Taking aim with ExoLance: a new way to search for life on Mars

“Got Life?” - the ExoLance logo. Image Credit: Explore Mars

“Got Life?” – the ExoLance logo. Image Credit: Explore Mars

Is or was there life on Mars? That is one of the biggest and most hotly debated questions in planetary science. The manner in which the evidence has been searched for is also a topic of much discussion. The Viking landers in the 1970s were the first to look for direct evidence for microbial life still existing in the Martian soil, and the results are still regarded as inconclusive, with both pro and con supporters debating whether the landers actually found living microbes or just unusual soil chemistry. Subsequent lander and rover missions have focused more on determining whether conditions in Mars’ ancient past were habitable and able to support life as we know it, rather than searching directly for evidence of past or present life itself.

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Space dust indicates ancient origin for Saturn’s rings

Mosaic image showing Saturn backlit by the Sun, one of the most beautiful photographs sent back by Cassini. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Mosaic image showing Saturn backlit by the Sun, one of the most beautiful photographs sent back by Cassini. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The origin of Saturn’s rings has been one of the most interesting puzzles in planetary science, and now new data from the Cassini spacecraft is helping to fill in the pieces, showing that the majestic ring system is very ancient, probably as old as Saturn itself.

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Image Gallery: ‘bones’ in Hidden Valley

"Bone" seen by Curiosity on sol 719. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Bone” seen by Curiosity on sol 719. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This photo taken a few days ago by the Curiosity rover has been getting a lot of attention. The object near the centre of the image looks a lot like a femur-type bone! This image was taken on sol 719 of the mission, at the entrance to Hidden Valley where Curiosity is ready to start drilling again at a site just a few feet away called Bonanza King.

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Bacteria discovered in lake of oil: implications for extraterrestrial life?

Pitch Lake in Trinidad, where life has been found inside water droplets within the oil deposits. Credit: Martina Jackson/Wikimedia Commons

Pitch Lake in Trinidad, where life has been found inside water droplets within the oil deposits. Credit: Martina Jackson/Wikimedia Commons

A recent discovery by scientists may have implications for possible extraterrestrial life: Bacteria have been found thriving in a lake of oil in Trinidad, again showing how life can exist in even the most inhospitable conditions on Earth. The discovery brings to mind the similar environment on Saturn’s moon Titan, where lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons (methane/ethane) exist at the moon’s poles.

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Image Gallery: Rosetta arrives at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko

Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

After a ten year journey, the Rosetta spacecraft finally arrived earlier today at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The close-up images sent back so far are amazing. Rosetta is now in orbit around the comet, the first spacecraft to ever do so. There will be many more images to come, and in November, the lander module, Philae, will attempt to land on the surface. Stay tuned!

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Curiosity rover celebrates second anniversary on Mars as it approaches mountain goal

A “self-portrait” of the Curiosity rover in Yellowknife Bay, with part of Mount Sharp in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A “self-portrait” of the Curiosity rover in Yellowknife Bay, with part of Mount Sharp in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Curiosity rover has been actively exploring Mars for two years now, and as it celebrated its second anniversary today, Aug. 5, it is also, after a lengthy journey, approaching its primary mission goal: the massive Mount Sharp in the middle of Gale crater.

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Behold Enceladus: Cassini maps 101 geysers on tiny Saturn moon

The geysers at the south pole of Enceladus, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

The geysers at the south pole of Enceladus, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Saturn’s moon Enceladus is already known as one of the most intriguing places in our solar system, and now new findings from the Cassini spacecraft have been published, which will only add to our fascination with this little world.

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Image Gallery: comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko

Series of images taken by Rosetta showing the double cometary nucleus tumbling around. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Series of images taken by Rosetta showing the double cometary nucleus tumbling around. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Some new images are coming in of comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko from the Rosetta spacecraft. Unexpectedly, it seems to be a contact binary, two objects in close contact instead of just one larger cometary nucleus (there’s no tail right now). It’s a weird shape, called a “boot” or “rubber duckie” by some. Rosetta is getting closer to the comet now, and scheduled to arrive on August 6, 2014. A probe will then attempt to land on the comet in November. Should be interesting!

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Blog update: Safari notifications to Mac desktop

I’ve added a new feature to the blog, so that if you are using the Safari browser (Mavericks version), you can get new blog posts automatically pushed to your Mac desktop as notifications. Another alternative to email or rss. If you use that browser, go to the blog (refresh if necessary) and you should get a pop-up asking if you would like to get notifications. You will then get notifications of new posts automatically pushed from Safari to your Mac desktop.

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NASA seeks science instrument proposals for future mission to Europa

The Europa Clipper is a leading contender for a return mission to Jupiter’s ocean moon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Europa Clipper is a leading contender for a return mission to Jupiter’s ocean moon. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For many space enthusiasts, a new mission to Jupiter’s ocean moon Europa is high up on their wishlists. Yesterday, NASA announced that they are seeking proposals for science instruments for just such a mission, bringing it one step closer to reality.

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