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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla, June 9, 2018 (News Wires) - New Mars discoveries are advancing the case for possible life on the red planet, past or even present. Scientists reported recently that NASA's Curiosity rover has found potential building blocks of life in an ancient Martian lakebed. Hints have been found before, but this is the best evidence yet.

The organic molecules preserved in 3.5 billion-year-old bedrock in Gale Crater - believed to once contain a shallow lake the size of Florida's Lake Okeechobee - suggest conditions back then may have been conducive to life. That leaves open the possibility that microorganisms once populated our planetary neighbor and still might.

"The chances of being able to find signs of ancient life with future missions, if life ever was present, just went up," said Curiosity's project scientist, Ashwin Vasavada of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Curiosity also has confirmed sharp seasonal increases of methane in the Martian atmosphere. Researchers said they can't rule out a biological source. Most of Earth's atmospheric methane comes from animal and plant life, and the environment itself.

The two studies appear in the journal Science. In a companion article, an outside expert describes the findings as "breakthroughs in astrobiology."

"The question of whether life might have originated or existed on Mars is a lot more opportune now that we know that organic molecules were present on its surface at the time," wrote Utrecht University astrobiologist Inge Loes ten Kate of the Netherlands.

Kirsten Siebach, a Rice University geologist who also was not involved in the studies, is equally excited. She said the discoveries break down some of the strongest arguments put forward by life-on-Mars skeptics, herself included.

"The big takeaway is that we can find evidence. We can find organic matter preserved in mudstones that are more than 3 billion years old," Siebach said. "And we see releases of gas today that could be related to life in the subsurface or at the very least are probably related to warm water or environments where Earth life would be happy living."

The methane observations provide "one of the most compelling" cases for present-day life, she said.

Scientists agree more powerful spacecraft - and, ideally, rocks returned to Earth from Mars - are needed to prove whether tiny organisms like bacteria ever existed on the red planet.

Curiosity's methane measurements occurred over 4.5 Earth years, covering parts of three Martian years. Seasonal peaks were detected in late summer in the northern hemisphere and late winter in the southern hemisphere.

JPL's Christopher Webster, lead author on the study, said it's the first time Martian methane has shown a repeated pattern. The magnitude of these seasonal peaks - by a factor of three - was far more than scientists expected. "We were just blown away," he said. "It's tripling ... that's a huge, huge difference."

Webster theorizes the methane created either now or long ago is seeping from deep underground reservoirs up through cracks and fissures in the crust. Once at the surface, the methane sticks to dirt and rocks, with more released into the atmosphere when it's hotter.

"We have no proof that the methane is formed biologically, but we cannot rule it out, even with this new data set," Webster said.

Scientists have been seeking organic molecules on Mars ever since the 1976 Viking landers. The twin Vikings came up pretty much empty.

Arriving at Mars in 2012 with a drill and its own onboard labs, Curiosity confirmed the presence of organics in rocks in 2013, but the molecules weren't exactly what scientists expected. So they looked elsewhere. The key samples in the latest findings came from a spot 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) away.

As with methane, there could well be non-biological explanations for the presence of carbon-containing molecules on Mars, such as geologic processes or impacts by asteroids, comet, meteors and interplanetary dust.

Jennifer Eigenbrode, an astrobiologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland who led the organics study, said she's intrigued by the possibility that life might have existed and adapted on Mars.

"I'm equally as fascinated by the idea that life never got started on Mars in the first place. That's a harder question to address scientifically, but I think that we need to give the search for life on Mars due diligence. We need to go to places that we think are the most likely places to find it."

 

TAMPA (United States), May 5, 2018 (News Wires) - Nasa counted down today to the long-awaited launch of its latest Mars lander, InSight, designed to perch on the surface of the Red Planet and listen for “Marsquakes.”

The spacecraft was scheduled to blast off atop an Atlas V rocket at 4.05am Pacific time (11:05 GMT) from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Foggy weather was the only technical concern ahead of the launch, and Nasa safety officers said Friday the usual visibility constraints might be waived so the launch could proceed.

The US$993 million project aims to expand human knowledge of conditions on Mars, inform efforts to send human explorers there, and reveal how rocky planets like the Earth formed billions of years ago.

