NASA Finds Most Definitive Evidence Of Water on Mars

This is the strongest evidence of the presence of water yet, on the Red Planet. The Mars Rover, Opportunity, has discovered some sediments of a shiny mineral called gypsum, which most definitely was deposited by liquid water. When that sediment was deposited, is not quite known, but it is definitely millions (or even billions) of years old.

Gypsum is an extremely common mineral on Earth and is frequently processed to make Plaster of Paris.

We had earlier reported about evidence of possible flowing water here.

The Mars Rover Opportunity

The Discovery

This discovery was made at the rim of the crater Endeavour, a 14 mile wide crater on Mars. The mineral veinwas found to be about 50 cm (or about 20 inches) long and about 3 cm wide. Opportunity studied this mineral deposit with both optical range camera as well as its X-Ray spectrometer. They concluded beyond doubt that this was gypsum,   or moist calcium sulphate. The mineral vein is called “Homesteak” and NASA released an official photo of it in its press release.

Homesteak (Courtesy: NASA)

There is really no second option, says Steve Squyres of Cornell University, attached to the Opportunity mission as its principal investigator. Why? He clarifies:

This tells a slam-dunk story that water flowed through underground fractures in the rock…  There was a fracture in the rock, water flowed through it, gypsum precipitated from the water. End of story. There is no ambiguity about this, and this is what makes it so cool.

He adds:

Here, both the chemistry, mineralogy, and the morphology just scream water. This is more solid than anything else that we’ve seen in the whole mission.

Why the excitement? Squyres obliges yet again:

This stuff is a fairly pure chemical deposit that formed in place right where we see it. That can’t be said for other gypsum seen on Mars or for other water-related minerals Opportunity has found. It’s not uncommon on Earth, but on Mars, it’s the kind of thing that makes geologists jump out of their chairs.

What is most interesting is the fact that gypsum forms in nearly neutral water, i.e. the water is neither acidic or alkaline. This is more suitable to the presence of Earth-like lifeforms. Earlier discoveries of minerals like Jarosite pointed to the presence of highly acidic water, which wasn’t all that conducive to life as we know it.

Hardy Robots

Scientists have long been trying to detect the presence of water on Mars. The new Mars Rover Curiosity’ will soon reach Mars (in August, 2012) and begin a more in-depth study. Spirit and Opportunity have been invaluable in this regard. Both are well past their proposed period of operation, and while Spirit has been declared dead earlier this year, Opportunity is still in great shape.

Please note that a direct evidence of water may be hard to find, but this is surely exciting. Even the possibility that Mars once harbored life is a tantalizing prospect!

Flowing water? Earlier discovery by NASA:  http://techie-buzz.com/science/mars-water-discovery.html

The 10 Coolest Things About The Mars Rover “Curiosity”

The new Mars Rover, Curiosity, is the most high-tech way to explore Mars. The most technologically sophisticated spacecraft ever designed to land on an alien world is due to launch on Saturday, 26th November. We take a closer look at the Wall-E-like spacecraft and pick out the 10 coolest things about the rover.

The Curiosity Rover still at the JPL. Photo taken last year. Photo Courtesy: JPL/NASA

1. Magnifying Glass? All the better to see you with, dear

The Curiosity Rover will carry a high-power magnifying lens, only more sophisticated and maneuverable than the ordinary ones. It’s called Mars Hand Lens Imager or MAHLI. It will be loaded at the end of the Robotic Arm of the rover (see below) and be able to see objects as tiny as 12.5 micrometers (a hair’s width) in size! It’s like having a portable microscope to look at rock samples with the facility of being able to point it anywhere.

2. Plutonium Juice!

The rover will run on Plutonium power. The plutonium used will be the non-weapons grade and will be used for heating a rod of Lead Telluride. Lead Telluride is a thermoelectric material and generates electricity if there is a temperature gradient. The plutonium battery’ doesn’t depend on the external condition, like temperature, so even if the outside is a frigid -840C, it doesn’t matter. You need not worry about the battery freezing or draining out too fast. The juice will last for 23 months, which is longer than the period of the mission. The 10 pound battery is located at the rear end of the rover and will produce 110W of power. We’ve managed to put nuclear power on the Red Planet; surely, that’s an achievement.

