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Send Humans to Mars Orbit, Not the Surface (Op-Ed)



By Neil MacDonald, editor of Federal Technology Watch, and Joshua Chamot, editor of

 Expert Voices | February 5, 2016 08:09pm ET

Neil MacDonald is the editor of Federal Technology Watch and Joshua Chamot is the editor of Space

.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights section. The authors contributed this article to's

 Expert Voices.


Establishing a permanent human presence at Mars is a daunting challenge for any nation. Yet

 global partners expect the United States to lead the effort, despite the policy gauntlet of new 

presidents every four to eight years, shifts in Congress every two years and an uncertain,

 evolving aerospace industry.


Under such conditions, securing a mandate for the multiyear, billion-dollar budgets to construct 

massive spacecraft and crew support for the first human visitors to Mars seems, at best, unlikely

. [5 Manned Mission to Mars Ideas]



But what if Mars exploration were unshackled from the freeze-thaw cycles of American politics?

 What if instead of one massive mission to the Red Planet decades hence, public and private space

 industries launched dozens of smaller, more efficient coordinated missions — starting now?


We have the technology


A crewed mission to the Martian surface will likely be mired in budget talks for several political 

generations to come, but there is an alternative that could launch within years, not decades. If

 the goal shifts from establishing a colony on the Martian surface to the development of a 

permanent space station at Mars, crewed spaceflight can evolve from low-Earth orbit to low-Martian 

orbit in line with breakthroughs in transport.


This approach would combine the best successes from nearly two decades of building, 

operating and living safely aboard the International Space Station (ISS) with improved 

safety, recent developments in cargo-delivery vehicles and the critical breakthrough in 

orbital mechanics dictated by ballistic capture.


And it would mean the Mars mission need not rely on the budget cycle of any single nation.

 Instead, the existing international partners, and new members to the club, could simultaneously

 draw down ISS while sending a crew toward a space presence in orbit around the Red Planet.



Getting off planet, piece by piece


Key to starting now is sending components — including pre-assembled habitation modules 

modeled on the pieces that make up ISS — into orbit around Mars as part of a continuous 

cycle of deliveries that can launch at any time, when budgets and assembly dictate.


Such flexibility is made possible by a recent discovery in orbital mechanics. In 2014, 

mathematician Edward Belbruno of Princeton University in New Jersey and Francesco 

Topputo of Politecnico di Milano in Italy proposed a unique mechanism, called ballistic 

capture, to send spacecraft to Mars. By first sending a craft to one of several locations 

along a planet's orbit around the sun, not directly to the planet itself, the vehicle

 "catches up" with the planet over time.


If such a craft is heading toward a space station, or the location where a station is to

 be constructed, entering Martian orbit becomes the (far simpler) goal, instead of 

landing — which is reserved for smaller trips from station to surface. As long as missions are coordinated, then simultaneous construction projects are theoretically possible, allowing for nations or companies to send components as completed.


With launch timing nearly irrelevant, structures and supplies can be sent on a regular schedule, in manageable sizes, using mostly standard modular units. These would be space equivalents of the ubiquitous shipping containers that dominate most cargo movement on Earth.


This orbital pre-colonization allows a Mars mission with an international crew to overcome three critical obstacles:


Crew safety concerns, as protection would be provided by mechanisms similar to those safeguarding crews on ISS, enhanced with current knowledge from long-term astronaut missions

Time delay for communications to the Martian surface

Budgetary delays, as competing ventures, or nations, can independently launch modules when available, without reliance on any single nation's budget cycles

The Mars International Space Terminal (MIST)


Crew safety and health remains the primary concern in sending humans to Mars. ISS has provided much useful information about how the human body copes with microzero gravity conditions in confined spaces for long periods — such as loss of bone mass and vision issues — as well as the potential exposure to large does of radiation on site and en route.


More experiments on the ISS, which is now expected to remain in orbit until 2024, could improve knowledge of human health issues for long-term space assignments by males or females, young or old.


A space station orbiting above Mars could continue to expand that knowledge, equipped to deal in real time with medical matters and employing a physician (who might also be a part-time researcher), luxuries a small surface exploration team could not justify.


The components needed to build a robust space station at Mars could be sent into orbit around the planet as they are made, assembled remotely, shielded from radiation and designed for safety, with emergency supplies and systems available whenever humans arrive.


A crew-return vehicle could also be pre-positioned, while smaller missions, some undertaken by private-sector partners, could accomplish a range of complex goals that less frequent, huge and expensive launches could not.


