Over the last year, scientists have discovered that the moon isn’t a bone-dry place, as we previously imagined. Water ice has been spotted not just at the lunar south pole but also the north pole, and scientists have noted that the north pole deposits contain enough water ice to sustain a human lunar base. Now, scientists studying hundreds of pounds of moon rocks brought back by Apollo astronauts have found that samples containing the mineral apatite have minute traces of water.
The new analyses of the samples, revealed last week at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas, show that the evidence of the moon’s water was right under scientists’ noses for almost 40 years–they just didn’t have sensitive enough instruments to detect it. The water levels detected in Apollo moon rocks and volcanic glasses are in the thousands of parts per million, at most—which explains why analyses of the samples in the late 1960s and early 1970s concluded that the moon was absolutely arid [National Geographic].
Water, water, everywhere! Radar results from a lunar probe have revealed that the moon’s north pole could be holding millions of tons of water in the form of thick ice, raising the possibility that human life could be sustained on Earth’s silvery satellite, NASA scientists said.
A NASA radar aboard India’s Chandrayaan-I lunar orbiter found 40 craters, ranging in size from 1 to 9 miles across, with pockets of ice. Scientists estimate at least 600 million tons of ice could be entombed in these craters [Wired].
Scientists estimate that this amount of water could easily sustain a moon base, or, if the oxygen in the ice was converted to fuel, could fire one space shuttle per day for 2,200 years. Last year, scientists found almost 26 gallons of water ice on the moon’s south pole, by crashing a rocket hull into a cold, dark crater. The crash produced a plume of material that provided evidence of water ice on the moon’s surface.
Water, water everywhere. Another pass of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, made by the Cassini spacecraft last November, shows at least 30 geysers blasting water from the moon’s south pole. That’s 20 more than were previously known at that location. In addition, the most detailed infrared map of one of the south pole’s fissures, where jets emanate, indicates that the surface temperature there might be as high as 200 kelvins (-73º Celsius), or about 20 kelvins warmer than previously estimated [Discovery News]. Cassini drew to within about 1,000 miles of Enceladus to measure this geological feature, which is a fracture–one of the moon’s so-called “tiger stripes”–about a quarter-mile deep officially called Baghdad Sulcus.
While 200 kelvins is still a frigid temperature for we humans, research team member John Spencer said it could make a big difference on Enceladus. “The huge amount of heat pouring out of the tiger stripe fractures may be enough to melt the ice underground,” Spencer said. ”Results like this make Enceladus one of the most exciting places we’ve found in the solar system” [Wired.com].
Bad Astronomy: Enceladus Is Erupting!
80beats: Cassini Probe Finds “Ingredients For Life” on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus
80beats: Antifreeze Might Allow For Oceans—And Life—On Enceladus
80beats: Does Enceladus, Saturn’s Geyser-Spouting Moon, Have Liquid Oceans?
80beats: New Evidence of Hospitable Conditions for Life on Saturn’s Moons
80beats: Geysers From Saturn’s Moon May Indicate Liquid Lakes, and a Chance for Life
80beats: Cassini Spacecraft Snaps Pictures of Saturn’s Geyser-Spouting Moon
After more than six years of exploring the Red Planet, the Mars rover Spirit will rove no more. The robotic adventurer is mired in a sand bed, and NASA has officially given up on trying to extricate it.
While it will continue to operate as a “stationary research platform” for the time being, there’s no denying that the rover’s swashbuckling days are over. No longer will Spirit spot an interesting landmark in the distance and gamely trek towards it, with the possibility of a fresh scientific discovery around every corner and under every rock. This photo gallery is a well-deserved eulogy for Spirit, in which we’ll survey its travels and achievements.
In 2003, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory launched Spirit and its twin rover, Opportunity, on a three-month mission to investigate Martian terrain and atmosphere on opposite sides of the planet. The solar-powered rovers surpassed NASA’s wildest dreams, extending their missions by nearly 25 times their anticipated lengths.
Since landing on Mars in January 2004, Spirit has snapped more than 127,000 pictures. The robot probed beneath the worn surface of Mars, analyzing the microstructure of rocks and soil with a sophisticated array of instruments: spectrometers, microscopic imagers, and other tools. Spirit has also gathered strong evidence that water once flowed on the Martian surface, which could have created a hospitable environment for microbial life.
