What's Up In Space? Odds climb for past life on Mars, Opportunity crosses marathon 'finish line' and zero-g cocktails put Happy Hour into orbit
Wednesday, March 25, 2015, 12:05 PM - Curiosity discovers biologically-useful nitrogen on Mars, the Opportunity rover goes a marathon distance and it's time for astro-cocktails! It's What's Up In Space!
Past life on Mars? The odds just got better!
Curiosity on Sol 177 (Feb. 3, 2013), as it took samples of Martian dust for analysis. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
NASA's Curiosity rover has been tallying up plenty of evidence that Mars was once habitable, at least in its distant past, and a new discovery - biologically-useful nitrogen - adds another piece to the puzzle.
Nitrogen found in the atmosphere (N2) has atoms that are so strongly bound together that they really play no part in biological processes. Some forms of life can 'fix' this nitrogen, though, breaking the two atoms apart to make them available for bio-chemical reactions. This 'fixed' nitrogen is the kind that Curiosity has found in dust and rock samples, specifically in the form of nitric oxide (NO), so it would have been available for any life that may have been there in the past.
According to NASA's JPL website:
"Finding a biochemically accessible form of nitrogen is more support for the ancient Martian environment at Gale Crater being habitable," said Jennifer Stern of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Stern is lead author of a paper on this research published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science March 23.
The team found evidence for nitrates in scooped samples of windblown sand and dust at the "Rocknest" site, and in samples drilled from mudstone at the "John Klein" and "Cumberland" drill sites in Yellowknife Bay. Since the Rocknest sample is a combination of dust blown in from distant regions on Mars and more locally sourced materials, the nitrates are likely to be widespread across Mars, according to Stern. The results support the equivalent of up to 1,100 parts per million nitrates in the Martian soil from the drill sites. The team thinks the mudstone at Yellowknife Bay formed from sediment deposited at the bottom of a lake. Previously the rover team described the evidence for an ancient, habitable environment there: fresh water, key chemical elements required by life, such as carbon, and potential energy sources to drive metabolism in simple organisms.
The evidence they've found says nothing about where this nitric oxide came from, but the mere presence of the nitrogen is no indication that it has a biological source. Fixed nitrogen can easily result from energetic meteorite impacts, and even lightning strikes (which would have been possible during Mars' wet and/or volcanic past). It's fair to say that some kind of Martian lifeforms can't be entirely ruled out, but given Mars' extremely inhospitable environment, the odds of that are pretty slim.
Opportunity goes 'ultramarathoner' on Mars
Fresh off of 'memory therapy' - involving a reformat by NASA JPL engineers, to exclude a failing module that had been plaguing it for some time - the venerable Opportunity rover has now driven a marathon distance on Mars!
According to NASA's JPL website:
There was no tape draped across a finish line, but NASA is celebrating a win. The agency's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity completed its first Red Planet marathon Tuesday -- 26.219 miles (42.195 kilometers) - with a finish time of roughly 11 years and two months.
"This is the first time any human enterprise has exceeded the distance of a marathon on the surface of another world," said John Callas, Opportunity project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "A first time happens only once."
The rover team at JPL plans a marathon-length relay run at the laboratory next week to celebrate.
The long-lived rover surpassed the marathon mark during a drive of 153 feet (46.5 meters). Last year, Opportunity became the long-distance champion of all off-Earth vehicles when it topped the previous record set by the former Soviet Union's Lunokhod 2 moon rover.
"This mission isn't about setting distance records, of course; it's about making scientific discoveries on Mars and inspiring future explorers to achieve even more," said Steve Squyres, Opportunity principal investigator at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. "Still, running a marathon on Mars feels pretty cool."
What's next for Opportunity? It will continue on into 'ultramarathoner' territory, roving even further in its quest for more amazing Martian discoveries. For now, though, we can take a moment to enjoy the post-marathon view the rover has given us of Marathon Valley.
This white-balanced image from Opportunity shows the scenery as if it were under the blue sky on Earth, to highlight the different colours and terrain features. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
Space Happy Hour anyone?
Watch any footage of astronauts floating around in the capsules, space shuttles or orbital labs, and you'll see that anything they drink comes in a plastic baggy and is sipped through a straw. If they ever lift the ban on alcohol aboard the International Space Station, that arrangement is not going to afford for the happiest of Happy Hours. The Zero Gravity Cocktail Project has the solution, though.
From the Kickstarter project page:
"The Zero Gravity Cocktail Project is a fluid dynamics and lifestyle experience design experiment. We are creating an open air drinking container that allows you to enjoy the aroma of the drink, yet keep the fluids under control. Your mouth completes the connection like a straw and you can suck the drink into your mouth."
"We are also hoping to inspire the idea of a future when space hotels are in orbit and settlements are on other planets that people can relax and enjoy the experience of a quality drink, no matter what the gravity! Design aesthetics is just as important as the technical capabilities, and what is more stylish than a cocktail glass?"
Watch the designers pitch their "where no drink has gone before" idea.