Ames Research Center
Ames Research Center
News Article | April 25, 2017
Boulder, Colo. -- April 25, 2017 -- From the earliest days of our solar system's history, collisions between astronomical objects have shaped the planets and changed the course of their evolution. Studying the early bombardment history of Mars, scientists at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and the University of Arizona have discovered a 400-million-year lull in large impacts early in Martian history. This discovery is published in the latest issue of Nature Geoscience in a paper titled, "A post-accretionary lull in large impacts on early Mars." SwRI's Dr. Bill Bottke, who serves as principal investigator of the Institute for the Science of Exploration Targets (ISET) within NASA's Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI), is the lead author of the paper. Dr. Jeff Andrews-Hanna, from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in the University of Arizona, is the paper's coauthor. "The new results reveal that Mars' impact history closely parallels the bombardment histories we've inferred for the Moon, the asteroid belt, and the planet Mercury," Bottke said. "We refer to the period for the later impacts as the 'Late Heavy Bombardment.' The new results add credence to this somewhat controversial theory. However, the lull itself is an important period in the evolution of Mars and other planets. We like to refer to this lull as the 'doldrums.'" The early impact bombardment of Mars has been linked to the bombardment history of the inner solar system as a whole. Borealis, the largest and most ancient basin on Mars, is nearly 6,000 miles wide and covers most of the planet's northern hemisphere. New analysis found that the rim of Borealis was excavated by only one later impact crater, known as Isidis. This sets strong statistical limits on the number of large basins that could have formed on Mars after Borealis. Moreover, the preservation states of the four youngest large basins -- Hellas, Isidis, Argyre, and the now-buried Utopia -- are strikingly similar to that of the larger, older Borealis basin. The similar preservation states of Borealis and these younger craters indicate that any basins formed in-between should be similarly preserved. No other impact basins pass this test. "Previous studies estimated the ages of Hellas, Isidis, and Argyre to be 3.8 to 4.1 billion years old," Bottke said. "We argue the age of Borealis can be deduced from impact fragments from Mars that ultimately arrived on Earth. These Martian meteorites reveal Borealis to be nearly 4.5 billion years old -- almost as old as the planet itself." The new results reveal a surprising bombardment history for the red planet. A giant impact carved out the northern lowlands 4.5 billion years ago, followed by a lull of approximately 400 million years. Then another period of bombardment produced giant impact basins between 4.1 and 3.8 billion years ago. The age of the impact basins requires two separate populations of objects striking Mars. The first wave of impacts was associated with formation of the inner planets, followed by a second wave striking the Martian surface much later. SSERVI is a virtual institute headquartered at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Its members are distributed among universities and research institutes across the United States and around the world. SSERVI is working to address fundamental science questions and issues that can help further human exploration of the solar system.
News Article | May 1, 2017
In 1979, Ridley Scott presented “Alien,” the first of six films in a series that would continue into 2017. This science-fiction horror franchise has produced nearly 40 years of sequels and prequels, numerous books, toys and video games. On May 19, the second prequel, “Alien: Covenant,” debuts under Scott’s direction, and not only is he promoting the film, he’s also ― very cleverly ― letting it be known that he thinks aliens really exist and we should fear them. “I believe in superior beings,” Scott, 79, told the international news agency Agence France-Presse. “I think it is certainly likely. An expert I was talking to at NASA said to me, ‘Have you ever looked in the sky at night? You mean to tell me we are it?’ That’s ridiculous.” “The experts have now put a number on it, having assessed what is out there,” Scott continued. “They say that there are between 100 and 200 entities that could be having a similar evolution to us right now. So when you see a big thing in the sky, run for it!” Here are some other astronomical numbers that can make your head figuratively explode like Scott’s aliens often explode out of the stomachs of their unfortunate human victims. And those galactic numbers will most likely go up as newer, more powerful telescopes are built and sent into space to reach out to the cosmos. Part of the magnitude of these numbers is the fact that typical galaxies have a lot of stars. Our Milky Way is home to about 300 billion stars, reports Sky & Telescope. Just last week, three planet-hunters were included on Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. One of those scientists, Natalie Batalha of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, made a mind-blowing statement that would probably cause Scott’s hair to stand on end. She said, “You know, we look up in the sky and instead of seeing stars, we see other solar systems, because now we know that every star in the sky has at least one planet.” He told Agence France-Presse that earthlings would probably be better off if we show any aliens a little respect. “Because they are a lot smarter than we are, and if you are stupid enough to challenge them, you will be taken out in three seconds.” Scott certainly has aliens on his mind. He’s also listed as a producer for “Phoenix Forgotten,” a film that debuted in April and uses what are known as found-footage sequences to tell the story of events surrounding the appearance of mysterious lights over Phoenix in 1997. It’s considered one of the most famous UFO sightings in history, primarily because so many people saw it. Though the military tried to explain it away as flares in the sky during an exercise over the city, there have been lingering doubts, especially from the man who was governor of Arizona at the time, Fife Symington. One of the interesting things about “Phoenix Forgotten” is how remarkably similar it is on almost every level to another movie, “Phoenix Incident,” that came out a year ago. Both movies tell of groups of young people who vanished forever while trying to investigate the “flares” out in the desert.