If all goes as planned, the lander should settle on the Red Planet on November 26. Its name, InSight, is short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.

Nasa chief scientist Jim Green said experts already know that Mars has quakes, avalanches and meteor strikes.

“But how quake-prone is Mars? That is fundamental information that we need to know as humans that explore Mars,” Green said.

The key instrument on board is a seismometer, called the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure, made by the French Space Agency.

After the lander settles on the Martian surface, a robotic arm is supposed to emerge and place the seismometer directly on the ground.

The second main instrument is a self-hammering probe that will monitor the flow of heat in the planet’s subsurface.

Called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package, it was made by the German Space Agency with the participation of the Polish Space Agency.

The probe will bore down 10 to 16 feet (three to five metres) below the surface, Nasa said, 15 times deeper than any previous Mars mission.

Understanding the temperature on Mars is crucial to Nasa’s efforts to send people there by the 2030’s, and how much a human habitat might need to be heated under frigid conditions, said Green.

Daytime summer temperatures near the Martian equator may reach 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees C), but then plunge by night to -100 F (-73 C).

“It is an important part of knowledge of how this planet is evolving,” Green said.

“We have to be able as humans living and working on Mars to survive that.”

The solar and battery-powered lander is designed to operate for 26 Earth months, or one year on Mars, a period in which it is expected to pick up as many as 100 quakes.

“Hopefully it will last a lot longer than that,” said Tom Hoffman, InSight project manager from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The spacecraft was initially supposed to launch in 2016 but had to be delayed after temperature tests showed a problem with part of the seismometer, which engineers have since fixed.

InSight aims to be the first Nasa spacecraft to land on Mars since the Curiosity rover in 2012.

“There is nothing routine about going to Mars, especially landing on Mars,” said Stu Spath, InSight program manager at Lockheed Martin Space.

“On Saturday morning, the anticipation and excitement is going to be second to none.”

 

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., May 2, 2018 (AP) — Six years after last landing on Mars, NASA is sending a robotic geologist to dig deeper than ever before to take the planet’s temperature.

The Mars InSight spacecraft, set to launch this weekend, will also take the planet’s pulse by making the first measurements of “marsquakes.” And to check its reflexes, scientists will track the wobbly rotation of Mars on its axis to better understand the size and makeup of its core.

The lander’s instruments will allow scientists “to stare down deep into the planet,” said the mission’s chief scientist, Bruce Banerdt of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.“Beauty’s not just skin deep here,” he said.

The $1 billion U.S.-European mission is the first dedicated to studying the innards of Mars. By probing Mars’ insides, scientists hope to better understand how the red planet — any rocky planet, including our own– formed 4.5 billion years ago.

Mars is smaller and geologically less active than its neighbour Earth, where plate tectonics and other processes have obscured our planet’s original makeup. As a result, Mars has retained the “fingerprints” of early evolution, said Banerdt.

In another first for the mission, a pair of briefcase-size satellites will launch aboard InSight, break free after liftoff, then follow the spacecraft for six months all the way to Mars. They won’t stop at Mars, just fly past. The point is to test the two CubeSats as a potential communication link with InSight as it descends to the red planet on Nov. 26.

These Mars-bound cubes are nicknamed WALL-E and EVE after the animated movie characters. That’s because they’re equipped with the same type of propulsion used in fire extinguishers to expel foam. In the 2008 movie, WALL-E used a fire extinguisher to propel through space.

InSight is scheduled to rocket away from central California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base early Saturday. It will be NASA’s first interplanetary mission launched from somewhere other than Florida’s Cape Canaveral. Californians along the coast down to Baja will have front-row seats for the pre-dawn flight. (7:05 a.m. EDT/4:05 a.m. PDT)

No matter the launching point, getting to Mars is hard.

The success rate, counting orbiters and landers by NASA and others, is only about 40 per cent. The U.S. is the only country to have successfully landed and operated spacecraft on Mars. The 1976 Vikings were the first landing successes. The most recent was the 2012 Curiosity rover.

InSight will use the same type of straightforward parachute deployment and engine firings during descent as Phoenix lander did in 2008. No bouncy air bags like the Spirit and Opportunity rovers in 2004. No sky crane drop like Curiosity.

