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Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover Will Use X-Rays to Hunt Fossils - Astrobiology News
NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover has a challenging road ahead: After having to make it through the harrowing entry, descent, and landing phase of the mission on Feb. 18, 2021, it will begin searching for traces of microscopic life from billions of years back. That's why it's packing PIXL, a precision X-ray device powered by artificial intelligence (AI). Short for Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, PIXL is a lunchbox-size instrument located on the end of Perseverance's 7-foot-long (2-meter-long) robotic arm. The rover's most important samples will be collected by a coring drill on the end of the arm, then stashed in metal tubes that Perseverance will deposit on the surface for return to Earth by a future mission. Nearly every mission that has successfully landed on Mars, from the Viking landers to the Curiosity rover, has included an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer of some kind. One major way PIXL differs from its predecessors is in its ability to scan rock using a powerful, finely-focused X-ray beam to discover where - and in what quantity - chemicals are distributed across the surface. "PIXL's X-ray beam is so narrow that it can pinpoint features as small as a grain of salt. That allows us to very accurately tie chemicals we detect to specific textures in a rock," said Abigail Allwood, PIXL's principal investigator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. Rock textures will be an essential clue when deciding which samples are worth returning to Earth. On our planet, distinctively warped rocks called stromatolites were made from ancient layers of bacteria, and they are just one example of fossilized ancient life that scientists will be looking for. An AI-Powered Night Owl To help find the best targets, PIXL relies on more than a precision X-ray beam alone. It also needs a hexapod - a device featuring six mechanical legs connecting PIXL to the robotic arm and guided by artificial intelligence to get the most accurate aim. After the rover's arm is placed close to an interesting rock, PIXL uses a camera and laser to calculate its distance. Then those legs make tiny movements - on the order of just 100 microns, or about twice the width of a human hair - so the device can scan the target, mapping the chemicals found within a postage stamp-size area. "The hexapod figures out on its own how to point and extend its legs even closer to a rock target," Allwood said. "It's kind of like a little robot who has made itself at home on the end of the rover's arm." Then PIXL measures X-rays in 10-second bursts from a single point on a rock before the instrument tilts 100 microns and takes another measurement. To produce one of those postage stamp-size chemical maps, it may need to do this thousands of times over the course of as many as eight or nine hours. That timeframe is partly what makes PIXL's microscopic adjustments so critical: The temperature on Mars changes by more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) over the course of a day, causing the metal on Perseverance's robotic arm to expand and contract by as much as a half-inch (13 millimeters). To minimize the thermal contractions PIXL has to contend with, the instrument will conduct its science after the Sun sets. "PIXL is a night owl," Allwood said. "The temperature is more stable at night, and that also lets us work at a time when there's less activity on the rover." X-rays for Art and Science Long before X-ray fluorescence got to Mars, it was used by geologists and metallurgists to identify materials. It eventually became a standard museum technique for discovering the origins of paintings or detecting counterfeits. "If you know that an artist typically used a certain titanium white with a unique chemical signature of heavy metals, this evidence might help authenticate a painting," said Chris Heirwegh, an X-ray fluorescence expert on the PIXL team at JPL. "Or you can determine if a particular kind of paint originated in Italy rather than France, linking it to a specific artistic group from the time period." For astrobiologists, X-ray fluorescence is a way to read stories left by the ancient past. Allwood used it to determine that stromatolite rocks found in her native country of Australia are some of the oldest microbial fossils on Earth, dating back 3.5 billion years. Mapping out the chemistry in rock textures with PIXL will offer scientists clues to interpret whether a sample could be a fossilized microbe. More About the Mission A key objective for Perseverance's mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will also characterize the planet's climate and geology, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first planetary mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust). Subsequent missions, currently under consideration by NASA in cooperation with the European Space Agency, would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these cached samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis. The Mars 2020 mission is part of a larger program that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA's Artemis lunar exploration plans.JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and manages operations of the Perseverance and Curiosity rovers. Learn more about the Mars 2020 mission at: https://www.nasa.gov/perseverance Please follow Astrobiology on Twitter.
On The Biomass Required To Produce Phosphine Detected In The Cloud Decks Of Venus - Astrobiology News
The putative detection of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus at an abundance of 20 ppb suggests that this gas is being generated by either indeterminate abiotic pathways or biological processes. We consider the latter possibility, and explore whether the amount of biomass required to produce the observed flux of phosphine may be reasonable. We find that the typical biomass densities predicted by our simple model are several orders of magnitude lower than the average biomass density of Earth's aerial biosphere. We briefly discuss how small spacecraft could sample the Venusian cloud decks and search for biomarkers. On account of certain weakly constrained variables as well as the heuristic nature of our model, the results presented herein should be viewed with due caution. Manasvi Lingam, Abraham LoebComments:6 pages; 2 figuresSubjects:Earth and Planetary Astrophysics (astro-ph.EP); Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics (astro-ph.IM)Cite as:arXiv:2009.07835 [astro-ph.EP] (or arXiv:2009.07835v1 [astro-ph.EP] for this version)Submission historyFrom: Manasvi Lingam[v1] Wed, 16 Sep 2020 17:54:42 UTC (348 KB)https://arxiv.org/abs/2009.07835Astrobiology Please follow Astrobiology on Twitter.