News Article | April 17, 2017
LIFE might eke out an existence far deeper inside Earth than we imagined. Samples from a mud volcano contain biological signatures that suggest microbes lived in the material when it was several kilometres beneath the ocean floor. “We might have a very big biosphere below our feet that’s very hard to get to,” says Oliver Plümper of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Other researchers agree life could exist at such depths, but say the case is not yet proven. “They don’t have conclusive evidence,” says Rocco Mancinelli, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, who studies life in extreme environments. “We might have a very big biosphere deep below our feet that’s very hard to get to” Plümper’s team studied 46 samples drilled from the South Chamorro mud volcano, near the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana trench. Here, one tectonic plate slides under another. The heat and stress causes some of the material on the subducting plate to become a buoyant mineral called serpentinite that rises and erupts out of mud volcanoes. Examining the serpentinite in their samples, the team found chemicals usually produced by life, including amino acids and hydrocarbons. Given that some microbes can withstand temperatures as high as 122°C and pressures about 3000 times higher than at Earth’s surface, Plümper calculates that life could survive up to 10 kilometres beneath the seabed. There have been several recent reports of life at great depths, with nematode worms found living 3 kilometres down in a gold mine, for instance. But if Plümper is right, life can survive far deeper still. Mineral reactions at these depths would provide the carbon, nitrogen and energy life needs, says Mancinelli. But the chemicals found by Plümper’s team might have been produced by processes that don’t involve life, he adds. This article will appear in print under the headline “Life could exist up to 10 km below sea floor” Read more: Deep life: Strange creatures living far below our feet, Life is found in deepest layer of Earth’s crust
News Article | April 17, 2017
Enceladus is ripe for life. In one final pass through the icy moon’s liquid plumes, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft found molecular hydrogen, which indicates favourable conditions for life in Enceladus’s subsurface sea. For over a decade, Cassini has been exploring Saturn and its moons, sending back the best pictures and measurements we’ve ever had of the system. It dropped off the Huygens probe at hazy Titan, scrutinised the structure of Saturn’s rings, and revealed that Enceladus was much stranger than anyone expected. Enceladus’s south pole has strange, warm fractures and plumes of liquid water coming from an internal ocean many believed was impossible in such a small, cold world. The plumes also contain enticing compounds like organics and carbon dioxide, all necessary for life as we know it on Earth. Those things represent tantalising hints of habitability. But there was no evidence for an energy source to feed potential life, until now. In extreme environments on Earth, hydrogen can play that role. “What was missing to complete the story of habitability was an energy source,” says Chris McKay at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. “This completes that story.” Cassini did detect hydrogen in early trips through the plumes, but there was no way to determine if it came from the moon itself or from inside the instrument. When particles from the plumes entered the spacecraft’s Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS), they interacted with its titanium walls, producing the same sort of hydrogen as hydrothermal processes would produce under Enceladus’s ocean. “We didn’t know we were going to do this experiment when we launched Cassini,” says Hunter Waite at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Texas. So to look for hydrogen, Waite and his team had to put the INMS instrument in a new mode that measured the molecules without allowing them to touch the walls. Finally, they found the molecular hydrogen they were looking for – and a lot of it. Their findings indicated that there was too much hydrogen to be stored in tiny Enceladus’s ice shell or ocean. That means it must be continuously produced there, probably by hydrothermal reactions similar to those that occur near hot vents at the bottom of Earth’s oceans. Near those vents on Earth, there is life. Some of Earth’s oldest microorganisms, called methanogens, are often found near hydrothermal vents where, deprived of light and oxygen, they convert hydrogen and carbon dioxide to methane. “If you were to take methanogens from Earth’s ocean and transport them to Enceladus, they would have all the food they need,” says Waite. “This is like candy for microbes.” If Earth microbes could exist on Enceladus, maybe it could have homegrown life, too. Between its liquid water, organic molecules, and hydrogen, Enceladus is looking more and more like our best bet for finding extraterrestrial life. “If we’re looking for life in the solar system, then Enceladus has a lot of potential to be the place that we could find it,” says Kelly Miller at SwRI, who was part of the team that discovered Enceladus’ molecular hydrogen. Showing Enceladus is habitable is one thing, finding life is quite another. “Just because a place is suitable for life doesn’t mean that life is present, because we don’t understand the origin of life at all,” McKay says. Some believe that life is inevitable, given the right conditions. Others think that it is rare and requires a great deal of luck. Right now, our sample of definitely habitable worlds has only one: Earth. But pairing observations of Enceladus with our own planet could help astrobiologists figure out the likelihood of life existing elsewhere in the universe. “The message is in the molecules,” says Christopher Glein, another member of Waite’s group at SwRI. “We just have to keep measuring the molecules in that plume, and that’s going to tell us about what we cannot see.” We won’t have any more molecules from Enceladus’s plumes for a long time, though. Cassini is running low on fuel, and if it were to crash into Enceladus it might destroy any extraterrestrial ecosystem living there. To protect potential life on Saturn’s ocean moons, we have to destroy the only tool we have to find it. The spacecraft will crash into Saturn on 15 September. Even if an Enceladus mission is selected in NASA’s next round of New Frontiers funding, to be announced in 2019, it wouldn’t reach the Saturn system until the late 2020s or early 2030s. “To address whether there is life, we’ll have to go back,” McKay says. “Two decades can go by pretty fast.”