Graphic showing the different parts of the Mars Rover. (Courtesy: JPL/NASA and Space.com)

3. Robotic Arm

This is one of the coolest things about the Mars Rover. The rover is fitted with a 7-foot robotic arm, which is quite maneuverable. On the end of the robotic arm sits MAHLI. It also includes the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS).

4. Analysis on Mars The Sample Analyser at Mars (SAM)

For scientists, just looking at a material means nothing they need to know what it is made up of. The Sample Analyser at Mars (SAM) is just the tool to do the job. It’s also the Hulk of all the modules there, weighing at a hefty 38 kg, about half the weight of all the instruments onboard Curiosity. SAM will look at the rocks in three different ways, thanks to the three instruments that it carries a mass spectrometer, a laser spectrometer and a gas chromatograph. It will thus give all relevant data, like density and chemical composition. SAM will also drill for rock samples from deep inside the Martian surface and this has got everyone excited!

5. Capturing some scenes with the MastCam

Curiosity is expected to send us some pictures of the Martian surface to drool over and the MastCam is the instrument for the job. The name suggests that a camera is mounted on an adjustable mast and, no surprise, that is exactly what it is. The MastCam is also responsible for being the eyes of the rover, allowing Earth-based controllers drive the machine on the alien surface.

New Mars Rover Curiosity To Launch TODAY

After Russia’s botched up Mars Moon mission, the Americans are all geared up to launch their new Mars rover, Curiosity, to the Red Planet. Curiosity is a car-sized rover, which will hope to improve upon the observations from Spirit and Opportunity, the previous Mars rovers. The launch is duetoday, i.e. on 26th of November, 2011, postponed from an earlier announced Friday launch. The launch will happen at 10:02 AM EST from Cape Canaveral, aboard the powerful ATLAS V rocket.

We expect the launch to be shown live here on NASA TV HD:  http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/index.html
What’s so cool about the Curiosity rover? Here is a list of ten coolest things about it:  http://techie-buzz.com/science/ten-coolest-things-curiosity.html
The Curiosity Rover at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Photo taken in 2010. (Courtesy: JPL/NASA)

Curiosity Touchdown

Curiosity, or more formally, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), will touchdown on Mars in August 2012 in the Gale Crater. One of the main aims of the Curiosity mission is to investigate the composition of the Martian surface, as well as search for the signs of existence of life. It is also expected to return stunning photos of the surface, the likeness of which we’ve not seen as yet. NASA even claims that it will be able to figure out a bit about Mars’ history. This is because the Gale crater is a deep crater revealing several hundred layers of sedimentary rock that can be studied.

Mission Aims

Tools

One of the primary aims of MSL is to study the presence of life. MSL will devote quite a bit of effort in that direction, carrying instruments that will analyze the composition of the Martian surface (via the ChemCam) and also detect the presence of underground water, even if it is present in the form of clay.

Instruments on the Curiosity (Courtesy: JPL/NASA)
Power

The rover will be powered by nuclear energy on the frigid Martian surface. The power generation is actually quite a sophisticated process. Plutonium (Pu-238, non-weapon grade) will glow a dull red in the dark and produce enough heat to generate 110 W of electricity, enough to keep one of the modules operational at a time. The heat warms a a bar of Lead Tellurite, which produces electricity via thermoelectric effects, i.e. it produces electricity when there is a temperature gradient. The battery will last 23 months.

Stay tuned for the latest news on the Curiosity launch. We hope to put up some photos of the actual launch.

Good luck, NASA.

Ten coolest things about Curiosity:  http://techie-buzz.com/science/ten-coolest-things-curiosity.html

Discovered: Giant Lake Underneath Surface Of Jupiter’s Moon; Could Harbor Life

If there be life outside Earth, but within the Solar System, the greatest possibility lies on either Mars or Europa, Jupiter’s frozen moon. Europa has a thick crust of solid ice, underneath which lies a huge body of water, possibly uninterrupted. What has got astronomers really interested is the fact that just 1.8 miles below the icy surface, there may be a body of water as big as all the Great Lakes combined. This is above the liquid ocean, which sits even deeper from the surface. The possibility of life in this pocketof water is tantalizing.

