Axios Space

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September 20, 2022

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1 big thing: Why finding life on Mars is hard

Illustration of multiple microscope lenses examining a microscope slide.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

If NASA finds signs of extinct life on Mars, it may be difficult to confirm it is actually what scientists have been seeking for decades.

Why it matters: Finding life on another planet would change our view of what it means to exist in the universe, but an extraordinary, life-altering discovery also requires extraordinary evidence.

  • "The burden of proof for establishing life on another planet is very, very high," NASA's Ken Farley, Perseverance project scientist, said during a news conference last week.

Driving the news: NASA scientists announced last week that the Perseverance rover on Mars had cached intriguing samples that may be able to tell researchers whether the Red Planet was once inhabited.

  • The rocks were gathered in the Jezero Crater, which is thought to be the site of a river delta billions of years ago. They contain organic compounds — molecules that have carbon and hydrogen but can also contain oxygen and other elements — that can be created by living organisms or other natural processes like the interactions of water with rocks over time.
  • One of those samples, taken from a rock named Wildcat Ridge, probably formed "as mud and fine sand settled in an evaporating saltwater lake," NASA said in a statement. Perseverance analyzed the rock with its SHERLOC instrument, revealing it contains a higher amount of organic compounds than any other sample gathered so far.
  • "We are looking at rocks that were deposited in a habitable environment, with good preservation potential at a time on Earth when life already existed," Farley said in an interview with Axios.

Still, scientists will have to wait until that sample and others are back on Earth to find out whether those compounds mean life once thrived on Mars.

How it works: Once back on Earth, scientists will use high-powered laboratory tools to analyze the samples.

  • Those tools are far more powerful than any instruments researchers are currently able to send to Mars aboard a relatively small rover, increasing the odds of figuring out if any given organic compound is from life.
  • If one lab were to come across what they think could be a biosignature inside one of these samples, they would likely need to call in another lab to examine the context of the finding, including what kind of rock it was found within, Farley said.

The intrigue: In order to determine whether these samples contain evidence of life, scientists will need to assess any degradation of the sample from Mars' extreme environment and confirm their findings with multiple tools.

  • This is effectively a new kind of science, so actually defining what qualifies as a true signature of life is going to be a challenge in and of itself.
  • Organic compounds also degrade over time with exposure to space radiation, which constantly bombards Mars. Scientists have to contend with the natural radioactive decay of elements like uranium and potassium also found on Mars.
  • "Inevitably, the organic molecules will have seen a lot of ionizing radiation, and this means we are not looking for proteins. We're not looking for DNA," Farley said. That will make it more challenging to actually confirm that the organics that scientists are studying were created by life.

What to watch: NASA is expected to launch its Mars sample return orbiter in 2027, with the lander for the mission launching the next year.

  • Once there, NASA is planning to load up the cached Perseverance samples onto the lander. If all goes to plan, the samples should be back on Earth by 2033.

2. Defining a "legitimate target" in space

Illustration of a satellite made of the flags of Russia and Ukraine.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A Russian official said a spacecraft operated by commercial entities could be a "legitimate target for retaliation" when used for "military purposes," during a UN working group last week.

Why it matters: SpaceX's Starlink satellites have been used by Ukraine as an essential communications tool during the fight against Russia's invasion.

  • This statement from Konstantin Vorontsov, a member of Russia's Foreign Ministry, hints at the idea that he sees Ukraine's use of Starlink as militarized and it could open up the private satellites to retaliation.
  • "At the very least, this provocative use of civilian satellites is questionable under the Outer Space Treaty, which provides for the exclusively peaceful use of outer space, and must be strongly condemned by the international community," Vorontsov said in an unofficial translation by the UN.

Catch up quick: Last week's working group focused on space threats and what member nations can do to reduce them.

  • During the meeting, Germany and Japan both announced they would not perform destructive, space-debris-creating anti-satellite tests, joining the United States, Canada and New Zealand.
  • The U.S. has plans to introduce a resolution to the UN that would call on nations to ban the testing of these types of weapons, which can leave behind clouds of debris that would make certain parts of orbit unusable.

Between the lines: Russia performed an anti-satellite test last year that left debris in orbit that threatened the International Space Station.

  • That test was widely condemned by the international community, and Vice President Kamala Harris announced the U.S. would no longer test these types of weapons in April.

The intrigue: Part of the conflict between the U.S., Russia and others in space comes down to what each nation sees as the biggest threat.

  • For the U.S., the most pressing concern has to do with behavior in space that can be risky — like creating more space junk.
  • Russia and China, on the other hand, are more focused on stopping the use of actual weapons placed in orbit, which is the focus of a treaty both nations put forth.

3. A big week for Artemis I

The Artemis I rocket
The Space Launch System rocket. Photo: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

It's a major week for NASA's Artemis I mission to circle the Moon.

Why it matters: NASA has been working to get its uncrewed Space Launch System rocket off the launch pad and on its way for the better part of a month, but a number of technical setbacks have kept the SLS on Earth.

What's happening: Tomorrow, NASA plans to stage a test of the SLS to see if fixes for a hydrogen leak that prevented its launch are working.

  • If NASA is happy with the test, the earliest the agency could launch will be Sept. 27.
  • Making that launch date, however, requires special permission from the launch range to keep the SLS out on the pad without rolling it back to its hangar for additional testing.

The big picture: Artemis I is only the first step along NASA's journey to land people back on the surface of the Moon in 2025.

  • This mission is designed to prove out the SLS' systems ahead of putting people on board as well as test how the rocket and Orion capsule fly together.
  • After this flight, NASA is expected to launch its crewed Artemis II flight around the Moon in 2024.

4. Out of this world reading list

Saturn shining in yellow lit as a crescent
Saturn seen in 2010. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

🔭 Blinding light of Mars spotted by Webb telescope (Ashley Strickland, CNN)

🏨 Hilton to design astronaut suites, facilities for Voyager’s private space station (Michael Sheetz, CNBC)

☄️ NASA's DART asteroid-impact mission will be a key test of planetary defense (Keith Cooper, Space.com)

🪐 Saturn's rings may be the remnant of a destroyed moon (Axios)

5. Weekly dose of awe: The future is here

A Falcon 9 rocket in the late twilight.
Photo: SpaceX

It might look like a still from a sci-fi film, but really, it's a photo of a SpaceX launch.

  • SpaceX got a much-delayed Starlink mission off the ground on Sunday, sending a clutch of 54 satellites to orbit.
  • The mission launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with the first-stage booster landing on a drone ship in the ocean after sending the satellites on their way.

Big thanks to Alison Snyder for editing and Sheryl Miller for copy editing this week's edition and to Aïda Amer and Shoshana Gordon for the great illustrations. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe. 🔬