News Article | April 25, 2017
Sergey Brin, president of Alphabet and co-founder of Google Inc., speaks during the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) at Stanford University in Stanford, California, U.S., on Friday, June 24, 2016. The annual event brings together entrepreneurs from around the world for 3 days of networking, workshops and conferences. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg Larry Page has his flying cars. Sergey Brin shall have an airship. Brin, the Google co-founder, has secretly been building a massive airship inside of Hangar 2 at the NASA Ames Research Center, according to four people with knowledge of the project. It's unclear whether the craft, which looks like a zeppelin, is a hobby or something Brin hopes to turn into a business. "Sorry, I don't have anything to say about this topic right now," Brin wrote in an email. The people familiar with the project said Brin has long been fascinated by airships. His interest in the crafts started when Brin would visit Ames, which is located next to Google parent Alphabet Inc.'s headquarters in Mountain View, California. In the 1930s, Ames was home to the USS Macon, a huge airship built by the U.S. Navy. About three years ago, Brin decided to build one of his own after ogling old photos of the Macon. More from Bloomberg.com: Trump’s Sanctuary Cities Order Blocked by Federal Judge In 2015, Google unit Planetary Ventures took over the large hangars at Ames from NASA and turned them into laboratories for the company. Brin's airship, which isn’t an Alphabet project, is already taking shape inside one. Engineers have constructed a metal skeleton of the craft, and it fills up much of the enormous hangar. Alan Weston, the former director of programs at NASA Ames, is leading Brin's airship project, according to the people, who asked not to be named discussing the secretive plans. Weston didn’t respond to requests for comment. More from Bloomberg.com: Former Fox Host Claims Network Hacked Into Her Computer Weston has a background befitting such an unusual enterprise. Born to Australian parents, Weston spent some of his youth in Turkey and then ended up at the University of Oxford. There he became a key member of the Dangerous Sports Club - a group of very intelligent risk-takers that formed in the early 1970s and did things such as catapult people across fields into nets. Members of the club are credited with inventing the modern form of bungee jumping. Weston, for example, performed one of the first bungee jumps by hurling himself off California’s Golden Gate Bridge and then eluded the authorities waiting to capture him on shore. He also hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa and then attempted to hang-glide down, only to crash and hurt his ankle in the process. More from Bloomberg.com: Trump Signals Shift on Wall Funding to Avert Government Shutdown Years later, Weston joined the Air Force and did engineering work as part of the U.S. government’s Strategic Defense Initiative - known more broadly as the Star Wars missile defense system. In 1989, Weston oversaw one of the first tests of Star Wars, which aimed to destroy incoming Russian missiles midair with weapons fired from space. Following his stint at the Air Force, Weston joined NASA and worked on a wide number of projects, including the development of a low-cost lunar lander. In a radio interview in 2013, Weston described plans for an airship that could be used to haul cargo. The idea is that airships could be more fuel-efficient than planes and could carry loads directly to where they're needed, rather than to transport centers like airports or shipping stations. "New airship technologies have the promise to reduce the cost of moving things per ton-mile by up to an order of magnitude," Weston said in the interview. "It depends on the size of the airship. A larger airship can reduce costs a lot more than a smaller ship, but there’s design of a class of vehicles that can lift up to 500 tons that could be actually more fuel-efficient than even a truck." He went on to describe a prototype he was considering of a helium-based craft that appeared to breathe. "And so the way that works is that the helium in the main envelope is taken and stored in bags inside the airship at a slightly higher pressure," he said. "As you do that, air is taken in from the outside into essentially like lungs that are attached in the side of the vehicle. So the analogy of breathing is a good one. And the overall lift of the vehicle is equal to the weight of the air that is being displaced by the helium. And as you change that, you can control the amount of buoyancy that the vehicle has." This technique, according to Weston, would allow the airship to carry 500 tons without the need for a ballast. After being contacted about the airship, Weston changed his profile on LinkedIn to list his current job as chief executive officer of ``Ltare.'' He then removed the post.