Once completed, the orbiting station, which we dub the Mars International Space Terminal (MIST), could offer a permanent Mars presence and a safe outpost from which to launch activities by more modest, and reusable, shuttles to the Red Planet's surface. [How Living on Mars Could Challenge Colonists (Infographic)]


And, critically, crews would be able to control surface robotics and communicate with human explorers on surface missions nearly instantaneously, instead of dealing with an Earth-Mars lag time that can be up to 24 minutes long one-way (depending on the ever-changing positions of the two planets in space).


A new way forward


Prior to permanent residents arriving at Mars, ISS could be used as a platform to conduct the necessary experiments for understanding the construction and assembly of modular structures made of metal, composites, and perhaps carbon composites and nanofibers in orbit around Mars.


ISS partners could gradually shift budgets into the MIST mission portfolio, avoiding a funding hiatus during the transition — and improving the stability of MIST management.


Further, rather than accept that ISS, after decommissioning in 2024, will become a huge piece of space junk — the largest human-made object in space, intended to burn up during re-entry — it could be possible to cannibalize some ISS structures and repurpose them for the Mars orbiting station. After the huge international investment made in ISS (more than $100 billion over the past few decades), it would be satisfying to see efforts made to recoup these costs by recycling some of the ISS structure and components. Meanwhile, safely dismantling ISS could offer lessons in space-debris control, perhaps a future grand challenge for sustainability.


To investigate the prospects of a MIST venture, NASA could convene a meeting of ISS partners to propose a multinational effort to: identify parts of ISS that could be repurposed, advise on methods and techniques to be used to dismantle ISS sections without making extra space debris, and suggest ways to employ unique or dedicated equipment systems from ISS in a potential orbiting Mars station without fitting that station with obsolete or outdated systems.


Recognizing that intense technical, operational, fiscal and geopolitical issues will accompany any U.S. or international effort to construct and operate an orbiting space station around the Red Planet, no crewed mission to Mars will be simple. But the obstacles that have held human exploration back for decades no longer need be the roadblocks they once were.


Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on


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NASA’s next Mars mission will remain earthbound for at least two years.

Officials at the space agency announced on Tuesday that itsMars InSight mission will miss its March 2016 launch date, because of stubborn tiny leaks in a vacuum sphere housing its seismic instrument.

“We just have run out of time,” John M. Grunsfeld, the associate administrator for NASA’s science directorate, said during a telephone news conference.

During a test on Monday at ultracold temperatures, about minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, a leak was again observed.

NASA’s Mars missions so far have largely explored the surface geology and properties of Mars. The instruments aboard InSight — a shortening of Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport — are designed to listen to what is going on in the deep interior of the planet.

About $525 million of the mission’s $675 million budget has been spent.

CNES, the French space agency, is in charge of InSight’s seismic instrument, which is to be placed on the surface to measure the vibrations of marsquakes and the impacts of meteorites. As with sonograms, the change of velocity of sound waves passing through the planet would enable scientists to infer the depths of Mars’ crust, mantle and core.

The three seismometers in the instrument, sensitive enough to detect vibrations as slight as the width of an atom, require a near-perfect vacuum for precise measurements.

The seismometers sit within a sphere about nine inches in diameter. Bruce Banerdt, InSight’s principal investigator, said that during tests of the instrument, still in France, air was pumped out to a pressure of about one ten-millionth of a millibar, or less than a billionth of the Earth’s atmospheric pressure of about 1,000 millibars.

Over the course of the mission, the vacuum would gradually rise by a factor of 10,000, to about a thousandth of a millibar, because of gases released within the instrument. Dr. Banerdt said the instrument would still function if the pressure were 100 times higher, at a tenth of a millibar.

But the leaks were large enough that the pressure inside rose to two tenths of a millibar over the course of a few days, “which is by most standards a pretty darn good vacuum,” Dr. Banerdt said. “But for our purposes, we needed a better vacuum than that.”

Engineers first discovered the leaks in August. Each time they thought they had sealed the last leak, another one appeared.

Dr. Grunsfeld said that if the seismometers did not work, “in some sense, we don’t have a decision to make, because we’re not ready to go.”

Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the spacecraft, had already shipped InSight to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where it was to be launched on an Atlas 5 rocket. The spacecraft will now probably be sent back to Lockheed Martin in Denver and put into storage.

NASA JPL latest news release
Methane Emissions in Arctic Cold Season Higher Than Expected

The amount of methane gas escaping from the ground during the long cold period in the Arctic each year and entering Earth's atmosphere is likely much higher than estimated by current carbon cycle models, concludes a major new study led by San Diego State University and including scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

After Four Years, CARVE Makes Its Last Arctic Flight 

On Nov. 12 of this year, NASA's Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment (CARVE) completed its final aircraft flight. During its four-year campaign, CARVE accumulated more than 1,000 science flight hours of measurements over Alaska, collecting data on important greenhouse gases during seven to eight months of each year. 

