1. Two Rovers in Search of a Landing Site

    In the spring of 2003, NASA will launch two spacecraft on 35-million-mile journeys to Mars. Each craft will carry a small rover, equipped with a set of robotic geologic tools designed to search out mineral evidence within Martian rocks that water was once present on Earth’s neighboring planet.

    The Mars Explorer Rovers, as they are tentatively dubbed, are larger and more-advanced descendants of the Sojourner rover that roamed the Martian surface in July 1997. Both MERs will arrive at the Red Planet early in 2004, but they will go to different, widely separated locations.

    The question NASA is trying ...

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  1. Scientists Find Evidence of Ancient Microbial Life on Mars

    (Text based on a NASA Ames Research Center Press Release)

    An international team of researchers has discovered compelling evidence that the magnetite crystals in the martian meteorite ALH84001 are of biological origin.

    The researchers found that the magnetite crystals embedded in the meteorite are arranged in long chains, which they say could have been formed only by once-living organisms. Their results are reported in the February 27 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    “The chains we discovered are of biological origin,” said Dr. Imre Friedmann, an NRC senior research fellow at NASA’s Ames Research Center in ...

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  1. Apocalypse Then

    (From Science@NASA)

    New findings provide evidence that Earth’s most severe mass extinction – an event 250 million years ago that wiped out 90 percent of the life on Earth – was triggered by a collision with a comet or asteroid.

    Over 90 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of land vertebrates perished as a result, according to the NASA-funded research team, led by Dr. Luann Becker of the University of Washington (UW), Seattle. The team’s findings will be published in today’s issue of the journal Science.

    The collision wasn’t directly responsible for the extinction, but rather ...

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  1. Squaring Off With a Robotic Serpent

    Text Based on a NASA Ames Research Center Press Release

    NASA engineers are developing an intelligent robot snake that may help explore other worlds and perform construction tasks in space.

    The robot serpent, able to independently dig in loose extraterrestrial soil, smart enough to slither into cracks in a planet’s surface and capable of planning routes over or around obstacles, could be ready for space travel in five years, NASA engineers predict.

    “The snake will provide us with flexibility and robustness in space,” said Gary Haith, lead “snakebot” engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center located in California’s Silicon ...

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  1. Carbonated Mars

    (From Science@NASA)

    A common substance found in ordinary classroom chalk could hold the key to a puzzle of planetary proportions: the mysterious whereabouts of water on Mars.

    The brittle, white material in chalk – a form of carbonate – may seem rather ordinary, but finding carbonates on Mars would have some extraordinary implications. The discovery would provide strong evidence that liquid water once flowed on the Red Planet. Such carbonates might also harbor the fossils of ancient Martian bacteria.

    Carbonates are rocks and minerals which contain a molecule made of both carbon and oxygen known as CO32-. Limestone is ...

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  1. A Visit to Cupid for Valentine's Day

    Around Valentine’s Day this year, the hearts of many scientists will beat a little faster.

    That’s because on February 12, a spacecraft will land on an asteroid for the very first time.

    For the past year, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) Shoemaker spacecraft has been orbiting 433 Eros, a large asteroid located about 176 million kilometers (109 million miles) from Earth. Eros is the Greek name for Cupid, the familiar bringer of love from classical mythology.

    The spacecraft has relayed thousands of photographs of the asteroid back to Earth, giving scientists the opportunity to pick the perfect landing spot ...

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  1. Seeing Mars Through a Test Tube

    By recreating the Martian surface in the laboratory, NASA scientists may have begun to answer two questions that have been plaguing scientists for years: why the Martian surface is so red, and why organic life has not yet been found there.

    One answer, say the scientists, could be an important reactive oxygen molecule, called a superoxide anion, or negatively charged oxygen (O2-).

    To test this hypothesis requires some way to test for hostile conditions in a laboratory. The researchers therefore first had to replicate a harsh Martian environment, but in a controlled recipe that they could sample reliably and easily ...

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  1. Looking for Life, Astrobiologists Dive Deep

    A team of interdisciplinary astrobiologists from NASA and other agencies is homing in on recognizing the microbial biosignatures for life, making it easier someday to identify life on other planets.

