Dormant desert life hints at possibilities on Mars

Updated 27 February 2018
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Dormant desert life hints at possibilities on Mars

MIAMI: It may rain once a decade or less in South America’s Atacama Desert, but tiny bacteria and microorganisms survive there, hinting at the possibility of similar life on Mars, researchers said Monday.
The desert, which spans parts of Chile and Peru, is the driest non-polar desert on Earth and may contain the environment most like that of the Red Planet, said the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Lead researcher Dirk Schulze-Makuch, a professor and planetary scientist at the Technical University of Berlin, and colleagues took a trip to the desert in 2015 to learn more about what kind of life might exist there. Then, unexpectedly, it rained.
Scientists detected an explosion of biological activity in the soil, and quickly began using sterile spoons to scoop up samples.
Genomic analyzes helped identify the several apparently indigenous species of microbial life — mostly bacteria — that had somehow adapted to live in the harsh environment by lying dormant for years, then re-animating and reproducing once it rained.
“In the past, researchers have found dying organisms near the surface and remnants of DNA, but this is really the first time that anyone has been able to identify a persistent form of life living in the soil of the Atacama Desert,” Schulze-Makuch said.
“We believe these microbial communities can lay dormant for hundreds or even thousands of years in conditions very similar to what you would find on a planet like Mars and then come back to life when it rains.”
Scientists returned to the Atacama in 2016 and 2017 for follow-up visits and discovered that the same microbial communities in the soil were gradually reverting to their dormant state.
But they did not completely die off. Single-celled organisms, found mainly in the deeper layers of the desert, “have formed active communities for millions of years and have evolved to cope with the harsh conditions,” said the PNAS report.
Since Mars had oceans and lakes billions of years ago, researchers say early life forms may have thrived there, too.
The world’s space agencies are sending robotic vehicles to Mars in a bid to uncover signs of life, but any attempt to return samples to Earth will be costly and complicated.
Schulze-Makuch said the research may help scientists home in on ways to study Martian microbes, which might have evolved to the planet’s colder, drier climate over time, much like the Atacama microbes.
“We know there is water frozen in the Martian soil and recent research strongly suggests nightly snowfalls and other increased moisture events near the surface,” he said.
“If life ever evolved on Mars, our research suggests it could have found a subsurface niche beneath today’s severely hyper-arid surface.”


SpaceX’s first private passenger is Japanese fashion magnate Maezawa

This artist's illustration courtesy of SpaceX obtained September 17, 2018, shows the SpaceX BFR(Big Falcon Rocket)rocket passenger spacecraft. SpaceX is to reveal on September 17, 2018 the identity of the first person it plans to transport around the Moon in an ambitious project financed entirely by its eccentric CEO Elon Musk. (AFP)
Updated 18 September 2018
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SpaceX’s first private passenger is Japanese fashion magnate Maezawa

  • SpaceX in February transfixed a global audience with the successful test launch of its Falcon Heavy, the most powerful operational rocket in the world
  • SpaceX has already upended the space industry with its relatively low-cost reusable Falcon 9 rockets

HAWTHORNE, California: SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space transportation company, on Monday named its first private passenger as Japanese businessman Yusaku Maezawa, the founder and chief executive of online fashion retailer Zozo.
A former drummer in a punk band, billionaire Maezawa will will take a trip around the moon aboard its forthcoming Big Falcon Rocket spaceship, taking the race to commercialize space travel to new heights.
The first passenger to travel to the moon since the United States’ Apollo missions ended in 1972, Maezawa’s identity was revealed at an event Monday evening at the company’s headquarters and rocket factory in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne.
In moves typical of his publicity-seeking style, Musk, who is also the billionaire chief executive of electric car maker Tesla Inc, had previously teased a few tantalizing details about the trip and the passenger’s identity, but left major questions unanswered.
On Thursday, Musk tweeted a picture of a Japanese flag. He followed that up on Sunday with tweets showing new artist renderings of the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, the super heavy-lift launch vehicle that Musk promises will shuttle the passenger to the moon and eventually fly humans and cargo to Mars, using the hashtag #OccupyMars.
While the BFR has not been built yet, Musk has said he wants the rocket to be ready for an unpiloted trip to Mars in 2022, with a crewed flight in 2024, though his ambitious production targets have been known to slip.
SpaceX plans a lunar orbit mission. It was not clear how much Maezawa paid for the trip.
Maezawa made his fortune by founding the wildly popular shopping site Zozotown. His company Zozo, officially called Start Today Co. Ltd, also offers a made-to-measure service using a polka dot bodysuit, the Zozosuit..
With SpaceX, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic battling it out to launch private-sector spacecraft, the SpaceX passenger will join a growing list of celebrities and the ultra-rich who have secured seats on flights offered on the under-development vessels.
Those who have signed up to fly on Virgin Galactic sub-orbital missions include actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop star Justin Bieber. A 90-minute flight costs $250,000.
Short sightseeing trips to space aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket are likely to cost around $200,000 to $300,000, at least to start, Reuters reported in July.
SpaceX has already upended the space industry with its relatively low-cost reusable Falcon 9 rockets. The company has completed more than 50 successful Falcon launches and snagged billions of dollars’ worth of contracts, including deals with NASA and the US Department of Defense.
SpaceX in February transfixed a global audience with the successful test launch of its Falcon Heavy, the most powerful operational rocket in the world.
SpaceX previously announced plans to eventually use Falcon Heavy to launch paying space tourists on a trip around the moon, but Musk said in February he was inclined to reserve that mission for the BFR.