The permafrost (perennially frozen) and peat soils of Arctic and boreal (northern region) ecosystems are the single largest reservoir of terrestrial carbon, containing twice as much carbon as is currently present in the atmosphere. As Arctic soils thaw and fires proliferate due to global warming, accentuated at high latitudes, the risk that the carbon will be released to the atmosphere continues to increase. CARVE collected detailed measurements of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane over every Alaskan Arctic and boreal ecosystem. 

The end of such a long mission is bittersweet, says Principal Investigator Charles Miller of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "We've made lots of friends in Alaska. After four years, it's almost like another university education." The team has been making preliminary data available after each year's campaign, and now, Miller says, "We have a few months to make sure we've got all data calibrated, analyzed and quality controlled to the best of our ability, and then it will go to the terrestrial ecology Distributed Active Archive Center at Oak Ridge [National Laboratory, Tennessee]." In spring 2016, all four years of data and the team's supporting analysis and modeling results will be posted and freely available to interested users.

The study included a team comprising ecologists Walter Oechel (SDSU and Open University, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom) and Donatella Zona (SDSU and the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom) and scientists from JPL; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Boulder, Colorado; and the University of Montana, Missoula. The team found that far more methane is escaping from Arctic tundra during the cold months when the soil surface is frozen (generally from September through May), and from upland tundra, than prevailing assumptions and carbon cycle models previously assumed. In fact, they found that at least half of the annual methane emissions occur in the cold months, and that drier, upland tundra can be a larger emitter of methane than wet tundra. The findings challenge critical assumptions in current global climate models. The results are published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to atmospheric warming, and is approximately 25 times more potent per molecule than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. Methane trapped in the Arctic tundra comes primarily from microbial decomposition of organic matter in soil that thaws seasonally. This methane naturally seeps out of the soil over the course of the year, but scientists worry that climate change could lead to the release of even larger emissions from organic matter that is currently stabilized in a deep, frozen soil layer called permafrost.

Over the past several decades, scientists have used specialized instruments to accurately measure methane emissions in the Arctic and incorporated those results into global climate models. However, almost all of these measurements have been obtained during the Arctic's short summer. The region's long, brutal cold period, which accounts for between 70 and 80 percent of the year, has been largely "overlooked and ignored," according to Oechel. Most researchers, he said, figured that because the ground is frozen solid during the cold months, methane emissions practically shut down for the winter.

"Virtually all the climate models assume there's no or very little emission of methane when the ground is frozen," Oechel said. "That assumption is incorrect."

The water trapped in the soil doesn't freeze completely even below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius), he explained. The top layer of the ground, known as the active layer, thaws in the summer and refreezes in the winter, and it experiences a kind of sandwiching effect as it freezes. When temperatures are right around 32 degrees Fahrenheit -- the so-called "zero curtain" -- the top and bottom of the active layer begin to freeze, while the middle remains insulated. Microorganisms in this unfrozen middle layer continue to break down organic matter and emit methane many months into the Arctic's cold period each year.

Just how much methane is emitted during the Arctic winter? To find out, Oechel and Zona oversaw the upgrade of five sampling towers to allow them to operate continuously year-round above the Arctic Circle in Alaska. The researchers recorded methane emissions from these sites over two summer-fall-winter cycles between June 2013 and January 2015. The arduous task required highly specialized instruments that had to operate continuously and autonomously through extreme cold for months at a time. They developed a de-icing system that eliminated biases in the measurement and that was only activated when needed to maintain operation of the instruments down to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 40 degrees Celsius).

After analyzing the data, the research team found a major portion of methane emissions during the cold season were observed when temperatures hovered near the zero curtain.

"This is extremely relevant for the Arctic ecosystem, as the zero curtain period continues from September until the end of December, lasting as long or longer than the entire summer season," said Zona, the study's first author. "These results are opposite of what modelers have been assuming, which is that the majority of the methane emissions occur during the warm summer months while the cold-season methane contribution is nearly zero."

Surprisingly, the researchers also found that during the cold seasons they studied, the relative methane emissions were higher at the drier, upland tundra sites than at wetland sites, contradicting yet another longstanding assumption about Arctic methane emissions. Upland tundra was previously assumed to be a negligible contributor of methane, Zona said, adding that the freezing of the surface inhibits methane oxidation, resulting in significant net methane emissions during the fall and winter. Plants act like chimneys, facilitating the escape through the frozen layer to the atmosphere. The highest annual emissions were observed in the upland site in the foothills of the Brooks Range, where warm soils and a deep active layer resulted in high rates of methane production.

