Nov 19, 2019

Axios Space

By Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer

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1 big thing: Where to hunt for life on Mars

Mars as seen by the Curiosity rover. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

After decades of sending missions to Mars, NASA is now zeroing in on regions of the red planet that they think have the best chance of determining whether the world has hosted — or hosts — life.

The big picture: Scientists are now able to point to parts of Mars that were once likely wet and warm, with geological signatures similar to the rivers, deltas and lakes on Earth — upping the odds that those parts of Mars could have once been friendly to life.

"Habitable and inhabited are two very different questions. You can build a house and you can furnish it nicely and put food in the fridge, but that doesn't mean someone lives there."
— NASA's Melissa Trainer to Axios

Driving the news: A new study finds NASA's Mars 2020 rover will land in an area that could be the perfect place to hunt for the fossilized evidence of past life.

  • The landing site — known as the Jezero Crater — once was home to a long-lived lake and river delta billions of years ago.
  • The rim of the crater could be rich with carbonates, which can help preserve signs of ancient life in fossilized form.
  • The Mars 2020 rover is expected to investigate the possible rock deposits and explore the delta that once fed the lake in the crater.

Meanwhile: Last week, NASA announced that Curiosity — which found Mars was habitable for microbial life in the past — detected a small amount of oxygen on Mars, but no one is quite sure where it's coming from.

  • The discovery adds to the mystery around the rover's possible detection of methane also reported earlier this year.

Yes, but: It's possible methane and oxygen could have been created through natural geological processes that have nothing to do with life.

  • Finding the origins of these molecules is exceedingly difficult, scientists say, without other pieces of evidence that point to living things on Mars.
  • Parsing out whether a methane molecule came from a living thing or geology could involve digging into its isotopic composition, but even then, it's not a sure-fire way to confirm the origins of the detection, scientists say.
  • The 2020 rover is planning to cache rock samples for eventual return to Earth on a future mission in order to confirm any possible discovery that points to life.
"There's always this uncertainty when we look at Mars."
— NASA scientist Lindsay Hays to Axios
2. NASA's difficult road to the Moon

Photo: NASA

A new report paints a stark picture of NASA's progress toward accomplishing its Artemis mission to the Moon in 2024.

Why it matters: The report from NASA's inspector general — and others like it — reveals some of what lurks below the positive face the space agency puts forward announcing its accomplishments and hyping its future endeavors.

  • "I think the report is part of a piece, and the piece is that we seem to be kidding ourselves about the likelihood of achieving our exploration goals," John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told Axios.

Details: One of the major issues the report points out is NASA's struggles to manage big projects like the development of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule, both of which are key to Artemis.

  • Years of delays, cost overruns and budget shortfalls have put the space agency behind in its exploration goals and calls into question the timelines set out to complete future missions, like Artemis.
  • The report also found SpaceX and Boeing are unlikely to regularly fly astronauts to the International Space Station before summer 2020, which could mean a reduction in NASA crew aboard the station.
  • These delays aren't just limited to human exploration. NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, threatening to delay other astrophysics missions coming after it.

What to watch: NASA is working to get Artemis fully funded by Congress.

  • On Oct. 31, the Senate approved a spending bill that allocates $22.75 billion for NASA, which does include some of the additional $1.6 billion NASA requested in order to accelerate Artemis to the Moon by 2024.
  • While that appears to be good news for NASA, it's now likely that Congress will need to pass a stopgap bill that will fund the government at fiscal year 2019 levels until discrepancies with the appropriations bills can be resolved.
3. The hunt for a new kind of black hole

Artist's concept of an intermediate-mass black hole. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists may need to cast a wide net, searching across a range of frequencies in order to find never-before-observed intermediate-mass black holes if they crash together in deep space, according to a study in Nature Astronomy this week.

Why it matters: Intermediate-mass black holes — those that are 100–100,000 times the mass of the Sun — represent a gap in humanity's understanding of the universe and could be key to figuring out just how our cosmos evolved over time.

What they found: LIGO can, in theory, pick up ripples in space-time from intermediate-mass black holes today, but according to the new study, it will take future detectors to get a more complete view of the mysterious objects.

  • The space-based LISA observatory — which is expected to launch in the 2030s — will be able to search for those gravitational waves at lower frequencies than LIGO.
  • That range of frequencies between the instruments will allow scientists on the ground to observe these types of black holes and others as they spiral in toward each other for extended periods of time before merging.
  • "If LISA sees it, that means it is going to appear in LIGO's [frequency] band four years later," Karan Jani, an author of the new study, told Axios.

What's next: New ground-based observatories could also help scientists parse signal from noise and find direct evidence if these types of black holes exist.

  • Scientists aren’t just looking for these types of black holes through gravitational waves, either. Astronomers have found a number of candidate intermediate-mass black holes through X-ray signatures as well.
4. A new name for a far away world

Arrokoth as seen by New Horizons. Photo: NASA/JHU-APL

The most distant world ever observed from close range has an official name: Arrokoth, meaning "sky" in the Powhatan/Algonquian language.

The big picture: NASA's New Horizons had its close flyby of the body — located 1 billion miles past Pluto — on New Year's Day 2019.

“We graciously accept this gift from the Powhatan people. Bestowing the name Arrokoth signifies the strength and endurance of the indigenous Algonquian people of the Chesapeake region.”
— Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said in a statement

Between the lines: Scientists had originally nicknamed the object "Ultima Thule," however, controversy around that name erupted when Newsweek first reported that the name was historically tied to the Nazi regime.

5. Out of this world reading list

Artist's illustration of a Blue Origin New Glenn rocket. Image: Blue Origin

New NASA study finds some long-haul danger for astronauts: Blood flow in reverse (Denise Chow, NBC News)

Boeing faced only "limited" safety review from NASA while SpaceX got a full examination (Christian Davenport, Washington Post)

If alien life exists in our solar system, it may look like this (Nadia Drake, National Geographic)

GAO sides with Blue Origin in protest of Air Force launch contract rules (Sandra Erwin, Space News)

6. Your weekly dose of awe: Milky Way panorama


The Milky Way shines in a photo taken by a space telescope designed to hunt for planets circling stars far from our own solar system.

  • The image by NASA's TESS was released on Nov. 5 and was created by piecing together 208 photos taken by the telescope during its first year gathering science from orbit.
  • "Within this scene, TESS has discovered 29 exoplanets, or worlds beyond our solar system, and more than 1,000 candidate planets astronomers are now investigating," NASA said in a statement.

How it works: TESS looks for planets by keeping an eye out for minute dips in a star's light created when a world passes in front of its star.

  • By clocking these transits, scientists can gather data about a planet’s size to bring us closer to finding another world like Earth somewhere out in the galaxy.
Miriam Kramer

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