live-stream video of launch from Vandenburg Air Force Base (130 miles to the northwest of my home in Woodland Hills), I stood precariously on a patio chair to get a better view over my roof and… there it was! A bright plume rising and moving very fast toward the south. And then it was gone; the first ever mission to Mars launched from California was on its way into interplanetary space.

Needless to say, I quickly became invested in this space robot, but before I witnessed its launch from afar, it was another anonymous piece of cold space hardware. As soon as I saw its rocket plume, the mission became “real” and InSight was warmly embedded in my emotions.

NASA likes to play up the dangers of sending missions to Mars — and I can’t blame them; more Mars missions have failed than have succeeded. But in recent years, NASA has beaten the odds and landed all of their surface missions and inserted a bunch of satellites into orbit successfully. The last failed NASA mission to Mars was nearly 20 years ago (the Mars Polar Lander in 1999), everything else since — Mars Odyssey, the two Mars Exploration Rovers, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Phoenix lander (InSight’s twin), Curiosity, MAVEN — have all been resounding successes. 

JPL’s “lucky peanuts” at mission control obviously paid off.

Then, on Monday (Nov. 26), after nearly seven months since I saw it fly over my roof, InSight landed on the dusty surface of Mars. 

I was fortunate to be at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on that day, covering the event for Scientific American and HowStuffWorks, and it was a thrill to be in the hub of all the festivities and spend time with my fellow science communicators. JPL always puts together a great event — whether that be the landing of Curiosity over six years ago, or the sad farewell of Cassini last year — and this was no different. The air was thick with anticipation, and all of the mission scientists, managers and engineers were more than willing to share their stories with the dozens of journalists, reporters, social media peeps and TV crews who were in attendance.

Then it was time for landing. 

Sending a mission to Mars is risky and, as already pointed out, in the earlier days of humanity throwing stuff at Mars the majority of the missions failed. So, understandably, everyone had a healthy level of nervousness that there was always a chance that InSight might just make another (expensive) crater in the Martian dirt. But that wasn’t to be. And by all accounts, the landing couldn’t have gone better.

InSight and MarCO mission controllers celebrate the landing with NASA Administrator
Jim Bridenstine (far left) at NASA JPL 

The two Mars Cube One (MarCO) spacecraft that were flying with InSight during its time cruising from Earth became the undisputed silicon heroes of the day. Their purpose was to relay telemetry data from InSight as the lander slammed into the Martian atmosphere to commence its hair-raising entry, descent and landing (EDL) on Mars — a.k.a. the Seven Minutes or Six and a Half Minutes Of Terror, depending on who you talk to. As InSight would be landing in a region where there wouldn’t be a satellite overpass for several hours after landing, MarCO became the relay that, in real time (minus the several minute lag-time that it takes for any signal to travel at the speed of light between Mars and Earth) prevented too many chewed fingernails and passed the message to mission control that the lander had landed safely and everything was, well, just perfect.

In the media area, with a live feed streaming from just next door on the JPL campus, any nervousness evaporated when we all cheered with the mission controllers who were celebrating on the screen. Memories of Curiosity’s landing came flooding back. NASA has done it again, we’re on Mars!

And then, despite warnings that it might be some time before we see the first view of Elysium Planitia from InSight’s camera, we became aware that the mood had changed in mission control. Managers were now huddled around a computer terminal. They were receiving the first image only a few minutes after touch down!

The first image from NASA’s Mars InSight mission was a dusty one — the black specks are dusty debris kicked up from the surface during landing. When NASA pops the lens cover, the fish-eye lens will have a clear view of its new, permanent home [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Keep in mind that relaying this image would have been impossible without InSight’s MarCO travel buddies. The success of the mission didn’t depend on MarCO, but they sure made the landing event a more lively celebration, rather than a “yes we’re on Mars, but no pictures until tomorrow!” anticlimax. I asked a couple of the MarCO managers what was next for their robotic heroes, and they said that their mission was complete and that they were a proof of concept “that was now proven.” Apparently, managers for other robotic space missions are planning MarCO-like payloads for future missions. Justifiably so.

Monday was a blur, but I remember walking away from JPL feeling emotional and humbled. Humanity is capable of doing incredible, bold things, I thought to myself. Why can’t we be more like this? Discussing the nature of humanity and our contradictory ways can be saved for another day, however. 

Now that we’ve lived InSight’s dramatic journey to Mars, the lander has become more than a robot, it’s a bona fide Mars explorer that, like Curiosity and all the landers and rovers that have come before it, is an extension of the human experience. Designed to live in the Martian environment, InSight has arrived home. Hopes are high for some incredible scientific discoveries about Mars’ interior and its evolution, but I’m also hopeful that the mission will inspire people to embrace our natural urge to explore and discover new things about our universe. This time exploration will be done through the eyes of the newest space robot to join its Martian family, but some time in the next couple of decades, it will be human eyes exploring Elysium Planitia.