To complement and verify the on-the-ground study, the University of Montana's John Kimball and his team used microwave sensor measurements from the AMSR-E instrument aboard NASA's Aqua satellite to develop regional maps of surface water cover, including the timing, extent and duration of seasonal flooding and drying of the region's wetlands.

"We were able to use the satellite data to show that the upland tundra areas that appear to be the larger methane sources from the on-the-ground instruments, account for more than half of all of the tundra in Alaska," Kimball said.

Finally, to test whether their site-specific sampling was representative of methane emissions across the Arctic, the researchers compared their results to measurements recorded during aircraft flights over the region made by NASA's Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment (CARVE).

"CARVE flights were designed to cover as much of the year as feasible," said CARVE Principal Investigator Charles Miller of JPL. "It was a challenging undertaking, involving hundreds of hours of flying in difficult conditions."

The data from the SDSU sites were well aligned with the larger-scale aircraft measurements, Zona said.

"CARVE aircraft measurements of atmospheric methane show that large areas of Arctic tundra and boreal forest continue to emit methane to the atmosphere at high rates, long after the surface soil freezes," said Róisín Commane of Harvard University, who helped acquire and analyze the aircraft data.

Oechel and Zona stressed the importance for modelers to have good baseline data on methane emissions and to adjust their models to account for Arctic cold-season methane emissions as well as the contributions of non-wetland areas, including upland tundra.

"It is now time to work more closely with climate modelers and assure these observations are used to improve model predictions, and refine our prediction of the global methane budget," Zona said.

It is particularly important, Oechel added, for models to get methane output right because the gas is a major driver of atmospheric warming. "If you don't have the mechanisms right, you won't be able to make predictions into the future based on anticipated climate conditions," he said.

Steven Wofsy of Harvard University added, "Now that we know how important the winter is to the methane budget, we are working to determine the long-term trends in greenhouse emissions from tundra and their sensitivity to winter warming."

This research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Energy.

SDSU; JPL; Harvard University; the University of Montana; the University of Sheffield; the National Research Council (CNR) of Italy; the University of Helsinki; the University of Colorado, Boulder; Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Lexington, Massachusetts; the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada; NOAA; and Open University all contributed to the study.

NASA uses the vantage point of space to increase our understanding of our home planet, improve lives and safeguard our future. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth's interconnected natural systems with long-term data records. The agency freely shares this unique knowledge and works with institutions around the world to gain new insights into how our planet is changing.

More information on CARVE:

New study favours cold, icy — not warm, wet — early Mars

American Geophysical Union / Harvard University's Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Press Release

Artist's conceptual rendition of the competing warm and cold scenarios for early Mars. Image credit: Robin D. Wordsworth / AN animation by Ade Ashford.

Artist’s conceptual rendition of the competing warm and cold scenarios for early Mars. Image credit: Robin D. Wordsworth / AN animation by Ade Ashford.

For decades, researchers have debated the climate history of Mars and how the planet’s early climate led to the many water-carved channels seen today. The idea that 3 to 4 billion years ago Mars was once warm, wet and Earth-like with a northern sea — conditions that could have led to life — is generally more popular than that of a frigid, icy planet where water is locked in ice most of the time and life would be hard put to evolve.

To see which early Mars better explains the modern features of the planet, researcher Robin Wordsworth of the Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and his colleagues used a 3-dimensional atmospheric circulation model to compare a water cycle on Mars under different scenarios 3 to 4 billion years ago, during what’s called the late Noachian and early Hesperian periods. One scenario looked at Mars as a warm and wet planet with an average global temperature of 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) and the other as a cold and icy world with an average global temperature of -48 degrees Celsius (-54 degrees Fahrenheit).

The study’s authors found that the cold scenario was more likely to have occurred than the warm scenario, based on what is known about the history of the Sun and the tilt of Mars’ axis 3 to 4 billion years ago. The cold model also did a better job explaining the water erosion features that have been left behind on the Martian surface, and which have puzzled and intrigued scientists since they were first discovered by the Viking orbiters in the 1970s.

A paper presenting the results has been accepted for publication in AGU’s Journal of Geophysical Research — Planets.

The colder scenario was more straightforward to model, Wordsworth explained, because Mars only gets 43 percent of the solar energy of Earth, and early Mars was lit by a younger Sun believed to have been 25 percent dimmer than it is today. That makes it very likely early Mars was cold and icy, he said.

An extreme tilt of the Martian axis would have pointed the planet’s poles at the Sun and driven polar ice to the equator, where water drainage and erosion features are seen today. More importantly, under a thicker atmosphere that likely existed under the colder scenario, highland regions at the equator get colder and northern low-lying regions get warmer — the so-called ‘icy highlands effect’ that is responsible for making the peaks of mountains snow-covered on Earth today. Despite a number of warming factors — including a thicker atmosphere filled with climate-warming carbon dioxide — Mars still would have been quite cold, Wordsworth added.