Landing on Mars with a spacecraft that’s not much bigger than a couple of office desks is “a hugely difficult task, and every time we do it, we’re on pins and needles,” Banerdt said.

It will take seven minutes for the spacecraft’s entry, descent and landing.

“Hopefully, we won’t get any surprises on our landing day. But you never know,” said NASA project manager Tom Hoffman.Once on the surface, InSight will take interplanetary excavation to a “whole new level,” according to NASA’s science mission director Thomas Zurbuchen.

A slender cylindrical probe dubbed the mole is designed to tunnel nearly 16 feet (5 metres) into the Martian soil. A quake-measuring seismometer, meanwhile, will be removed from the lander by a mechanical arm and placed directly on the surface for better vibration monitoring. InSight is actually two years late flying because of problems with the French-supplied seismometer system that had to be fixed.

The 1,530-pound (694-kilogram) InSight builds on the design of the Phoenix lander and, before that, the Viking landers.

They’re all stationary three-legged landers; no roaming around. InSight stands for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.”

InSight’s science objectives, however, are reminiscent of NASA’s Apollo program.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Apollo moonwalkers drilled up to 8 feet (2.5 metres) into the lunar surface so scientists back home could measure the underground flow of lunar heat. The moon still holds seismometers left behind by the 12 moonmen.

Previous Mars missions have focused on surface or close-to-the-surface rocks and mineral. Phoenix, for instance, dug just several inches down for samples. The Martian atmosphere and magnetic field also have been examined in detail over the decades.

“But we have never probed sort of beneath the outermost skin of the planet,” said Banerdt.

The landing site, Elysium Planitia, is a flat equatorial region with few big rocks that could damage the spacecraft on touchdown or block the mechanical mole’s drilling. Banerdt jokingly calls it “the biggest parking lot on Mars.”

Scientists are shooting for two years of work — that’s two years by Earth standards, or the equivalent of one full Martian year.

“Mars is still a pretty mysterious planet,” Banerdt said. “Even with all the studying that we’ve done, it could throw us a curveball.”

STEVENAGE, April, 27, 2018 (Reuters) - The European Space Agency's mission to search for life on Mars has reached an important milestone with its six-wheeled surface rover prototype ready for its "shake and bake".

Built by Airbus Defence and Space just north of London in Stevenage, Britain's unlikely "Space City", the so-called Structural Thermal Model is being packed off to Toulouse, France, for a raft of tests to ensure the real ExoMars rover handles anything the red planet can throw at it.

If the 2020 mission goes to plan it would be Europe’s first rover on Mars, following several successful NASA landings.

Europe's last attempt to land a rover vehicle on the surface of Mars ended in disappointment in 2016 when Schiaparelli span out of control and slammed into the red sand.

The ESA rover will be more sophisticated though, featuring a two-metre exploration drill and an autonomous navigation system.

"That's the most exciting thing that hasn't been done before, we've got a huge two metre drill so it can go into the crust which is where we think life would be if it was still surviving," ExoMars Delivery Manager Abbie Hutty told Reuters.

"At the surface the radiation is extreme and conditions too hostile. Down below different layers of rock, maybe in a fissure where there may be water deposits could be a nice place for life to still be surviving."

Hutty will keep a close eye on the prototype tests in Toulouse where the launch from a Russian rocket will be simulated as well as the massive temperature variations it will endure 54 million km away on Mars.

Data sent back from the ESA's Mars Express satellite are helping scientists choose the most suitable landing site.

The ExoMars Rover's autonomous navigation, which will enable it to steer itself rather than wait 24 minutes for instructions from Earth, has been undergoing testing at Airbus's Mars Yard.

The Stevenage centre has a mock-up of the planet's surface complete with specially dried sand, boulders and Mars-like light intensity, if not the radiation.

Its six "wafer wheels" made of thin strips of metal and unique suspension system means it can scale rocks and roll across the sandy landscape.

"The cool thing about the wheels is that they are fully metallic and give us the traction and grip of a rubber wheel without taking anything organic from earth. They will be able climb over rocks and also dig through deep sand," Hutty said.

Once testing is completed in France, work will begin on building the finished rover as well as a twin that will stay in Stevenage.