1. Having a Ball on Mars

    Based on a Science @ NASA story by JPL

    Researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have hit upon an idea for exploring the Red Planet that seems to be equal parts fun and serious science: it’s a lightweight, two-story tall beach ball called “the tumbleweed rover.” Equipped with scientific instruments and propelled by nothing more than the thin Martian breeze, the tumbleweed could potentially explore vast tracts of planetary terrain.

    The wind blowing across the face of the Red Planet would be the only engine needed to move such a ball from place to place, says Jack Jones of ...

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  1. Advances in Our Understanding of Life

    Excerpts from the testimony of Jack D. Farmer, Director and Principal Investigator of the NASA funded Astrobiology Program at Arizona State University, for the “Life in the Universe” hearings before the House Subcommiteee on Space and Aeronautics

    Over the past two decades, advances in a number of scientific disciplines have helped us better understand the nature and evolution of life on Earth. These scientific developments also have helped lay the foundation for astrobiology, opening up new possibilities for the existence of life in the Solar System and beyond.

    A New Look at Life

    Carl Woese of the University of Illinois ...

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  1. Water on Mars: Not So Ancient, After All

    Based on a University of Arizona press release

    Scientists have known for decades that Mars, at least in its ancient past, has had a considerable amount of water.

    But when Mars Global Surveyor began mapping the Red Planet in sharp detail early in 1999, it disclosed startling evidence that water has shaped Martian landforms within the past 10 million years.

    The discovery challenges the prevailing view that Mars’ surface has remained extremely cold and dry – much as it is today – for the past 3.9 billion years.

    It confirms the idea that internal heat periodically triggers short-term warmer ...

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  1. Gravity Hurts (So Good)

    Based on a Sceince@NASA press release by Karen Miller.

    Gravity hurts: you can feel it hoisting a loaded backpack or pushing a bike up a hill. But lack of gravity hurts, too: when astronauts return from long-term stints in space, they sometimes need to be carried away in stretchers.

    Gravity is not just a force, it’s also a signal — a signal that tells the body how to act. For one thing, it tells muscles and bones how strong they must be. In zero-G, muscles atrophy quickly, because the body perceives it does not need them. The muscles used ...

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  1. Life on Ice

    From Arctic sea ice to Antarctic lakes and dry valleys, scientists study microbes that tolerate freezing temperatures on Earth to learn where to look for life on other worlds. Among the possibilities are fossils in ancient Martian lakebeds and bacteria wrapped in mucus and ice on Jupiter’s moon Europa.

    “It’s terribly important that we learn more about cold-adapted microbes because all the environments we even contemplate for supporting life elsewhere [in our solar system] are cold,” says microbiologist Jody W. Deming, an oceanography professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

    “We need to know how all ...

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  1. Extrasolar Planets With Earth-Like Orbits

    Most of the planets discovered outside our solar system don’t have orbits like Earth’s. Either the planets are closer to their stars, with orbital periods of only a few days, or they have highly elliptical orbits – some of which better resemble the paths of comets. Recently, however, a team of astronomers from the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland announced they had discovered a planet with an orbital path very similar to Earth’s.

    Dubbed HD 28185 b, this planet has a nearly circular orbit and is about the same distance away from its star as the Earth is from ...

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  1. Are We Alone? Where Are Our Nearest Neighbors?

    Excerpts from the written testimony submitted by Edward Weiler, Associate Administrator for Space Science, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to the “Life in the Universe” hearings held by the House Subcommiteee on Space and Aeronautics on July 12, 2001.

    “There are countless suns and countless Earths all rotating around their suns in exactly the same way as the seven planets of our system. We see only the suns because they are the largest bodies and are luminous, but their planets remain invisible to us because they are smaller and non-luminous. The countless worlds in the universe are no worse and ...

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  1. Did Tectonis Get an Early Start?

    Based on a St. Louis University and Washington University in St. Louis press release

    A recent discovery near the Great Wall in China adds new support to the theory that plate tectonics began very early in the Earth’s history. The finding not only will help in understanding the geological processes of ancient Earth, but it could also provide some clues about the development of early life.