Creating a warm/wet Mars took more work, Wordsworth said. Previous studies have shown that even when the effects of climate-warming clouds, dust and carbon dioxide are taken into account, climate models still don’t show early Mars developing any warm and wet periods, he said.

But the conditions on early Mars may have been different than scientists’ thought, Wordsworth said. The study’s authors added to their model different climate effects to force Mars into a warmer, wet state.

Even then, however, the warm/wet early Mars does not explain the patchwork of Martian water erosion features and valley networks observed on the planet today, and why these features tend to be concentrated near the planet’s equator, Wordsworth said.

Under the warm/wet model, rainfall rates varied a lot with longitude and latitude. The warm/wet model predicts that on early Mars rain was greatest in an area called Arabia and around the Hellas basin, including in the west and southeast areas of the basin, where few water drainage features are found today. At the same time, several regions with many water-carved valleys, such as Margaritifer Sinus, received one-tenth to one-twentieth as much rain as Arabia and the Hellas basin under the warm/wet scenario.

In the warm/wet scenario, mountains also created rain shadows, like those that wring water from clouds to create deserts on Earth. On Mars, the bulge of Tharsis would have caused more rain to fall on the windward western side of the volcanic plateau, where few water features are seen today. To the east, downwind of the bulge, drier air would flow over Margaritifer Sinus, causing less rain to fall there — a situation that doesn’t match the drainage features observed there.

The cold/icy scenario isn’t perfect but it’s a better fit to the observations in general, Wordsworth said. While this scenario accumulates frozen water closer to the drainage features observed today on Mars, something had to have melted the ice which carved the valleys, he said. In this scenario, the climate is cool most of the time, and short-lived events like meteor impacts and volcanic eruptions likely caused the necessary melting, he said.

“I’m still trying to keep an open mind about this,” said Wordsworth. “There is lots of work to be done. But our results show that the cold/icy scenario matches the surface distribution of erosion features more closely. This strongly suggests that early Mars was generally cold, and water was supplied to the highland regions as snow, not as rain.”

Proving that a cold climate on early Mars led to the features seen on the planet today is a “big question,” said Bethany Ehlmann, a planetary scientist at California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who was not involved in the new study.

The new paper answers part of that question by showing that locations with snow accumulation in the cold and icy scenario roughly correspond to valley network locations seen today, she said. Further, the model of the cold and icy early Mars shows that some melting of ice would occur, she said.

“We know from rover- and orbiter-based data that there were lakes on ancient Mars,” she said. “Key questions are: how long did they persist? Were they episodic or persistent? And does the feeder valley network demand rain or is snow and ice melt sufficient?”

The 3-D climate modelling used in the new study begins to address these questions with a new level of sophistication by investigating how specific locations might have accumulated rain or snow, she said.

Democrats and Republicans in Washington can't even agree on route to Mars

President Obama wants to refuel using asteroids; House Republicans want a base on the moon.

By Matt Bradwell   |   July 3, 2014 at 3:18 PM   |   0 Comments (Leave a comment)



WASHINGTON, July 3 (UPI) --The partisan divide between Democrat and Republican lawmakers has extended from Washington to the surface of Mars.

While both sides of the political aisle want NASA to pursue a manned Mission to Mars, President Obama and congressional Republicans have very different ideas about how to get there.

President Obama believes the path to Mars is through NASA's proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission, the process of capturing an asteroid and extracting its solar radiation to create a fueling station between Earth and Mars.

In addition to providing a path to Mars, the ARM program would only cost $3 billion, overwhelmingly less than former President George W. Bush's $100 billion scrapped moon mission. President Obama pulled the plug on that mission after $10 billion had been spent.

"ARM achieves deep space operations experience much sooner, and at much lower cost than lunar exploration," explained Louis Friedman, co-founder of the Planetary Society. "ARM would move U.S. astronauts beyond the Moon, creating opportunities to proceed farther into interplanetary space, toward Mars."

"First, ARM would extend human space flight to a lunar distant retrograde orbit. Sorties into true interplanetary space to a near-Earth asteroid would follow, preparing for journeys to the Mars system (perhaps landing on Phobos or Deimos.) The Martian surface -- the goal -- would then be clearly visible, and clearly achievable."

House Republicans, however, want NASA to establish an American moon base. Newt Gingrich famously became the butt of jokes for suggesting this during the last presidential election cycle, but a base on the moon is a very real hope to some in the aeronautics community.

Proponents of a moon base say it would allow NASA to test landing technologies and surface operations, as well as make America the first country to test extraterrestrial physical energy resources, such as the water contained in lunar dust.

