More building blocks of life found on Mars

This NASA photo released June 7, 2018 shows a low-angle self-portrait of NASA's Curiosity Mars rover vehicle at the site from which it reached down to drill into a rock target called "Buckskin" on lower Mount Sharp. (NASA handout via AFP)
Updated 09 June 2018

More building blocks of life found on Mars

  • The unmanned Curiosity rover has also found increasing evidence for seasonal variations of methane on Mars, indicating the source of the gas is likely the planet itself.
  • The rover drilled samples from the base of Mount Sharp, inside a basin called Gale Crater that is believed to have held an ancient Martian lake.

TAMPA, US: A NASA robot has detected more building blocks for life on Mars — the most complex organic matter yet — from 3.5 billion-year-old rocks on the surface of the Red Planet, scientists said Thursday.
The unmanned Curiosity rover has also found increasing evidence for seasonal variations of methane on Mars, indicating the source of the gas is likely the planet itself, or possibly its subsurface water.
While not direct evidence of life, the compounds drilled from Mars’ Gale Crater are the most diverse array ever taken from the surface of the planet since the robotic vehicle landed in 2012, experts say.
“This is a significant breakthrough because it means there are organic materials preserved in some of the harshest environments on Mars,” said lead author of one of two studies in Science, Jennifer Eigenbrode, an astrobiologist at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center.
“And maybe we can find something better preserved than that, that has signatures of life in it,” she told AFP.
NASA’s Curiosity rover has previously found organic matter on Mars. A smaller discovery was announced in 2014.
“This is the first really trusted detection,” co-author Sanjeev Gupta, a professor of Earth science at Imperial College London, told AFP.
“What this new study is showing in some detail is the discovery of complex and diverse organic compounds in the sediments. That doesn’t mean life, but organic compounds are the building blocks of life,” he added.
“This is the first time we have detected such a diverse array of these sorts of things.”
The compounds might have come from a meteorite, or from geological formations akin to coal and black shale on Earth, or some form of life, Eigenbrode said.
Their precise source is still a mystery.
“We have detected the bits and pieces of something bigger,” said Eigenbrode.
The samples were drilled from the base of Mount Sharp, inside a basin called Gale Crater that is believed to have held an ancient Martian lake.
“That is a good place for life to have lived if it ever existed on Mars,” she said.

The mudstone rock was drilled from the top five centimeters (two inches) of the Martian surface and heated in a miniature analysis lab located on board the rover.
A French-built instrument revealed “several organic molecules and volatiles reminiscent of organic-rich sedimentary rock found on Earth, including: thiophene, 2- and 3-methylthiophenes, methanethiol, and dimethylsulfide,” said the Science report.
The other paper in Science reported on new details in the search for the source of methane on Mars, which has wide spikes and dips according to the seasons.
Methane, the simplest organic molecule, ranges “between 0.24 to 0.65 parts per billion, peaking near the end of summer in the Northern hemisphere,” said the report, based on three years of data.
The source is still unclear, but it may be stored in the cold Martian subsurface in water-based crystals called clathrates, researchers said.
“Both these findings are breakthroughs in astrobiology,” wrote Inge Loes ten Kate, of the University of Tübingen in Germany, in an accompanying commentary in Science.
“The detection of organic molecules and methane on Mars has far-ranging implications in light of potential past life on Mars,” she said.
“Curiosity has shown that Gale crater was habitable around 3.5 billion years ago, with conditions comparable to those on the early Earth, where life evolved around that time.
“The question of whether life might have originated or existed on Mars is a lot more opportune now that we know that organic molecules were present on its surface at that time.”
According to Ariel Anbar, a professor at Arizona State University who directed the college’s NASA-funded astrobiology program from 2009 to 2015, the work “definitely moves the ball down the court in important ways.”
It “defines how questions will be asked and pursued in the next stage of Mars exploration,” Anbar, who was not involved in the study, told AFP by email.
Scientists hope to further the search for signs of life on Mars with the European and Russian rover, ExoMars, scheduled to land in 2021.
It will drill even deeper than any prior instrument, up to two yards (meters) deep.
NASA also has another rover in the works with its Mars 2020 mission, which plans to drill cores and set them aside for a possible future pickup and return to Earth.
 


Russia to send ‘Fedor’ its first humanoid robot into space

Updated 22 August 2019

Russia to send ‘Fedor’ its first humanoid robot into space

  • Fedor was to blast off in a Soyuz rocket at 6:38 am Moscow time (0338 GMT) from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome
  • Fedor is not the first robot to go into space

MOSCOW: Russia was set to launch on Thursday an unmanned rocket carrying a life-size humanoid robot that will spend 10 days learning to assist astronauts on the International Space Station.
Named Fedor, for Final Experimental Demonstration Object Research with identification number Skybot F850, the robot is the first ever sent up by Russia.
Fedor was to blast off in a Soyuz rocket at 6:38 am Moscow time from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, dock with the space station on Saturday and stay till September 7.
The Soyuz spacecraft is normally manned on such trips, but on Thursday no humans will be traveling in order to test a new emergency rescue system.
Instead of cosmonauts, Fedor will sit in a specially adapted pilot’s seat.

The silvery anthropomorphic robot stands one meter 80 centimeters tall (5 foot 11 inches) and weighs 160 kilograms (353 lbs).
Fedor has Instagram and Twitter accounts that describe it as learning new skills such as opening a bottle of water. In the station, it will trial those manual skills in very low gravity.
“That’s connecting and disconnecting electric cables, using standard items from a screwdriver and a spanner to a fire extinguisher,” the Russian space agency’s director for prospective programs and science, Alexander Bloshenko, said in televised comments.
Fedor copies human movements, a key skill that allows it to remotely help astronauts or even people on Earth carry out tasks while they are strapped into an exoskeleton.
Such robots will eventually carry out dangerous operations such as space walks, Bloshenko told RIA Novosti state news agency.
On the website of one of the state backers of the project, the Foundation of Advanced Research Projects, Fedor is described as potentially useful on Earth for working in high radiation environments, de-mining and tricky rescue missions.
On board, the robot will perform tasks supervised by Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov, who joined the ISS last month, and will wear an exoskeleton in a series of experiments scheduled for later this month.

Robonaut 2, Kirobo
Space agency chief Dmitry Rogozin showed pictures of the robot to President Vladimir Putin this month, saying it will be “an assistant to the crew.”
“In the future we plan that this machine will also help us conquer deep space,” he added.
Fedor is not the first robot to go into space.
In 2011, NASA sent up Robonaut 2, a humanoid robot developed with General Motors and a similar aim of working in high-risk environments.
It was flown back to Earth in 2018 after experiencing technical problems.
In 2013, Japan sent up a small robot called Kirobo along with the ISS’s first Japanese space commander. Developed with Toyota, it was able to hold conversations — albeit only in Japanese.