News Article | May 24, 2017
A University of Washington-led international team of astronomers has used data gathered by the Kepler Space Telescope to observe and confirm details of the outermost of seven exoplanets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1. They confirmed that the planet, TRAPPIST-1h, orbits its star every 18.77 days, is linked in its orbital path to its siblings and is frigidly cold. Far from its host star, the planet is likely uninhabitable — but it may not always have been so. UW doctoral student Rodrigo Luger is lead author on a paper published May 22 in the journal Nature Astronomy. "TRAPPIST-1h was exactly where our team predicted it to be," Luger said. The researchers discovered a mathematical pattern in the orbital periods of the inner six planets, which was strongly suggestive of an 18.77 day period for planet h. "It had me worried for a while that we were seeing what we wanted to see. Things are almost never exactly as you expect in this field — there are usually surprises around every corner, but theory and observation matched perfectly in this case." TRAPPIST-1 is a middle-aged, ultra cool dwarf star, much less luminous than the sun and only a bit larger than the planet Jupiter. The star, which is nearly 40 light-years or about 235 trillion miles away in the constellation of Aquarius, is named after the ground-based Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST), the facility that first found evidence of planets around it in 2015. The TRAPPIST survey is led by Michael Gillon of the University of Liège, Belgium, who is also a coauthor on this research. In 2016, Gillon’s team announced the detection of three planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 and this number was upped to seven in a subsequent 2017 paper. Three of TRAPPIST-1's planets appear to be within the star's habitable zone, that swath of space around a star where a rocky planet could have liquid water on its surface, thus giving life a chance. Such exoplanets are detected when they transit, or pass in front of, their host star, blocking a measurable portion of the light. Gillon's team was able to observe only a single transit for TRAPPIST-1h, the farthest-out of the star's seven progeny, prior to the data analyzed by Luger’s team. Luger led a multi-institution international research team that studied the TRAPPIST-1 system more closely using 79 days of observation data from K2, the second mission of the Kepler Space Telescope. The team was able to observe and study four transits of TRAPPIST-1h across its star. The team used the K2 data to further characterize the orbits of the other six planets, help rule out the presence of additional transiting planets, and determine the rotation period and activity level of the star. They also discovered that TRAPPIST-1's seven planets appear linked in a complex dance known as an orbital resonance where their respective orbital periods are mathematically related and slightly influence each other. "Resonances can be tricky to understand, especially between three bodies. But there are simpler cases that are easier to explain," Luger said. For instance, closer to home, Jupiter's moons Io, Europa and Ganymede are set in a 1:2:4 resonance, meaning that Europa's orbital period is exactly twice that of Io, and Ganymede's is exactly twice that of Europa. These relationships, Luger said, suggested that by studying the orbital velocities of its neighbor planets they could predict the exact orbital velocity, and hence also orbital period, of TRAPPIST-1h even before the K2 observations. Their theory proved correct when they located the planet in the K2 data. TRAPPIST-1's seven-planet chain of resonances established a record among known planetary systems, the previous holders being the systems Kepler-80 and Kepler-223, each with four resonant planets. The resonances are "self-correcting," Luger said, such that if one planet were to somehow be nudged off course, it would lock right back into resonance. "Once you're caught into this kind of stable resonance, it's hard to escape," he said. All of this, Luger said, indicates that these orbital connections were forged early in the life of the TRAPPIST-1 system, when the planets and their orbits were not fully formed. "The resonant structure is no coincidence, and points to an interesting dynamical history in which the planets likely migrated inward in lock-step," Luger said. "This makes the system a great testbed for planet formation and migration theories." It also means that while TRAPPIST-1h is now extremely cold — with an average temperature of 173 Kelvin (minus 148 F) — it likely spent several hundred million years in a much warmer state, when its host star was younger and brighter. "We could therefore be looking at a planet that was once habitable and has since frozen over, which is amazing to contemplate and great for follow-up studies," Luger said. Luger said he has been working with data from the K2 mission for a while now, researching ways to reduce "instrumental noise" in its data resulting from broken reaction wheels — small flywheels that help position the spacecraft — that can overwhelm planetary signals. “Observing TRAPPIST-1 with K2 was an ambitious task,” said Marko Sestovic, a doctoral student at the University of Bern and second author of the study. In addition to the extraneous signals introduced by the spacecraft’s wobble, the faintness of the star in the optical (the range of wavelengths where K2 observes) placed TRAPPIST-1h “near the limit of what we could detect with K2,” he said. To make matters worse, Sestovic said, one transit of the planet coincided with a transit of TRAPPIST-1b, and one coincided with a stellar flare, adding to the difficulty of the observation. “Finding the planet was really encouraging,” Luger said, “since it showed we can still do high-quality science with Kepler despite significant instrumental challenges.” Luger's UW co-authors are astronomy doctoral students Ethan Kruse and Brett Morris, post-doctoral researcher Daniel Foreman-Mackey and professor Eric Agol (Guggenheim Fellow). Agol separately helped confirm the approximate mass of TRAPPIST-1 planets with a technique he and colleagues devised called "transit timing variations" that describes planets' gravitational tugs on one another. Luger said the TRAPPIST-1 system's relative nearness "makes it a prime target for follow-up and characterization with current and upcoming telescopes, which may be able to give us information about these planets' atmospheric composition." Contributing to this discovery are researchers at the University of Bern in Switzerland; Paris Diderot and Paris Sorbonne Universities and the CEA Saclay in France; the University of Liège in Belgium; the University of Chicago; the University of California, San Diego; California Institute of Technology; the University of Bordeaux in France; the University of Cambridge in England; NASA's Ames Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, and Johnson Space Center; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of Central Lancashire in England; King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia; Cadi Ayyad University in Morocco; and the University of Geneva in Switzerland. The research was funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute via the UW-based Virtual Planetary Laboratory as well as a National Science Foundation Graduate Student Research Fellowship, the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Simons Foundation, the European Research Council and the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, among other agencies.