"I frankly don't think anyone would be pushing asteroid redirect if the U.S. embraced a return to the moon," John Logsdon, former director of George Washington University's Space Institute told the National Journal.

"The rest of the world is focused on going to the moon. We're the only country that's out of sync with that."

House Republicans are so enamored with the idea of a moon base, they say they won't expand funding for Mars exploration until it scraps the ARM plan, a claim Friedman warns is a red herring.

"I don't think there's an iota of indication [that funding would be raised with a renewed moon focus]. There are people who will talk about that idea," Friedman said.

"The idea of actually appropriating extra money, we haven't seen anything like that."

Follow @mckb26 and @UPI on Twitter.

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Recent tests show decontamination 

of spacecraft insufficient in some cases

Microorganisms from Earth could hitch a ride on spacecraft and end up colonizing the Red Planet and other celestial bodies in the solar system, recent research suggests.

The new research has implications for the search for life in the solar system: If Earth's microbes can survive the perilous journey to other planets and moons, it may be difficult to determine whether any microbial life discovered on those bodies originated there or was introduced from Earth, scientists say.

To ensure space missions don't accidentally transfer microbes to other cosmic bodies, spacecraft are currently allowed to harbor only a certain level of microbial life. This level, called the "bioburden," is based on studies that tested how resistant different microbes are to intense radiation and other dangers associated with space travel. [5 Bold Claims of Alien Life]

However, research detailed in three studies published in the journal Astrobiology in 2012 suggest that the current bioburden standard isn't set high enough, because some microbes are far hardier than expected.

In two of the studies, scientists tested the ability of the spore-forming bacteriumBacillus pumilus SAFR-032 — which has a high resistance to the ultraviolet (UV) radiation and peroxide used to clean spacecraft — to survive in space. (One study also looked at another spore-forming bacterium, B. subtilis 168).

Electron micrographs of Bacillus pumilus SAFR-032 spores on aluminum before and after exposure to space conditions. [Reproduced with permission from P. Vaishampayan et al., Survival of Bacillus pumilus Spores for a Prolonged Period of Time in Real Space Conditions. Astrobiology Vol 12, No 5, 2012.]

Using the European Technology Exposure Facility (EuTEF) mounted on the International Space Station, scientists exposed the bacteria to a simulated Mars atmosphere. They also subjected the bacteria to various space parameters, including space vacuum, solar radiation and intense temperature fluctuations.

"To our surprise, some of the spores survived for 18 months," Kasthuri Venkateswaran, a researcher with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and a co-author on all three papers, said in a statement. A mission to Mars would take less than half that time, spaceflight experts have said.

Surviving B. pumilus SAFR-032 spores also demonstrated elevated levels of proteins associated with UV resistance, the researchers said. Given that UV radiation is a big threat to space-living bacteria, the researchers believe that spores sheltered from solar radiation, such as those living under spacecraft structures, or mutant subpopulations with heightened UV protection, could possibly survive a trip to Mars.

In the third study, Venkateswaran and his colleagues tested the survivability of rock-colonizing cellular organisms on the EuTEF. Some of the organisms lasted the full 18 months in space. The results suggest that rocks ejected from a planet due to a meteor impact could possibly carry rock-colonizing organisms to other planets (though it would take thousands to millions of years for the rocks to reach another planet).


From Soup to Cells: Measuring the Emergence of Life

Sara Walker, assistant professor at Arizona State University. Credit: BEYOND, ASUSara Walker, assistant professor at Arizona State University. Credit: BEYOND, ASU

Astrobiologist Sara Walker is exploring ways to measure the transition from non-living to living matter. Her approach could broaden our understanding of how unique—or common—life might be in the Universe.

The story of life’s origin is one of the great unsolved mysteries of science. The puzzle boils down to bridging the gap between two worlds—chemistry and biology. We know how molecules behave, and we know how cells work. But we still don’t know how a soup of lifeless molecules could have given rise to the first living cells.

“It’s a really tough problem,” says Sara Walker, an astrobiologist at Arizona State University. But she thinks it can be cracked. In fact, she believes there may be a way to measure the transition from non-life to life.

In February, Dr. Walker presented the inaugural lecture for the NASAAstrobiology NPP seminar series. In a talk titled “Information Hierarchies, Chemical Evolution and the Transition from Non-Living to Living Matter,” she described some of the models she developed as a NASA postdoctoral fellow.

These models set up the conceptual framework for measuring the emergence of life, a goal she’s now pursuing as an assistant professor at the School of Earth and Space Science and the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at ASU.

She began her talk with a quote from the Harvard chemist George Whitesides, which captured nicely the gap she is trying to bridge: “How remarkable is life?” he asked. “The answer is: very. Those of us who deal in networks of chemical reactions know nothing like it.”

