NASA’s next rendezvous with the Red Planet got the go-ahead this week. The space agency approved development of MAVEN, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission, which is scheduled to launch in November 2013.
In the last decade, missions like the Phoenix Lander, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, and the Mars Express have reinforced the case that our neighbor was once watery, and far more hospitable to life than the planet we see today. The ancient evidence of liquid water suggests that the planet once had a dense atmosphere, which is now long gone. MAVEN’s mission is to investigate the interaction between Mars’s now-thin atmosphere and the solar wind, and to look for clues to how and when the sun stripped away the planet’s thick atmosphere.
Many researchers think that Mars’s loss of its magnetic field billions of years ago started the process.
“Mars can’t protect itself from the solar wind because it no longer has a shield, the planet’s global magnetic field is dead,” said [lead investigator Bruce] Jakosky, describing how the magnetic field disappeared and the atmosphere then exposed to the punishing solar wind. [AFP]
For more details about MAVEN, check out our coverage from 2008, when NASA first announced the mission. The team’s critical design review will come next July, which could be the true make-or-break time for the mission.
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Auroras on Saturn form like those on Earth, when charged particles in the solar wind stream down the planet’s magnetic field towards its poles, where they excite gas in the upper atmosphere to glow. Some auroras on the ringed planet are also triggered when some of its moons, which are electrically conducting, move through the charged gas surrounding Saturn. [New Scientist]
Had compass-toting Boy Scouts existed around fifteen million years ago, they may have had a fun time making it through the forest. New geological research questions if the Earth’s magnetic field changed, at that time, at the remarkable pace of one degree per week, leading to a particularly fast magnetic pole flip.
In a paper to appear in Geophysical Research Letters, Scott Bogue and Jonathan Glen suggest that the Earth’s magnetic field changed 53 degrees in one year’s time, based on their study of preserved lava flows in Nevada. As the solid rock formed from cooling liquid lava, it preserved a pattern corresponding to the “super-fast” geomagnetic field reversal, the researchers believe. This is the second time that Bogue has controversially argued for the existence of such speedy flips, finding hints of a faster one in 1995.
In 1995 an ancient lava flow with an unusual magnetic pattern was discovered in Oregon. It suggested that the field at the time was moving by 6 degrees a day–at least 10,000 times faster than usual. “Not many people believed it,” says Scott Bogue of Occidental College in Los Angeles. [New Scientist]
They went to investigate solar wind-stirred storms in our planet’s magnetic field, but, after working for three years, two NASA solar-powered probes faced a dark demise, trapped in the Earth’s shadow. NASA researchers now think they can give the twin satellites another shot by altering their courses and sending them instead to study the moon.
NASA launched the probes in 2007 as a set of five identical satellites in the THEMIS Mission (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms), meant to orbit Earth and send information during brief (2-3 hour) “substorms” when the magnetic field surrounding the Earth releases stored energy from solar winds. To understand the start of these “space tornadoes” responsible for the northern and southern lights, NASA placed the probes in very precise orbits, but for two craft that meant, one day, they would face prolonged battery-draining time in the Earth’s shadow.
“When we realized that the satellites would be going into very deep shadows, we started thinking of different methods for saving them–even before they were launched,” lead scientist Vassilis Angelopoulos, at the University of California, Berkeley, told Discovery News. “We realized that if we had enough fuel to change their orbits, the moon’s gravity would start pulling them up.”[Discovery News]
Here we are drinking coffee and tweeting and otherwise going about our lives, generally not giving much thought to the protection that the Earth’s magnetic field affords us from the solar wind. But that magnetic field is crucial for our existence. Now, new findings in Science say that this protective shield originated even 200 million years earlier than scientists had previously thought, perhaps protecting the planet’s water from evaporating away and aiding the rise of life on the early Earth.
To know about the planet’s magnetic field three and a half billion years ago, you need iron, which records not only the direction but also the strength of the magnetic field when it forms. In South Africa, study leader John Tarduno and his team found quartz with iron tucked inside that had remained unchanged in all those years. Using a specially designed magnetometer and improved lab techniques, the team detected a magnetic signal in 3.45-billion-year-old rocks that was between 50 and 70 percent the strength of the present-day field, Tarduno says [Science News]. Three years ago he made a similar find in rocks 3.2 billion years old; thus, this find pushes back the Earth’s magnetic field at least another 200 million years.