For more about the science behind InSight, read my articles for Scientific American and HowStuffWorks.com:

Rolling Stones May Have Given Phobos its Enigmatic Grooves

The impact crater Stickney (and the smaller crater Limtoc) as imaged by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2008 [NASA/JPL-Caltech]

Earth has them. So does the Moon. As does Mars. And now we know dwarf planet Ceres has them, too. Could a Martian moon also have them? Well, according to new research, they could explain the mystery behind Phobos’ strange lines that are carved into its dusty surface.

What am I talking about? Boulders. Specifically boulders that have been on the move. Boulders that — in the presence of a gravitational field, no matter how weak — roll and bounce, leaving their grooves on some of our most beloved celestial bodies.

“These grooves are a distinctive feature of Phobos, and how they formed has been debated by planetary scientists for 40 years,” said planetary scientist Ken Ramsley (Brown University) who led the work, in a statement. “We think this study is another step toward zeroing in on an explanation.”

Ever since NASA’s Mariner and Viking missions spied Phobos’ lines in the 1970’s, scientists have debated what could have created them. The ancient natural satellite of Mars is only 27 kilometers wide and possesses long, etched lines that, in some cases, loop around the entirety of the moon’s circumference.

A popular hypothesis for these lines focused on the possibility that Phobos is a dying moon; the tidal forces from Mars ultimately pulling the body apart. In this scenario, the lines are a sign that the moon’s interior is crumbling, creating fault lines in the surface that our space robots have been able to image. Another idea is that the lines were created by crater chains; multiple impacts by smaller rocks that etched out long lines around Phobos’ surface.

However, according Ramsley’s study, which is published in the journal Planetary and Space Science, the real mechanism that created Phobos’ stripes is far more elegant, and more familiar to us Earthlings. What’s more, it was one of the original hypotheses that was posited when the lines were discovered over 40 years ago.

In 1998, NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor imaged Phobos’ stripes [NASA/JPL-Caltech/LLNL]

You see, Phobos has a huge, nine-kilometer-wide crater on one side, called Stickney (named after Angeline Stickney who motivated the search for Mars’ natural satellites in the late 19th Century), that was excavated by a massive impact in the moon’s ancient past. Using computer models, the researchers simulated what would happen post-impact and where the excavated material (including some hefty boulders) would have ended up. Although a huge quantity of material would have been lost to space during the Stickney impact, a few large rocks may have been kicked across the moon’s surface — these boulders would have rolled slowly, slow enough to be held in contact with Phobos, but fast enough, in some cases, to make more than one trip around the moon. 

But many of these lines intersect one another and don’t appear to be radially blasted from the crater. Also, there are regions on the surface where the lines entirely disappear. Ramsley’s simulation explains these oddities.

The simulations show that because of Phobos’ small size and relatively weak gravity, Stickney stones just keep on rolling, rather than stopping after a kilometer or so like they might on a larger body. In fact, some boulders would have rolled and bounded their way all the way around the tiny moon. That circumnavigation could explain why some grooves aren’t radially aligned to the crater. Boulders that start out rolling across the eastern hemisphere of Phobos produce grooves that appear to be misaligned from the crater when they reach the western hemisphere.

Brown University

This also helps to explain why many of these lines cross and superimpose themselves on one another: Grooves that were laid down by boulders rolling immediately after the impact were crossed by boulders that completed a complete traverse of the globe of the moon, some ending up where they started, minutes or hours later. This also explains why Stickney itself has grooves inside its crater basin.

The dark surface of Phobos with Mars as the backdrop, as seen by the European Mars Express [ESA]

But there’s a blank area on Phobos that appears to contain no grooves, a phenomenon that the simulation also addresses. This region is located at a comparatively low elevation part of Phobos, surrounded by a higher-elevation lip. “It’s like a ski jump,” said Ramsley. “The boulders keep going but suddenly there’s no ground under them. They end up doing this suborbital flight over this zone.

“We think this makes a pretty strong case that it was this rolling boulder model accounts for most if not all the grooves on Phobos.”

As a fan of rolling boulders on other worlds, I particularly enjoy imagining the lumbering slow roll of these massive rocks that circumnavigated Phobos. They had to keep their roll slow so not to achieve escape velocity, but fast enough to leave their indelible marks for humans to ponder their origins.

Water Could Kill Life On Mars

A view from the Viking 1 deck, showing trenches its robotic arm dug out to acquire samples for testing [NASA/JPL-Caltech/Roel van der Hoorn]

When rains came to one of the driest places on Earth, an unprecedented mass extinction ensued.