News Article | May 23, 2017
New data from the Kepler Space Telescope confirm what astronomers have thought about the outermost of seven exoplanets orbiting the star Trappist-1. The planet, Trappist-1h, is linked in its orbital path to its siblings, and is frigidly cold. Far from its host star, the planet is likely uninhabitable—but may not always have been that way. “Trappist-1h was exactly where our team predicted it to be,” says Rodrigo Luger, a doctoral student at the University of Washington and lead author of the study in Nature Astronomy. Researchers discovered a mathematical pattern in the orbital periods of the inner six planets, which was strongly suggestive of an 18.77 day period for planet h. “It had me worried for a while that we were seeing what we wanted to see. Things are almost never exactly as you expect in this field—there are usually surprises around every corner, but theory and observation matched perfectly in this case.” Trappist-1 is a middle-aged, ultra cool dwarf star, much less luminous than the sun and only a bit larger than the planet Jupiter. The star, which is nearly 40 light-years or about 235 trillion miles away in the constellation of Aquarius, is named after the ground-based Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope, the facility that first found evidence of planets around it in 2015. Study coauthor Michael Gillon of the University of Liège, Belgium, led the survey. In 2016, Gillon’s team announced the detection of three planets orbiting Trappist-1 and this number was upped to seven in a subsequent 2017 paper. Three of the star’s planets appear to be within the star’s habitable zone, that swath of space around a star where a rocky planet could have liquid water on its surface, thus giving life a chance. Such exoplanets are detected when they transit, or pass in front of, their host star, blocking a measurable portion of the light. Researchers were able to observe only a single transit for Trappist-1h, the farthest-out of the star’s seven progeny, prior to the data analyzed by Luger’s team. Astronomers studied the Trappist-1 system more closely using 79 days of observation data from K2, the second mission of the Kepler Space Telescope. The team was able to observe and study four transits of Trappist-1h across its star. The team used the K2 data to further characterize the orbits of the other six planets, help rule out the presence of additional transiting planets, and determine the rotation period and activity level of the star. They also discovered that Trappist-1’s seven planets appear linked in a complex dance known as an orbital resonance where their respective orbital periods are mathematically related and slightly influence each other. “Resonances can be tricky to understand, especially between three bodies. But there are simpler cases that are easier to explain,” Luger says. For instance, closer to home, Jupiter’s moons Io, Europa, and Ganymede are set in a 1:2:4 resonance, meaning that Europa’s orbital period is exactly twice that of Io, and Ganymede’s is exactly twice that of Europa. These relationships, suggested that by studying the orbital velocities of its neighbor planets they could predict the exact orbital velocity, and hence also orbital period, of TRAPPIST-1h even before the K2 observations. Their theory proved correct when they located the planet in the K2 data. Trappist-1’s seven-planet chain of resonances established a record among known planetary systems, the previous holders being the systems Kepler-80 and Kepler-223, each with four resonant planets. The resonances are “self-correcting,” Luger says, such that if one planet were to somehow be nudged off course, it would lock right back into resonance. “Once you’re caught into this kind of stable resonance, it’s hard to escape.” All of this indicates that these orbital connections were forged early in the life of the Trappist-1 system, when the planets and their orbits were not fully formed. “The resonant structure is no coincidence, and points to an interesting dynamical history in which the planets likely migrated inward in lock-step,” Luger says. “This makes the system a great testbed for planet formation and migration theories.” It also means that while Trappist-1h is now extremely cold—with an average temperature of 173 Kelvin (minus 148 F)—it likely spent several hundred million years in a much warmer state, when its host star was younger and brighter. “We could therefore be looking at a planet that was once habitable and has since frozen over, which is amazing to contemplate and great for follow-up studies,” Luger says. Luger has been working with data from the K2 mission for a while now, researching ways to reduce “instrumental noise” in its data resulting from broken reaction wheels—small flywheels that help position the spacecraft — that can overwhelm planetary signals. “Observing Trappist-1 with K2 was an ambitious task,” says Marko Sestovic, a doctoral student at the University of Bern and second author of the study. In addition to the extraneous signals introduced by the spacecraft’s wobble, the faintness of the star in the optical (the range of wavelengths where K2 observes) placed Trappist-1h “near the limit of what we could detect with K2,” he says. To make matters worse, one transit of the planet coincided with a transit of Trappist-1b, and one coincided with a stellar flare, adding to the difficulty of the observation. “Finding the planet was really encouraging,” Luger says, “since it showed we can still do high-quality science with Kepler despite significant instrumental challenges.” The Trappist-1 system’s relative nearness “makes it a prime target for follow-up and characterization with current and upcoming telescopes, which may be able to give us information about these planets’ atmospheric