An artist's impression of what the lake might look like. (Illustration courtesy: Britney Schmidt and team from Texas University)

Europa – a strange world

Europa was extensively studied by the spacecraft Galileo and found that it is a strange world. The heat from the Sun could never sustain the liquid ocean underneath, but the tidal forces due to Jupiter’s giant gravitational field provides enough energy for the ice to melt underneath and form the giant ocean. This ocean is thought to lie 100 km (or 62 miles) below the surface.

The frozen surface of Europa, as seen by Galileo (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)

Peering down

The study was done by Britney Schmidt and her team from the University of Texas, and their paper appeared in Nature today, i.e. on the 17th of November. The discovery provides an impetus for the search for life as it might be located much closer to the surface than previously thought.

This will also fuel the search for other subterranean lakes, like the one already found. Future missions to Europa could well include melting through the ice crust and taking samples from the great lake. Studies indicate that the water may be salty, and we already know how much life salt water can sustain.

The next giant leap for mankind might well be digging just 3 kilometers on an icy world far far away and inspecting the samples obtained. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll find something living.

Did The Early Solar System Have A Fifth Giant Planet That Got Ejected?

The early evolution of the Solar System clearly presents a gap in our understanding. There have been a huge number of simulations done about how the evolution might have gone, and a recent study, investigating into the dynamic instabilities of the early orbits, has reached a stunning conclusion. The startling finale is this: There was a fifth giant planet, about as big as Jupiter, that was simply ejected from the Solar System, so as to lend stability to the entire planetary system.

A missing fifth member of the group?

A Cosmic Billiard Ball Game

The study, led by Dr. David Nesvorny, looks into the instabilities when the Solar System was as young as 600 million years (about a tenth of its current age). As expected the scattering process would be dominated by the giant planets, primarily Jupiter, simply because of its high mass. It would have either gobbled up small objects coming in from the outer Kuiper belt or severely deflected them from their orbits. The problem is that this situation would be reflected in the inner Solar System too. If the orbit of Jupiter stabilized slowly, it would transfer enough momentum to deflect the orbits of Mars, Earth and Venus. They could’ve even collided into one another.

The protagonist
Jumpin’ Jupiter

The solution to this colliding billiard ball problem is to make Jupiter jump’ from one orbit to another, in what is called a Jumping Jupiter’ theory. This sudden change of Jupiter’s orbit would prevent it from transferring the large amount of momentum to the inner planets, leaving them as they are found now. However, Dr. Nesvorny found a new anomaly. Every simulation that he did with a jumping Jupiter showed Uranus or Neptune being pushed out of the Solar System. Since we see Uranus and Neptune today, this couldn’t have been the scenario.

A Fifth Giant

But, you can just add a fifth giant planet, which would play role of a leaving planet. Simulations show that this solves every problem. So the inner planets were left untouched, Jupiter jumped, Uranus and Neptune stayed within the Solar System, but a fifth giant planet had to leave the scene. This is what Dr. Nesvorny has to say:

The possibility that the solar system had more than four  giant planets  initially, and ejected some, appears to be conceivable in view of the recent discovery of a large number of free-floating planets in interstellar space, indicating the planet ejection process could be a common occurrence

Time and time again, that line from Shakespeare comes to memory There are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Discovered: A Planet Orbiting Two Suns – A Real-Life Tatooine

It’ a great planet to get a tan on, except for the minor detail that you may not make it back. A real-life Tatooine planet, orbiting two stars, has been discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. This strange world is 200 light years away.

Tatooine is the name of the fictional planet of the Star Wars saga, where much of the story is based.

An artist's conception of the two-star planet - a real life Tatooine. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A Real-Life Tatooine

The discovery is stunning, since this is the first time such an object is being discovered. The planet is a giant one, slightly larger than Saturn, but made up of heavy elements. It orbits a binary star system. This marvellous system is named the Kepler-16 system, according to the Kepler Telescope’s cataloguing scheme.