The assumption was that this rainfall would turn this remote region of the Atacama Desert in Chile into a wondrous, floral haven — dormant seeds hidden in the parched landscape would suddenly awake, triggered by the “life-giving” substance they hadn’t seen for centuries — but it instead decimated over three quarters of the native bacterial life, microbes that shun water in favor of the nitrogen-rich compounds the region has locked in its dry soil.

In other words, death fell from the skies.

“We were hoping for majestic blooms and deserts springing to life. Instead, we learned the contrary, as we found that rain in the hyperarid core of the Atacama Desert caused a massive extinction of most of the indigenous microbial species there,” said astrobiologist Alberto Fairen, who works at Cornell Cornell University and the Centro de Astrobiología, Madrid. Fairien is co-author of a new study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports.

“The hyperdry soils before the rains were inhabited by up to 16 different, ancient microbe species. After it rained, there were only two to four microbe species found in the lagoons,” he added in a statement. “The extinction event was massive.”

El Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) near San Pedro de Atacama looks very Mars-like [photo taken during #MeetESO in 2016, Ian O’Neill]

Climate models suggest that these rains shouldn’t hit the core regions of Atacama more than once every century, though there is little evidence of rainfall for at least 500 years. Because of the changing climate over the Pacific Ocean, however, modern weather patterns have shifted, causing the weird rain events of March 25 and Aug. 9, 2015. It also rained more recently, on June 7, 2017. Besides being yet another reminder about how climate change impacts some of the most delicate ecosystems on our planet, this new research could have some surprise implications for our search for life on Mars.

Over forty years ago, NASA carried out a profound experiment on the Martian surface: the Viking 1 and 2 landers had instruments on board that would explicitly search for life. After scooping Mars regolith samples into their chemical labs and adding a nutrient-rich water mix, one test detected a sudden release of carbon dioxide laced with carbon-14, a radioisotope that was added to the mix. This result alone pointed to signs that Martian microbes in the regolith could be metabolizing the mixture, belching out the CO2.

Alas, the result couldn’t be replicated and other tests threw negative results for biological activity. Scientists have suggested that this false positive was caused by inorganic reactions, especially as, in 2008, NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander discovered toxic and highly reactive perchlorates is likely common all over Mars. Since Viking, no other mission has attempted a direct search for life on Mars and the missions since have focused on seeking out water and past habitable environments rather than directly testing for Mars germs living on modern Mars.

With this in mind, the new Atacama microbe study could shed some light on the Viking tests. Though the out-gassing result was likely a false positive, even if all the samples collected by the two landers contained microscopic Martians, the addition of the liquid mix may well have sterilized the samples — the sudden addition of a large quantity of water is no friend to microbial life that has adapted to such an arid environment.

“Our results show for the first time that providing suddenly large amounts of water to microorganisms — exquisitely adapted to extract meager and elusive moisture from the most hyperdry environments — will kill them from osmotic shock,” said Fairen.

Another interesting twist to this research is that NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity discovered nitrate-rich deposits in the ancient lakebed in Gale Crater. These deposits might provide sustenance to Mars bacteria (and may be a byproduct of their metabolic activity), like their interplanetary alien cousins in Atacama.

As water-loving organisms, humans have traditionally assumed life elsewhere will bare similar traits to life as we know it. But as this study shows, some life on Earth can appear quite alien; the mass extinction event in the high deserts of Chile could teach us about how to (and how not to) seek out microbes on other planets.

Source: Cornell University

Thanks, Elon. Humanity Just Sneezed Into the Solar System

“I, for one, welcome our new snotty overlords.”

“Germs? What germs? I just got this Tesla waxed.” (SpaceX)

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll probably know my (conflicted) feelings about Elon Musk blasting his cherry red Tesla roadster into space. But there’s one angle of the whole “I’m a billionaire and it’s my rocket company, I can do what the hell I like” saga I hadn’t considered: That same red roadster was carrying a potential biological weapon into space.

Conversely, it might be the biological equivalent of Noah’s Ark.

As the vehicle wasn’t designed (or, indeed, intended) for a planetary encounter (whether that be Mars, Earth or some random asteroid), NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection had no jurisdiction over the test launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Feb. 6. The Tesla roadster acted as the test mass for the launch, outfitted with a space-suited mannequin (or not) — a.k.a. “Starman” — with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” playing on the radio and a “Don’t Panic” homage to Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” showing on the car’s display. There was a lot going on with that controversial launch, but no one can dispute that it wasn’t a marketing masterstroke.

As a bonus, I even saw the Falcon upper stage carry out its third burn that evening over Los Angeles during my night run, hours after the Florida launch:

Yeah, it was a memorable day.

So, back to planetary protection. Or, more precisely, lack thereof.

“Even if they radiated the outside, the engine would be dirty,” said Jay Melosh, professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences at Purdue University, in a statement on Tuesday. “Cars aren’t assembled clean. And even then, there’s a big difference between clean and sterile.”