composition,” Luger says. Contributing to this discovery are researchers at the University of Bern in Switzerland; Paris Diderot and Paris Sorbonne Universities and the CEA Saclay in France; the University of Liège in Belgium; the University of Chicago; the University of California, San Diego; California Institute of Technology; the University of Bordeaux in France; the University of Cambridge in England; NASA’s Ames Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, and Johnson Space Center; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of Central Lancashire in England; King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia; Cadi Ayyad University in Morocco; and the University of Geneva in Switzerland. The NASA Astrobiology Institute, the National Science Foundation Graduate Student Research Fellowship, the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Simons Foundation, the European Research Council, and the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, among other agencies, funded the work.
News Article | May 26, 2017
Google co-founder Sergey Brin's secret airship will be used for humanitarian missions, but it will also serve as a giant RV in the sky for his friends and family, according to The Guardian. Citing sources familiar with the project, the report says Brin wants to use the aircraft to “deliver supplies and food on humanitarian missions to remote locations,” but also as a “luxurious intercontinental “air yacht” for [his] friends and family.” The dirigible, which was first revealed by Bloomberg one month ago, is reportedly going to wind up being the biggest aircraft in the world at 200 meters long. (That’s twice the length of the “flying bum,” as long as we’re measuring.) It will use helium instead of flammable hydrogen, and the project supposedly carries a price tag of $100–$150 million — funded completely by Brin. The giant humanitarian sky yacht is being built at Moffett airfield, which is part of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Northern California, where Google’s Planetary Ventures division holds a 60-year lease valued at $1 billion. Brin even has a former Ames head running the project, and as of last month the team reportedly had a full metal frame constructed. Brin, who had employees jump out of a plane while wearing Google Glass in 2012, isn’t the only Google exec who’s fascinated with air travel. His co-founder Larry Page has a hand in two different “flying car” projects — one of which will supposedly be available at the end of this year.
News Article | May 29, 2017
The three-week campaign, known as Technology Capability Level 2 (TCL2) National Campaign, began May 9 and is focused on flying small drones beyond the pilot's visual line of sight over sparsely populated areas near six of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) test sites. Current testing of TCL2 marks the second year in a row NASA has taken its UTM technologies on the road to further assess and refine their capabilities. During April 2016, NASA and its partners tested TCL1, which involved line-of-sight operations, and then began the first phase of TCL2 demonstrations in October. "Being able to design, build and test each TCL phase at NASA, and then take it to the six FAA UAS test sites for more in-depth analysis, is a productive way to conduct comprehensive evaluations," said Tom Prevot, associate project manager for NASA's Safe Autonomous Systems Operations Project and lead of NASA's UTM efforts. "We have a great relationship with the FAA and truly appreciate their support and collaboration through the NASA/FAA Research Transition Team," Prevot said. For TCL2, participants are interacting with the UTM research platform by entering their drone's scheduled flight plans. The UTM system then checks for conflicts, approves or rejects the plan, and notifies users of any potential constraints. Meanwhile, engineers at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley monitor operations and system load, and gather qualitative feedback to identify opportunities to expand capability and further refine the UTM working models. "Industry will have a major role to play in the implementation, operation, and maintenance of UTM systems in U.S. airspace Airspace and this campaign of test activities will provide a glimpse into how they will play these roles by connecting their system prototypes and components with NASA's UTM research platform" said Arwa Aweiss, the TCL2 National Campaign Coordinator. As opposed to last year, when drones were flying simultaneously at six test sites, this time each test site is operating on their own schedule. As the UTM Lab at Ames monitors these flights, researchers can introduce simulated aircraft into the same airspace as the real drones to add more complexity to the system. This mixing of actual flights with virtual flights provides additional insight for future tests and helps to further refine and improve the UTM concept. As part of the testing, the drones are flying profiles that simulate real-world uses for the aircraft, such as package deliveries, farmland surveys, infrastructure inspections, search and rescue missions, and video surveillance operations. "This campaign demonstrates how teams from a variety of agencies can collaborate and find solutions that address the technical hurdles facing Federal regulators," said Chris Walach, director of the FAA-designated Nevada UAS Test Site. "Nevada stands ready to become a premiere service provider as drone use becomes more prominent." In addition to the FAA and the NIAS, NASA's partners include the Reno Tahoe Airport Authority, University of Nevada Reno, Flirtey, Drone America, AirMap, Gryphon Sensors, FlySpan, Harris, and T-Mobile. Together they are using relatively new technologies to include geofencing and conformance monitoring, airborne sense and avoid, communication, navigation, and surveillance, and human factors related to UTM data creation and display. Two more phases, TCL3 and TCL4, each progressively more complex and involving flying drones with specific tasks over increasingly populated areas, are scheduled for 2018 and beyond. NASA turns over its UTM research to the FAA in a sequence of research transition products linked to the TCL tests between now and 2019 for further testing and implementation. Explore further: Air traffic control for drones is coming. Here's how it could work