This settles once and for all the question as to whether planets can really orbit binary star systems. The planet, Kepler 16b, is absolute proof that such a thing can happen.

The Star Wars team is thrilled. Visual effects supervisor at the Industrial Light and Magic firm, the company behind the Star Wars effects, John Knoll, says:

It’s possible that there’s a real Tatooine out there. Kepler 16b is unambiguous and dramatic proof that planets really do form around binaries.

How it was discovered

The planet was discovered by the so-called Transit Method. The exoplanet was discovered by noting the dimming of the stars light as the planet went in front of it. One of the stars is dimmer than the other and this too causes dimming of the brighter star’s light. Using these two effects and also knowing the radial velocity of the stars, the mass of the stars and the planet can be calculated. It is found that Kepler-16b is denser than Saturn, containing many heavy elements. It completes one orbit in 229 days. The masses of the stars, Kepler-16A and Kepler-16B, are 69% and 20% the solar mass, respectively. They orbit each other in 41 days. The three objects lie on the same plane, suggesting that they were created from the same cloud of gas and that Kepler-16b is not a captured planet.

The report came out in the journal Science’ today.

Discovered ‘Super-Earth’ Could Harbor Life: Is This Our Cosmic Neighbor?

According to a huge announcement by the European Southern Observatory, more than 50 alien planets discovered by its telescope could harbour life. Out of these 50, 16 are so-called super Earths’, or planets that are similar to our own, but bigger.

The Goldilocks Zone

Earth is unique in the sense that it is a rocky planet, contains water in liquid form and is at an optimum distance from the host star. This allows the temperature to be within habitable range, as well as supports diverse weather conditions. These are the signs that astronomers were looking for while scouring the sky with the exo-planet hunting telescope. Sixteen of the potentially habitable 50 were declared to be Earth-like.

An Artist's Impression of the Alien Planet (Courtesy: ESO)

Amongst these 16, one of the planets caught the astronomers’ attention. This Super-Earth, called HD 85512b, orbits its star within the habitable region a narrow region around the star where conditions could be optimal to support known forms of life.

Finding an Alien Planet

The ESO’s instrument of pride is the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) telescope. The HARPS telescope is more a spectroscope than a conventional telescope. It measures changes in the spectral signature of a planet-star system. This simply means that the light intensity and wavelength both change and tracking these gives hints of a planet orbiting a star. Accurate measurements can give the mass of the planet, and sometimes, even the composition.

Planets tug on stars due to gravity and this makes the star wobble slightly. These radial velocity signals’ can be easily picked up by HARPS. The enormous resolution of HARPS ensures that it can even detect the slightest of wobbles.

HD 85512b is located pretty close by too. It is only 35 light-years away and is estimated to be 3.6 times more massive than the Earth. Orbiting in the habitable region’, the super-Earth could possibly support liquid water.

Only further studies will reveal whether this super-Earth is indeed inhabited by beings as complex as those found on Earth. Have we just found the home of our intergalactic neighbour?

Discovered: An ‘Invisible’ Alien Planet

The best hidden player in a cosmic game of hide-and-seek has just been given away by its own gravitational attraction. For the first time ever, scientists have identified an invisible alien planet by just noticing the gravitational attraction it exerts on another planet, which has been observed. The game was won by the NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

An artist's impression of Kepler 19c tugging stealthily at Kepler 19b, as the latter makes its transit across the host star. (Courtesy: David Augilar, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

An Alien World

Kepler detected one alien planet as it made a transit across the star it orbits. However, it was noticed that the transit started five minutes early and ended five minutes later than expected. This could only mean that another planetary body tugs on this planet speeding up or delaying its orbital speed. The observed planet has been named Kepler 19b and the unseen planet, Kepler 19c. This is the first time this technique known as transit timing variation or TTV has been used to figure out the existence of an exoplanet. The planetary system is 650 light years away in the constellation Lyra.