If it succeeds, Walker’s approach could broaden our view of what life is, and help us figure out whether its emergence on Earth is merely a fluke or the product of some universal laws.

The seminar is now available here to watch online.

To read more about the research Sara Walker discussed, visit the Astrobiology Magazine.

The next talk in the Early Career Seminars series will be held on April 7, 2014,at 11am PDT. Paula Welander of Stanford University will present, “Hopanoid Biosynthesis and Function in Methanotrophic Bacteria.”

Mars Gully Observed By NASA Orbiter Wasn't There Three Years Ago (PHOTO)

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A NASA spacecraft has spotted a big gully on Mars, a feature that appears to have formed only within the last three years.

The powerful HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) imaged the channel, which is found on the slope of a crater wall in the Red Planet's mid-southern latitudes, on May 25, 2013. The feature was not present in HiRISE photos of the area taken on Nov. 5, 2010. NASA unveiled the image on Wednesday (March 19).

marsThis pair of before (left) and after (right) images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter documents the formation of a substantial new channel on a Martian slope between Nov. 5, 2010, and May 25, 2013. The location is on the inner wall of a crater at 37.45 degrees south latitude, 222.95 degrees east longitude, in the Terra Sirenum region. Image released March 19, 2014.

While the Mars gully looks a lot like river channels here on Earth, it likely was not carved out by flowing water, NASA officials said.

"The dates of the images are more than a full Martian year apart, so the observations did not pin down the Martian season of the activity at this site," officials wrote in a description of the gully image on Wednesday.

But, they added, "before-and-after HiRISE pairs of similar activity at other sites demonstrate that this type of activity generally occurs in winter, at temperatures so cold that carbon dioxide, rather than water, is likely to play the key role."

However, MRO has observed other Martian features that do seem associated with liquid water — dark streaks known as recurring slope lineae.

RSL lines snake down crater walls and other slopes during warm weather on the Red Planet, and some researchers think they're caused by briny water that contains an iron-based antifreeze. Direct evidence of flowing water at RSL sites, however, remains elusive.

If water does flow across the surface of present-day Mars from time to time, the planet would be a likelier bet to host life as we know it. Here on Earth, life teems pretty much anywhere liquid water exists.

Ancient Mars was much more hospitable to life. For example, NASA's Curiosity rover discovered an ancient lake-and-stream system near its Red Planet landing site that could have supported microbial life billions of years ago.

How Did Life Arise? Fuel Cells May Have Answers

Laurie Barge of NASA's Jet Propulsion LaboratoryLaurie Barge of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., is seen here with a version of one of her team's fuel cells. They use the fuel cells to study the chemical processes thought to have given rise to life on Earth, and possibly other planets. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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March 13, 2014

How life arose from the toxic and inhospitable environment of our planet billions of years ago remains a deep mystery. Researchers have simulated the conditions of an early Earth in test tubes, even fashioning some of life's basic ingredients. But how those ingredients assembled into living cells, and how life was first able to generate energy, remain unknown.

A new study led by Laurie Barge of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., demonstrates a unique way to study the origins of life: fuel cells.

Fuel cells are found in specialized cars, planes and NASA's human spacecraft, such as the now-retired space shuttle. The cells are similar to batteries in generating electricity and power, but they require fuel, such as hydrogen gas. In the new study, the fuel cells are not used for power, but for testing chemical reactions thought to have led to the development of life.

"Something about Earth led to life, and we think one important factor was that the planet provides electrical energy at the seafloor," said Barge. "This energy could have kick-started life -- and could have sustained life after it arose. Now, we have a way of testing different materials and environments that could have helped life arise not just on Earth, but possibly on Mars, Europa and other places in the solar system."

Barge is a member of the JPL Icy Worlds team of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, based at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. The team's paper appears online March 13 in the journal Astrobiology.

One of the basic functions of life as we know it is the ability to store and use energy. In cells, this is a form of metabolism and involves the transfer of electrons from one molecule to another. The process is at work in our own bodies, giving us energy.

Fuel cells are similar to biological cells in that electrons are also transferred to and from molecules. In both cases, this results in electricity and power. In order for a fuel cell to work, it needs fuel, such as hydrogen gas, along with electrodes and catalysts, which help transfer the electrons. Electrons are transferred from an electron donor (such as hydrogen) to an electron acceptor (such as oxygen), resulting in current. In your cells, metal-containing enzymes -- your biological catalysts -- transfer electrons and generate energy for life.