    It has long been known that plate tectonics – the motion of oceanic and continental plates – dates back at least 1.9 billion years. But Timothy Kusky, professor of geology at St. Louis ...

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  1. SETI and the Search for Life

    Excerpts from the written testimony submitted by Christopher F. Chyba, SETI Institute, to the “Life in the Universe” hearings held by the House Subcommitee on Space and Aeronautics on July 12, 2001.

    Over the past decade, there has been a rebirth in the scientific study of life elsewhere in the Universe – and for very good reasons. We’ve learned that organic molecules – the sort of carbon-based molecules all life on Earth is based upon – are abundant not only in our own solar system, but throughout the space between the stars. They are likely to be present in many ...

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  1. Starved for Nitrogen

    Based on a NASA Ames Research Center press release

    A team of researchers, including a NASA scientist, reports that an early-life nitrogen crisis may have triggered a critical evolutionary leap about 2 billion years ago.

    The team, from Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) and NASA’s Ames Research Center in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, published its results in the July 5 issue of the journal Nature. Their paper is entitled “A Possible Nitrogen Crisis for Archaean Life Due to Reduced Nitrogen Fixation by Lightning.” The researchers, who simulated early Earth atmospheric conditions in a laboratory, postulate ...

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  1. Happy Anniversary, Viking Lander

    Based on a Science @ NASA story by Dr. Tony Phillips

    Twenty-five years ago NASA’s Viking 1 lander made history by descending from orbit to the surface of Mars. It was the first probe from Earth to land intact on the Red Planet, and the first American spacecraft to land on any world since the Apollo program.

    Before Viking 1 touched down many people thought Mars might harbor abundant plant life and microbes living among the rust-colored rocks. Scientists guessed the skies might be tinged deep purple like Earth’s stratosphere, which is about as tenuous as the Martian atmosphere. But ...

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  1. The Search for Life in the Universe

    Excerpts from the written testimony submitted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Department of Astrophysics & Hayden Planetarium, American Museum of Natural History, to the “Life in the Universe” hearings held by the House Subcommitee on Space and Aeronautics

    The discovery of what is now more than seventy planets around stars other than the Sun continues to stimulate tremendous public and media interest. It seems to me that this attention is driven not so much by the discovery of the extrasolar planets themselves, but by the prospect of intelligent alien life.

    People really care about whether or not we are alone in ...

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  1. NASA Picks Mars Scout Mission Ideas for Further Study

    Based on a NASA Headquarters press release

    NASA recently selected the ten most promising “Scout” mission concepts from among the 43 proposed for possible launch to Mars in 2007. The selected proposals will receive funding for six months of continued studies.

    Scout missions are innovative, relatively low-cost missions designed to further scientific knowledge of Mars in specific critical areas.

    Included in the ten concepts selected for study are missions to return samples of Martian atmospheric dust and gas, networks of small landers, orbiting constellations of small craft, and a rover that would attempt to establish absolute surface ages of rocks ...

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  1. Mars: Dead or Alive?

    “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise the kids. In fact it’s cold as hell.” So goes the 1970s song by Elton John.

    The words expressed the public’s notions at the time about the Red Planet: dry, cold, dusty, barren and pockmarked by craters – the very images sent back by the Mariner series of spacecraft in the 1960s. Those same missions brought us pictures of the vast bulk of Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system. But while it loomed huge, it was apparently extinct. After examining these images, most scientists concluded that geologic activity ...

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  1. Water Worlds

    Based on a NASA Headquarters press release

    As an alien sun blazes through its death throes, it is apparently vaporizing a surrounding swarm of comets, releasing a huge cloud of water vapor. The discovery, reported in an article to be published tomorrow in the journal Nature, is the result of observations with the Submillimeter Wave Astronomy Satellite (SWAS), a small radio observatory NASA launched into space in December 1998.

    The new SWAS observations provide the first evidence that extra-solar planetary systems contain water, a molecule that is an essential ingredient for known forms of life.

    “Over the past two years ...

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