Jupiter's Moons Could Be Warming Each Other - Astrobiology - Astrobiology News
Jupiter's moons are hot. Well, hotter than they should be, for being so far from the Sun. In a process called tidal heating, gravitational tugs from Jupiter's moons and the planet itself stretch and squish the moons enough to warm them. As a result, some of the icy moons contain interiors warm enough to host oceans of liquid water, and in the case of the rocky moon Io, tidal heating melts rock into magma. Researchers previously believed that the gas giant Jupiter was responsible for most of the tidal heating associated with the liquid interiors of the moons, but a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters found that moon-moon interactions may be more responsible for the heating than Jupiter alone. "It's surprising because the moons are so much smaller than Jupiter. You wouldn't expect them to be able to create such a large tidal response," said the paper's lead author Hamish Hay, a postdoctoral fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who did the research when he was a graduate student in the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. Understanding how the moons influence each other is important because it can shed light on the evolution of the moon system as a whole. Jupiter has nearly 80 moons, the four largest of which are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. "Maintaining subsurface oceans against freezing over geological times requires a fine balance between internal heating and heat loss, and yet we have several pieces of evidence that Europa, Ganymede, Callisto and other moons should be ocean worlds," said co-author Antony Trinh, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Lunar and Planetary Lab. "Io, the large moon closest to Jupiter, shows widespread volcanic activity, another consequence of tidal heating, but at a higher intensity likely experienced by other terrestrial planets, like Earth, in their early history. Ultimately, we want to understand the source of all this heat, both for its influence on the evolution and habitability of the many worlds across the solar system and beyond." Tidal Resonance The trick to tidal heating is a phenomenon called tidal resonance. "Resonance creates loads more heating," Hay said. "Basically, if you push any object or system and let go, it will wobble at its own natural frequency. If you keep on pushing the system at the right frequency, those oscillations get bigger and bigger, just like when you're pushing a swing. If you push the swing at the right time, it goes higher, but get the timing wrong and the swing's motion is dampened." Each moon's natural frequency depends on the depth of its ocean. "These tidal resonances were known before this work, but only known for tides due to Jupiter, which can only create this resonance effect if the ocean is really thin (less than 300 meters or under 1,000 feet), which is unlikely," Hay said. "When tidal forces act on a global ocean, it creates a tidal wave on the surface that ends up propagating around the equator with a certain frequency, or period." According to the researchers' model, Jupiter's influence alone can't create tides with the right frequency to resonate with the moons because the moons' oceans are thought to be too thick. It's only when the researchers added in the gravitational influence of the other moons that they started to see tidal forces approaching the natural frequencies of the moons. When the tides generated by other objects in Jupiter's moon system match each moon's own resonant frequency, the moon begins to experience more heating than that due to tides raised by Jupiter alone, and in the most extreme cases, this could result in the melting of ice or rock internally. For moons to experience tidal resonance, their oceans must be tens to hundreds of kilometers -- at most a few hundred miles -- thick, which is in range of scientists' current estimates. However, there are some caveats to the researchers' findings. Their model assumes that tidal resonances never get too extreme, Hay said. He and his team want to return to this variable in the model and see what happens when they lift that constraint. Hay also is hoping that future studies will be able to infer the true depth of the oceans within these moons. Reference: "Powering the Galilean Satellites with Moon-Moon Tides," Hamish C. F. C. Hay, Antony Trinh & Isamu Matsuyama, 2020 July 19, Geophysical Research Letters [https://doi.org/10.1029/2020GL088317]. This study was funded by NASA's Habitable Worlds program. The University of Arizona, a land-grant university with two independently accredited medical schools, is one of the nation's top public universities, according to U.S. News & World Report. Established in 1885, the university is widely recognized as a student-centric university and has been designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education. The university ranked in the top 20 in 2018 in research expenditures among all public universities, according to the National Science Foundation, and is a leading Research 1 institution with $687 million in annual research expenditures. The university advances the frontiers of interdisciplinary scholarship and entrepreneurial partnerships as a member of the Association of American Universities, the 65 leading public and private research universities in the U.S. It benefits the state with an estimated economic impact of $4.1 billion annually. Astrobiology Please follow Astrobiology on Twitter.