In the team's experiments, the fuel cell electrodes and catalysts are made of primitive geological material thought to have existed on early Earth. If this material can help transfer electrons, the researchers will observe an electrical current. By testing different types of materials, these fuel cell experiments allow the scientists to narrow in on the chemistry that might have taken place when life first arose on Earth.

"What we are proposing here is to simulate energetic processes, which could bridge the gap between the geological processes of the early Earth and the emergence of biological life on this planet," said Terry Kee from the University of Leeds, England, one of the co-authors of the research paper.

"We're going back in time to test specific minerals such as those containing iron and nickel, which would have been common on the early Earth and could have led to biological metabolism," said Barge.

The researchers also tested material from little lab-grown "chimneys," simulating the huge structures that grow from the hydrothermal vents that line ocean floors. These "chemical gardens" are possible locations for pre-life chemical reactions.

When the team used material from the lab-grown chimneys in the fuel cells, electrical currents were detected. Barge said that this is a preliminary test, showing that the hydrothermal chimneys formed on early Earth can transfer electrons - and therefore, may drive some of the first energetic reactions leading to metabolism.

The experiments also showed that the fuel cells can be used to test other materials from our ancient Earth. And if life did arise on other planets, those conditions can be tested, too.

"We can just swap in an ocean and minerals that might have existed on early Mars," said Barge. "Since fuel cells are modular -- meaning, you can easily replace pieces with other pieces -- we can use these techniques to investigate any planet's potential to kick-start life."

At JPL, fuel cells are not only for the study of life, but are also being developed for long-term human space travel. Hydrogen fuel cells can produce water, which can be recycled and used as fuel again. Researchers are experimenting with these advanced regenerative fuel cells, which are highly efficient and offer long-lasting power.

Thomas I. Valdez, who is developing regenerative fuel cells at JPL, said, "I think it is great that we can transition techniques used to study reactions in fuel cells to areas such as astrobiology."

Other authors of the paper are: Ivria J. Doloboff, Chung-Kuang Lin, Richard D. Kidd and Isik Kanik of the JPL Icy Worlds team; Joshua M. P. Hampton of the University of Leeds School of Chemistry, Mohammed Ismail and Mohamed Pourkashanian at the University of Leeds Centre for Fluid Dynamics; John Zeytounian of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles; and Marc M. Baum and John A. Moss of the Oak Crest Institute of Science, Pasadena.

JPL is managed by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena for NASA.

For more information about the NASA Astrobiology Institute, visit:

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Hubble Finds a Cobalt Blue Planet

July 11, 2013:  Astronomers working with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have deduced the actual color of a planet orbiting another star 63 light-years away.

The planet is HD 189733b, one of the closest exoplanets that can be seen crossing the face of its star, and its color is cobalt blue. If seen directly, this planet would look like a deep blue dot, reminiscent of Earth's color as seen from space.

This artist's concept shows exoplanet HD 189733b orbiting its yellow-orange star, HD 189733. NASA's Hubble Space Telescope measured the actual visible-light color of the planet, which is deep blue. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph measured changes in the color of light from the planet before, during and after a pass behind its star. There was a small drop in light and a slight change in the color of the light. "We saw the light becoming less bright in the blue but not in the green or red. Light was missing in the blue but not in the red when it was hidden," said research team member Frederic Pont of the University of Exeter in South West England. "This means that the object that disappeared was blue."

Earlier observations have reported evidence for scattering of blue light on the planet. The latest Hubble observation confirms the evidence.

Although the planet resembles Earth in terms of color, it is not an Earth-like world.

On this turbulent alien world, the daytime temperature is nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and it possibly rains glass -- sideways -- in howling, 4,500-mph winds. The cobalt blue color comes not from the reflection of a tropical ocean as it does on Earth, but rather a hazy, blow-torched atmosphere containing high clouds laced with silicate particles. Silicates condensing in the heat could form very small drops of glass that scatter blue light more than red light.

This plot compares the colors of planets in our solar system to exoplanet HD 189733b. The exoplanet's deep blue color is produced by silicate droplets, which scatter blue light in its atmosphere. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

Hubble and other observatories have made intensive studies of HD 189733b and found its atmosphere to be changeable and exotic.

HD 189733b is among a bizarre class of planets called hot Jupiters, which orbit precariously close to their parent stars.

HD 189733b was discovered in 2005. It is only 2.9 million miles from its parent star, so close that it is gravitationally locked. One side always faces the star and the other side is always dark.

In 2007, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope measured the infrared light, or heat, from the planet, leading to one of the first temperature maps for an exoplanet. The map shows day side and night side temperatures on HD 189733b differ by about 500 degrees Fahrenheit. This should cause fierce winds to roar from the day side to the night side.

For more information about hot Jupiters and the weather they experience, check out the ScienceCast video Big Weather on Hot Jupiters