    A scientific paper analyzing the team’s research results, titled “Modern Freshwater Microbialite Analogues for Ancient Dendritic Reef Structures,” was published in the journal Nature on October 5. The paper focuses on the study of mounded microbialite deposits – layers of living and non-living organisms – found at Pavilion Lake in Canada.

    Microbialites are organic sedimentary mineral deposits covered by a thin layer of microbes that become entombed in the ...

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  1. Jovian Moons

    Our moon, while celebrated in song and literature for its beauty, does not harbor life. With no atmosphere and little known water, conditions on our moon are not adequate to support life as we understand it. There are, however, a total of 61 moons orbiting the 9 planets in our solar system and some of them have atmospheres, organic molecules, water, or heat energy – the conditions necessary for life to exist.

    The larger moons of Jupiter, for instance, have some of the qualities that would make life possible. These moons – Europa, Io, Callisto, and Ganymede – are called ...

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  1. Scientists Find Clues That Life Began in Deep Space

    Text based on a NASA Ames Research Center press release

    Duplicating the harsh conditions of cold interstellar space in their laboratory, NASA scientists have created primitive cells that mimic the membranous structures found in all living things. These chemical compounds may have played a part in the origin of life.

    This breakthrough by scientists at NASA Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley is important because some scientists believe that the delivery – by comets, meteorites and interplanetary dust – of similar organic compounds born in interstellar space might have “kick-started” life on Earth.

    “Scientists believe the molecules needed to ...

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  1. Without Jupiter, Home Alone

    To a biologist, the ingredients needed to form life include water, heat and organic chemicals. But some in the astrophysics and astronomy community argue that life, at least advanced life, may require an additional component: a Jupiter-sized planet in the solar neighborhood.

    “A long-period Jupiter may be a prerequisite for advanced life,” said Dr. Alan Boss, a researcher in planetary formation. Boss, who works at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, is a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI).

    In our own solar system, Jupiter, with its enormous gravitational field, plays an important protective role. By deflecting comets and ...

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  1. Mars Ocean Hypothesis Hits the Shore

    To test the hypothesis that oceans once covered much of the northern hemisphere of Mars, scientists at Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS) of San Diego, CA, have used high resolution images of Mars taken with the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) on Mars Global Surveyor.

    “The ocean hypothesis is very important, because the existence of large bodies of liquid water in the Martian past would have had a tremendous impact on ancient Martian climate and implications for the search for evidence of past life on the planet,” said Dr. Kenneth Edgett, a staff scientist at MSSS.

    Features in earlier Mars ...

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  1. The Greening of the Red Planet

    Although Mars may once have been warm and wet, the red planet today is a frozen wasteland. Most scientists agree that it’s highly unlikely that any living creature, even a microbe, could survive for long on the very surface of the planet.

    When the first humans travel to Mars to explore the red planet up close, they will have to grow their food in airtight, heated greenhouses. The Martian atmosphere is far too cold and dry for edible plants to grow in the open air. But if humans ever hope to establish long-term colonies on their planetary neighbor, they will ...

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  1. Thawing Mars

    To say that Mars is a chilly place is a bit of an understatement. The mean annual temperature on the red planet is minus 55 degrees Celsius. It is far too cold for human habitation. Which explains why those who believe that humanity one day will establish colonies on Mars take very seriously the problem of how to warm the planet up.

    Humans won’t be building thriving communities on Mars any time soon. But that hasn’t stopped scientists from trying to figure out how the task of turning up the Martian thermostat might be accomplished. At a recent NASA-sponsored ...

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  1. Astrobiologists Find Evidence of Early Life on Land

    Text based on a NASA/Ames press release.

    Scientists with NASA’s Astrobiology Institute (NAI) have discovered fossilized remnants of microbial mats that developed on land between 2.6 billion and 2.7 billion years ago in the Eastern Transvaal district of South Africa.

    This significant discovery presents the strongest evidence to date that life on land occurred at a much earlier stage in Earth’s history than was previously believed by most scientists. It also suggests that an ozone shield and an oxygen-rich atmosphere existed on Earth 2.6 billion years ago, both necessary conditions for life on land to ...

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