Also, this wan’t a new car. And no number of details would have removed terrestrial bacteria from the wheels, engine, upholstery and uncountable nooks and crannies bacteria have set up home. And if it’s been driven on Los Angeles roads… well, yuck. Put simply, this car wasn’t subject to the rigorous sterilization procedures spacecraft are subject to.

Space roadster proponents will probably argue that this car isn’t intended to launch a germy invasion party to any planetary body; it was blasted into open space and not likely to hit anything solid for millions of years. It’s just going to be an artificial satellite of the Sun, nothing more.


Bacteria are hardy little buggers and even the frozen radioactive vacuum of space wont be enough to eradicate every microbe from inside that vehicle. Many strains of microbe will simply shut down and hibernate for extreme periods of time until they get heated back up and watered. And, as far as I’m aware, there was no attempt by SpaceX at protecting the extraterrestrial neighborhood from humanity’s germs (besides, why would they?), so there is likely a menagerie of microbial biomass hitching a ride.

Some scientists, being optimistic beings, view this differently, however. Far from being a germ-bomb waiting to smear its humanity’s snot over the pristine slopes of Olympus Mons, the Tesla might actually be a clever way of backing up Earth’s genetic information for the eons to come, regardless of what happens to life on Earth.

“The load of bacteria on the Tesla could be considered a biothreat, or a backup copy of life on Earth,” said Alina Alexeenko, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue, who specializes in freeze-drying bacteria.

There’s a larger question here, beyond the hype and the probability that the roadster will be a harmless addition to the Sun’s asteroid family; as commercial spaceflight is obviously in its infancy, who’s job is it to ensure payloads are clean? Is it even a priority? Sure, this SpaceX launch won’t likely hit Mars or even Earth, but what about future “test” launches?

How much dirty space junk is too much?

This Is NASA’s Future Mars 2020 Rover Looking for Biosignatures on the Red Planet


While Opportunity and Curiosity continue to explore the surface of Mars, the launch date of NASA’s next big rover mission is on the horizon. And here’s a stunning artist’s impression of the mission that NASA released on Tuesday.

Wait. Isn’t that Curiosity?

No. While the Mars 2020 rover will certainly look like Curiosity, as many of the current rover’s design features will be worked into NASA’s next six-wheeled robot, there will be some key differences in the next rover’s science.

Rather than seeking out past and present habitable environments (as Curiosity is currently doing on the slopes of Mount Sharp), one of Mars 2020’s stated science goals is to directly search for biological signatures of past and present microbial life on Mars. This next-generation rover will also feature a drill that can bore deep into rocks, pull samples and store them on the Martian surface for a possible future sample return mission.

For more on Mars 2020, check out NASA’s mission site.

Curiosity Is Getting Diggy With It in Mars’ Ripply Dunes


There are few sights on Mars more satisfying than its oddly familiar — yet weirdly alien — dunes.

On the one hand, the Martian dunes look much like the dunes we have on Earth — aeolian (“wind-driven”) formations undulating across the landscape have similarities regardless of which planet they were blown on.

But there’s something uncanny about Martian dunes. Maybe it’s the “extra” tiny ripples that NASA’s Curiosity itself discovered — a phenomenon that is exclusive to the Martian atmosphere. Or maybe it’s just that I know these dunes are being seen through synthetic eyes on a world millions of miles across the interplanetary void.

Who knows.

But right now, the six-wheeled robot is sampling grains of wind-blown regolith from a linear dunes on the slopes of Mount Sharp to help planetary scientists on Earth build a picture of how this ancient landscape was shaped.

Curiosity scooped samples of linear dune material into the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) so they could be compared with material from other dunes it had visited in 2015 and 2016. Samples are also planned to be delivered to the mission’s Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument. As NASA points out, this is the first ever study of extraterrestrial dunes. (Dune fields also exist on Saturn’s moon Titan, but as recent research indicates, those are very different beasts and haven’t been directly sampled.)

“At these linear dunes, the wind regime is more complicated than at the crescent dunes we studied earlier,” said Mathieu Lapotre, of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), in Pasadena, Calif., who led the Curiosity dune campaign. “There seems to be more contribution from the wind coming down the slope of the mountain here compared with the crescent dunes farther north.”

All of the dunes Curiosity has sampled are a part of the Bagnold Dunes, a dune field that stretches up the northwestern flank of Mount Sharp. Within the field, depending on the wind conditions, different types of dunes have been found.

“There was another key difference between the first and second phases of our dune campaign, besides the shape of the dunes,” said Lapotre in a NASA statement. “We were at the crescent dunes during the low-wind season of the Martian year and at the linear dunes during the high-wind season. We got to see a lot more movement of grains and ripples at the linear dunes.”