Sarah Ballard of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics explains it in naughty-next-door-kid jargon:

It’s like having someone play a prank on you by ringing your doorbell and running away. You know someone was there, even if you don’t see them when you get outside

What about Kepler 19c?

Almost nothing is known about Kepler 19c, except for the fact that it exists. Generally, all planets fall in two categories rocky planets and gas giants. Kepler 19c can be a rocky planet with an orbital period of about 5-7 days (i.e. it is really close to the host star, but light) or it can be a gas giant with an orbital period of 100 or 200 days (i.e. it is far off, but very massive). Both types would be able to exert similar gravitational influence on Kepler 19b.

Kepler 19c hasn’t been seen transiting the parent star, suggesting that the planes of orbit of Kepler 19b and 19c are oblique to one another. Kepler will keep looking. Kepler has done an excellent job in detecting exoplanets, detecting as many as 1235 planets in its first four months of operation.

The excitement and toil of such a search is the same as that of a murder mystery investigation, but happily without a victim. Did you just say, Elementary…? It is not!

Juno, the Jupiter Satellite, Looks Back And Snaps A Photo Of The Earth-Moon System

It is the Pale Blue Dot redux. Juno, the Jupiter satellite, looked back at the Earth Moon system and snapped a photo! Here it is!

The photo Juno snapped of the Earth-Moon system. The larger dot is the Earth. (Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Juno was sent to Jupiter to probe the composition of Jupiter’s atmosphere, which is still a big mystery. It’s been a month into its journey, which is supposed to last for five long years.

NASA has pinned a lot of hopes on this satellite probe. Jupiter is still largely unknown. We covered the Juno story here.

The Pale Blue Dot

The lyrical prose by the late Carl Sagan rushes back to haunt us! In 1991, at Sagan’s request, Voyager turned its camera back to photograph the inner planets. It was beyond Neptune’s orbit and was about to leave the Solar System. It captured one blue pixel, which was the earth. The picture was immortalised as the Pale Blue Dot’. The following paragraph by Carl Sagan is as close prose can come to poetry.

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there   on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Sagan taught us how to look at these photos. It’s an exercise in humility!

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Discovered: Unique Planet Completely Made Up of Diamond!

Diamonds are turning out to be more ubiquitous than thought. After we reported that candles burn up diamonds a few days back, we hear of a discovery of a planet, which is completely made up of real diamond. This diamond planet is important in astrophysics, though for a very different reason!

An illustration of what the planet might look like. The yellow circle represents the size of out Sun, for comparison. The entire star-planet system could fit into the sun.

The discovery is too recent for any deep scientific investigation. Astrophysicists think that the planet is actually the core of a star, which died and became a white dwarf. The difference with other white dwarfs in the Universe is that this was orbiting a neutron star.

Lifetime and Death of a Star

A star burns hydrogen, converting it into helium, during its lifetime, known as the main sequence of the star. Once, it runs out of hydrogen it begins to contract, until enough heat builds up to trigger a newer set of reactions, which involves fusing helium to form heavier elements. Once the helium is also snuffed out, the star contracts again. Now, depending on the mass of the star, there might be many such contraction-fusion phases, making higher and higher elements. A mass the size of the Sun will stop somewhere at oxygen and then just settle down, cooling off and becoming a white dwarf. A star with a mass of 1.4 times that of the Sun becomes a neutron star, basically an extremely compact object made up of neutrons. Above 3 solar masses, you get a black hole.

The giant gem!

This new planet is five times the size of Earth with a super-high surface pressure. The extremely high surface pressure leads scientists to suspect that the entire planet has been crystallized into diamond. The planet orbits a rapidly pulsating neutron star that radiates a pulsar. Named PSR J1719-1438, the pulsar has a rotation rate of 10000 rotations per minute! It is located at a distance of 4000 light years from Earth!

All that sparkles… also pulsates

This system is not only interesting for being the biggest piece of diamond known! This is only the second time such a system, i.e. one which involves white dwarf orbiting a pulsar, has been discovered. The planet is also larger than the star’, as generally white dwarfs are bigger than neutron stars in size.

So there is another piece of diamond that you’ll never get your hands on! Thank your pulsars that no one else is getting it either!