Some migratory birds that have to navigate across continents have an extremely useful tool at their disposal–an internal compass that points unerringly towards magnetic north. Researchers already knew that some birds possess these biological compasses, but their mechanism has been unclear. “This is basically the sixth sense of biology, but no one knows how it works…. The magnetic sense is by far the least understood sense in the natural world,” [Science News], says study coauthor Henrik Mouritsen.
Now, researchers have determined that light-sensing cells in the eye convey the crucial message to a special visual center of a robin’s brain, called cluster N. Special proteins called cryptochromes in the birds’ eyes may mediate this light-dependent magnetic sensing, Mouritsen says. Light hitting the proteins produces a pair of free radicals, highly reactive molecules with unpaired electrons. These electrons have a property called spin which may be sensitive to Earth’s magnetic field. Signals from the free radicals may then move to nerve cells in cluster N, ultimately telling the birds where north is [Science News].
To zero in on air pollution, just follow the magnetic tree leaves.
That’s the conclusion of an odd new study, which determined that the microscopic metallic particles spewed out of tailpipes and smokestacks actually magnetize the nearby leaves they settle on and adhere to. The study found that the leaves from trees along heavily traveled bus routes were up to 10 times more magnetic than leaves from little traveled roads. The pollution can be detected easily and on the cheap with magnets, according to the study’s authors. Even “a strong magnet wouldn’t [attract] the leaf, but it definitely gives you a detectable signal” [National Geographic News], says researcher Bernie Housen.
The authors admit that finding more pollution along bus routes isn’t exactly shocking, but their efforts may help local communities pinpoint and clean up places that have an abundance of air pollution, especially at places where people spend time outdoors, like on bike trails and walking paths. The research team says that using magnets would be an advance in pollution detection because conventional tests for measuring the amounts of these tiny particles are often expensive and time-consuming [National Geographic News]. The study was presented at the Geological Society of America conference in Portland, Oregon.
80beats: Scientists Create “Magnetricity”—Magnetic Charge That Flows Like Electricity
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Image: flickr / d_vdm
Mix one part science fiction, one part misunderstood Mayan history, one part Hollywood movie hype, and quite a bit of public credulity, and what do you get? A new wave of doomsday hysteria that is causing scientists to step forward to reassure the public that the world is not, actually, going to end on December 21, 2012.
The rumors flying around the Internet offer a number of ways in which the world may end, including a planetary collision and changes to the Earth’s rotation or magnetic field, but they all agree on that date of doom. You can bet that the viral marketing campaign promoting the upcoming planetary disaster movie 2012 has a little something to do with the recent uptick in paranoia.
“Two years ago, I got a question a week about it,” said NASA scientist David Morrison, who hosts a website called Ask an Astrobiologist. “Now I’m getting a dozen a day. Two teenagers said they didn’t want to see the end of the world so they were thinking of ending their lives” [Los Angeles Times]. In response, Morrison put together a list [pdf] of 10 frequently asked questions about the potential for apocalypse, and refuted them one by one. The clamor has grown so loud that Morrison coined a new word to describe the phenomenon: “cosmophobia,” a fear of the cosmos.
Magnets may have seemed simple when you learned about them in elementary school, but physicists are coaxing some very odd behaviors out of magnetic materials these days. In the latest new development, scientists created the magnetic equivalent of electricity and named the phenomenon “magnetricity.” In the same way that electrically charged particles flow to create an electric current, individual north and south magnetic poles have been observed flowing along to generate a magnetic current.
The basis of the experiment was a refutation of a rule of magnetism observed in our day-to-day lives: No matter how many times you divide a magnet, the resulting fragments will always have both north and south poles. But more than 70 years ago, physicist Paul Dirac theorized that elementary particles should exist that have only a north or south pole, and dubbed these theoretical particles magnetic monopoles. Last month, researchers got closer to spotting a monopole than ever before, when they created ripples that had the same magnetic properties as monopoles.
The new study, published in Nature, describes the phenomenon in a strange, crystalline material known as spin ice. These crystals are made up of pyramids of charged atoms, or ions, arranged in such a way that when cooled to exceptionally low temperatures, the materials show tiny, discrete packets of magnetic charge. Now one of those teams has gone on to show that these “quasi-particles” of magnetic charge can move together, forming a magnetic current just like the electric current formed by moving electrons [BBC News].