Spirit and its twin rover (which is still traveling on) will be replaced by more advanced machines that will roll onto the Martian soil in the coming decades. But Spirit will be remembered long after its operating system flickers off for good. Like a robotic Neil Armstrong, the rover has earned its place in the space explorers’ hall of heroes.
All text by Aline Reynolds. Image: NASA/JPL/Cornell
Five years ago, the Cassini spacecraft first detected plumes of water ice emanating from Saturn’s moon Enceladus, making the moon one of the best hopes for finding life somewhere else in the solar system. Astronomers have argued over whether or not those jets come from a subsurface ocean of liquid water, but new findings by Cassini provide evidence that water could indeed be sloshing around beneath the frozen surface of this small moon.
During a 2008 pass through the plumes, the spacecraft found negatively charged water molecules. Back home this short-lived type of ion is produced where water is moving, such as in waterfalls or crashing ocean waves [Scientific American]. Researcher Andrew Coates led the study, which is coming out in the journal Icarus.
Scientists are pushing back the date that the first land-walkers stepped foot on solid ground. Thanks to the discovery of prehistoric footprints from an 8-foot-long animal, scientists now say creatures strolled the Earth 20 million years earlier than previously thought. The prints were made by tetrapods—animals with backbones and four limbs—and could rewrite the history of when, where, and why fish evolved limbs and first walked onto land, the study says [National Geographic News]. The researchers published their results in the journal Nature.
Dozens of the fossilized footprints were found in an abandoned quarry in Poland, and the researchers say that the area was probably a lagoon or an intertidal flat when the tetrapod wandered across it about 395 million years ago. Researchers say the footprints in such old rock was a big surprise: They’re about 10 million years older than body fossils of creatures such as Tiktaalik and Panderichthys, … believed to represent the transition from lobe-finned fish to creatures fully adapted to life on land [Science News].
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has taken detailed pictures of what scientists are saying is evidence that large lakes of liquid water sat on the planet’s surface relatively recently–which is to say, about 3 billion years ago.
MRO imaged several deep depressions that scientists previously attributed to the sublimation of underground ice 4 billion years ago. However, the new images show that the depressions are connected by long channels, and researchers say these channels could only be formed by running water, and not by ice turning directly into gas. The scientists’ ageing of the region, which on bodies like Mars is done by counting craters, suggests the features formed during the so-called Hesperian Epoch on the Red Planet [BBC News]. Essentially, this means that there was water on Mars a billion years more recently than previously thought. The findings were published in the journal Geology.
Last week, while the world gearing up to ring in a new year, China was quietly reeling from a new pollution scare. A pipeline operated by the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC)—the country’s number one oil producer—ruptured and spilled 40,000 gallons of diesel in the northern part of the country.
The spill occurred in the Wei River, a tributary of the Yellow River–which is the source of fresh water for millions of Chinese. Over the weekend, workers threw 17 floating dams across the Wei to block the toxic diesel and save the Yellow River. But scientists discovered diesel traces in a reservoir behind a dam in Sanmenxia, a city about 100 kilometers (62 miles) downstream from the point where the Wei meets the Yellow River, an official in the Henan provincial environmental protection bureau said on Monday [Wall Street Journal].
Groundwater levels around the country have been sinking as wells for drinking water and irrigation pull water out of aquifers faster than they can naturally recharge. Now, using gravity-measuring satellites, NASA and California researchers have documented the extent of water loss in California’s Central Valley, and the results aren’t good.
The measurements show the amount of water lost in the two main Central Valley river basins within the past six years could almost fill the nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead in Nevada [AP]. The total is about 30 cubic kilometer; one cubic km contains more than 264 billion gallons of water.
Scientists have long suspected that Mars was once a wet place, and that water helped to shape the geography we see there today. Now, thanks to a study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, we don’t have to simply imagine what a watery Mars might have looked like long ago—geographers have created this new map of the Red Planet covered in blue water.
This new research addresses the longstanding question of whether surface water carved features, or whether other processes like groundwater sapping could’ve been involved. The new map, created by a computerised analysis of satellite data, shows that some regions of Mars had valley networks almost as dense as those on Earth. ”It is now difficult to argue against runoff erosion as the major mechanism of Martian valley networks,” said Professor Wei Luo, from Northern Illinois University in the US, who led the research [The Telegraph]. Instead, he argues, there must have been rivers on Mars long ago to create such dense networks.