Bacteria Could Survive Travel Between Earth And Mars When Forming Aggregates - Astrobiology News
Imagine microscopic life-forms, such as bacteria, transported through space, and landing on another planet. The bacteria finding suitable conditions for its survival could then start multiplying again, sparking life at the other side of the universe. This theory, called "panspermia", support the possibility that microbes may migrate between planets and distribute life in the universe. Long controversial, this theory implies that bacteria would survive the long journey in outer space, resisting to space vacuum, temperature fluctuations, and space radiations. "The origin of life on Earth is the biggest mystery of human beings. Scientists can have totally different points of view on the matter. Some think that life is very rare and happened only once in the Universe, while others think that life can happen on every suitable planet. If panspermia is possible, life must exist much more often than we previously thought," says Dr. Akihiko Yamagishi, a Professor at Tokyo University of Pharmacy and Life Sciences and principal investigator of the space mission Tanpopo. In 2018, Dr. Yamagishi and his team tested the presence of microbes in the atmosphere. Using an aircraft and scientific balloons, the researchers, found Deinococcal bacteria floating 12 km above the earth. But while Deinococcus are known to form large colonies (easily larger than one millimeter) and be resistant to environmental hazards like UV radiation, could they resist long enough in space to support the possibility of panspermia? To answer this question, Dr. Yamagishi and the Tanpopo team, tested the survival of the radioresistant bacteria Deinococcus in space. The study, now published in Frontiers in Microbiology, shows that thick aggregates can provide sufficient protection for the survival of bacteria during several years in the harsh space environment. Dr. Yamagishi and his team came to this conclusion by placing dried Deinococcus aggregates in exposure panels outside of the International Space Station (ISS). The samples of different thicknesses were exposed to space environment for one, two, or three years and then tested for their survival. After three years, the researchers found that all aggregates superior to 0.5 mm partially survived to space conditions. Observations suggest that while the bacteria at the surface of the aggregate died, it created a protective layer for the bacteria beneath ensuring the survival of the colony. Using the survival data at one, two, and three years of exposure, the researchers estimated that a pellet thicker than 0.5 mm would have survived between 15 and 45 years on the ISS. The design of the experiment allowed the researcher to extrapolate and predict that a colony of 1 mm of diameter could potentially survive up to 8 years in outer space conditions. "The results suggest that radioresistant Deinococcus could survive during the travel from Earth to Mars and vice versa, which is several months or years in the shortest orbit," says Dr. Yamagishi. This work provides, to date, the best estimate of bacterial survival in space. And, while previous experiments prove that bacteria could survive in space for a long period when benefitting from the shielding of rock (i.e. lithopanspermia), this is the first long-term space study raising the possibility that bacteria could survive in space in the form of aggregates, raising the new concept of "massapanspermia". Yet, while we are one step closer to prove panspermia possible, the microbe transfer also depends on other processes such as ejection and landing, during which the survival of bacteria still needs to be assessed. DNA Damage and Survival Time Course of Deinococcal Cell Pellets During 3 Years of Exposure to Outer Space, Frontiers in Microbiology Please follow Astrobiology on Twitter.
As Many As Six Billion Earth-like Planets In Our Galaxy, According To New Estimates - Astrobiology News
To be considered Earth-like, a planet must be rocky, roughly Earth-sized and orbiting Sun-like (G-type) stars. It also has to orbit in the habitable zones of its star--the range of distances from a star in which a rocky planet could host liquid water, and potentially life, on its surface. "My calculations place an upper limit of 0.18 Earth-like planets per G-type star," says UBC researcher Michelle Kunimoto, co-author of the new study in The Astronomical Journal. "Estimating how common different kinds of planets are around different stars can provide important constraints on planet formation and evolution theories, and help optimize future missions dedicated to finding exoplanets." According to UBC astronomer Jaymie Matthews: "Our Milky Way has as many as 400 billion stars, with seven per cent of them being G-type. That means less than six billion stars may have Earth-like planets in our Galaxy." Previous estimates of the frequency of Earth-like planets range from roughly 0.02 potentially habitable planets per Sun-like star, to more than one per Sun-like star. Typically, planets like Earth are more likely to be missed by a planet search than other types, as they are so small and orbit so far from their stars. That means that a planet catalogue represents only a small subset of the planets that are actually in orbit around the stars searched. Kunimoto used a technique known as 'forward modelling' to overcome these challenges. "I started by simulating the full population of exoplanets around the stars Kepler searched," she explained. "I marked each planet as 'detected' or 'missed' depending on how likely it was my planet search algorithm would have found them. Then, I compared the detected planets to my actual catalogue of planets. If the simulation produced a close match, then the initial population was likely a good representation of the actual population of planets orbiting those stars." Kunimoto's research also shed more light on one of the most outstanding questions in exoplanet science today: the 'radius gap' of planets. The radius gap demonstrates that it is uncommon for planets with orbital periods less than 100 days to have a size between 1.5 and two times that of Earth. She found that the radius gap exists over a much narrower range of orbital periods than previously thought. Her observational results can provide constraints on planet evolution models that explain the radius gap's characteristics. Previously, Kunimoto searched archival data from 200,000 stars of NASA's Kepler mission. She discovered 17 new planets outside of the Solar System, or exoplanets, in addition to recovering thousands of already known planets. Please follow Astrobiology on Twitter.