News Article | May 9, 2017
MESA, Arizona—Since the dawn of the space age NASA and other agencies have spent billions of dollars to reconnoiter Mars—assailing it with spacecraft flybys, photo-snapping orbiters and landers nose-diving onto its surface. The odds are good, many scientists say, for the Red Planet being an extraterrestrial address for alien life—good enough to sustain decades’ worth of landing very expensive robots to ping it with radar, zap it with lasers, trundle across its terrain and scoop up its dirt. Yet against all odds (and researchers’ hopes for a watershed discovery), Mars remains a poker-faced world that holds its cards tight. No convincing signs of life have emerged. But astrobiologists continue to, quite literally, chip away at finding the truth. As the search becomes more heated (some would say more desperate), scientists are entertaining an ever-increasing number of possible explanations for Martian biology as a no-show. For example, could there be a “cover up” whereby the harsh Martian environment somehow obliterates all biosignatures—all signs of past or present life? Or perhaps life there is just so alien its biosignatures are simply unrecognizable to us, hidden in plain view. Of course, the perplexing quest to find life on Mars may have a simple solution: It’s not there, and never was. But as the proceedings of this year’s Astrobiology Science Conference held here in April made clear, life-seeking scientists are not giving up yet. Instead, they are getting more creative, proposing new strategies and technologies to shape the next generation of Mars exploration. Talk about looking for Martians and you inevitably talk about water, the almost-magical liquid that sustains all life on Earth and seems to have served as an indispensable kick-starter for biology in our planet’s deepest past. “It all started out with ‘follow the water;’ not necessarily ‘follow the life’…but ‘follow one of the basic requirements for living systems,’” says Arizona State University geologist Jack Farmer, referring to NASA’s oft-repeated mantra for Martian exploration. “There are many indications of water on Mars in the past, perhaps reservoirs of water in the near subsurface as well,” he says. “But what is the quality of that water? Is it really salty—too salty for life?” Without liquid water, Farmer points out, one would naively think organisms cannot function. The reality may be more complex: on Earth, some resilient organisms such as tardigrades can enter a profound, almost indefinite state of hibernation when deprived of moisture, preserving their desiccated tissues but neither growing nor reproducing. It is possible, Farmer says, that Martian microbes could spend most of their time as inert spores “waiting for something good to happen,” only springing to life given the right and very rare conditions. Certain varieties of Earthly “extremophiles”—microbes that live at extremes of temperature, pressure, salinity and so on—exhibit similar behavior. Farmer says there is as yet no general consensus about the best way to go about life detection on the Red Planet. This is due in no small part to the runaway pace of progress in biotechnology, which has led to innovations such as chemistry labs shrunken down to fit on a computer chip. These technologies “have been revolutionizing the medical field, and have now started to enter into concepts for life detection on Mars,” he explains. Things move so fast that today’s best technology for finding Martian biology may be tomorrow’s laughably obsolete dead-end. But no matter how sophisticated a lab on a chip might be, it won’t deliver results if it is not sent to the right place. Farmer suspects that seriously seeking traces of life requires deep drilling on Mars. “I basically think we’re going to have to gain access to the subsurface and look for the fossil record,” he explains. But discovering a clear, unambiguous fossil biosignature on Mars would also raise a red flag. “We probably would approach the future of Mars exploration—particularly accessing habitable zones of liquid water in the deep subsurface—more cautiously, because life could still be there. So planetary protection would be taken very seriously,” he says. (“Planetary protection” is the term scientists commonly use for precautions to minimize the chance of biological contamination between worlds. Think of it not so much in terms of bug-eyed aliens running rampant on Earth but of billion-dollar robots finding “Martians” that prove to only be hardy bacterial hitchhikers imported from our own world). Like-minded about deep diving on Mars is Penelope Boston, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the agency’s Ames Research Center. “That’s my bias,” she says. “Given Mars’ current state, with all the challenging surface manifestations of dryness, radiation and little atmosphere, the best hope for life still extant on Mars is subsurface.” The subsurface, she says, might also offer better chances of preserving past life—that is, of fossils, even if only of single-celled organisms. The planet’s depths hold the potential for harboring liquid water under certain circumstances, Boston thinks. But how far down might that water be? “I suspect it’s pretty far…and how we get to it, that’s a whole other kettle of fish,” she says. Over the years scientists have estimated the average depth of the planet’s possible liquid reservoirs as anywhere between tens of meters to kilometers. Then again, recent observations from orbiters have revealed mysterious dark streaks that seasonally flow down the sunlit sides of some Martian hillsides and craters. These “recurring slope lineae” could conceivably be brines of liquid water fed by aquifers very close to the surface, some researchers say. Such lingering uncertainties emerge from the indirect and scattered nature of our studies of Mars, and ensure that any argument for life there is based solely on circumstantial information, Boston notes. “Each individual piece of evidence is, on its own merits, weak,” she says. Only by amassing a diverse suite of independent measurements can a well-built case for life on Mars be made, she says: “In my opinion, we can’t make that strong case unless we push to do all of those measurements on exactly the same precise spot. We don’t do that because it’s very difficult, but it’s something to aspire to.” Despite decades of sending costly hardware to Mars, Boston believes that what is still missing is a sense of harmony between instruments, allowing them to work together to support a search for alien life. “I think that the precise requirements of a really robust claim of life at the microscopic scale require us to push on further,” she notes. Attendees at the astrobiology meeting in Arizona showcased an assortment of high-tech devices for next-generation exploration, ranging from microfluidic “life analyzers” and integrated nucleic acid extractors for studying “Martian metagenomics” to exquisitely sensitive, miniaturized organic chemistry labs for spotting tantalizing carbon compounds and minerals at microscopic scales. Missing from the mix, however, was any solid consensus on how these and other tools could all work together to provide a slam-dunk detection of life on Mars. Some scientists contend a new kind of focus is sorely needed. Perhaps the pathway to finding any Martians lurking in the planet’s nooks and crannies is to learn where exactly on Mars those potentially life-nurturing niches exist, and how they change over the course of days, months and years rather than over eons of geologic time. That is, to find homes for extant life on Mars today, researchers should probably not just be studying the planet’s long-term climate but also its day-to-day weather. “Right now we’re sort of shifting gears. Once you’ve found out that a planet is habitable, then the next question is, ‘Was there life?’—so it’s a completely different ball game,” says Nathalie Cabrol, director of the Carl Sagan Center at the SETI Institute. “On Mars you cannot look for life with the tools that have been looking for habitability of that planet,” she argues. “We should be looking for habitats and not habitable environments. You are dealing on Mars with what I call extremophile extreme environments on steroids,” she says, “and you don’t look for microbial life with telescopes from Mars orbit.” Cabrol advocates making an unprecedentedly robust, high-resolution study of environmental variability on Mars by peppering its surface with weather stations. Sooner or later telltale signs of the possible whereabouts of extant life may emerge from the resulting torrents of data. “Today’s environment on that planet is a reflection of something in the past,” she says, and planting numbers of automated stations on Mars does not need to be expensive. “This is of interest not only to astrobiology but to human exploration. The first thing you want to know is what the weather is like,” she says, adding, “Right now we’re not equipped to do this and I’m not saying it’s going to be easy to look for extant life. I’m not saying what we’re doing now is wrong. Whatever we put on the ground we are learning. But there is variability on Mars. You go up or down one meter, things change. Habitats at a microscopic level can happen at the scale of a slope. It can happen at the scale of a rock!” “I think Mars offers us the highest chance of finding life” somewhere beyond Earth, says Dirk Schulze-Makuch, a planetary scientist at Technical University of Berlin in Germany. But, like Boston and others, he maintains confirmation of life will only come from multiple “layers of proof” that have to be consistent with one another. “We really need at least four different kinds of methods,” he says. “My point is that there’s no slam-dunk. We need several instruments. You have to build a case, and right now we can do better…unless the biosignature through a microscope is waving hello.” The trouble, he adds, is that too-stringent planetary protection rules may preclude getting the evidence necessary for that proof. “We have the technology to go to places where there could be life,” he says. “But we can’t go to certain areas on Mars, like recurring slope lineae or…under patches of ice. It seems to be ridiculous.” Indeed, Schulze-Makuch speculates planetary protection may be a lost cause for Mars—or at least a misguided endeavor. It may even be that any Martian microbes are actually Earth’s long-lost cousins. Or, conversely, Mars rather than Earth is really the sole site of biogenesis in our solar system. Both scenarios are possible, considering that single-celled organisms can likely survive world-shattering impacts and the subsequent interplanetary voyages if embedded in ejected shards of rock that could fall elsewhere as meteorites. Innumerable impacts of this scale battered the solar system billions of years ago, potentially blasting biological material between neighboring worlds. On balance, Schulze-Makuch says, “the chances are higher that we are Martians.”