Tag: Jet Propulsion Lab

On The Rugged Frontier Of The Hunt For Signs Of Life On Early Earth And Ancient Mars

The vigorously debated finding from the Isua greenstone or supercrustal belt, a 1,200-square-mile area of ancient rocks in Greenland.  Proponents say the rises, from .4 to 1.6 inches tall, are  biosignatures of bacteria and sediment mounds that made up stromatolites almost 3.8 billion years ago.  Critics say additional testing has shown they are the result of non-biological forces.  (Nature and Nutman et al.)

Seldom does one rock outcrop get so many visitors in a day, especially when that outcrop is located in rugged, frigid terrain abutting the Greenland Ice Sheet and can be reached only by helicopter.

But this has been a specimen of great importance and notoriety since it appeared from beneath the snow pack some eight years ago. That’s when it was first identified by two startled geologists as something very different from what they had seen in four decades of scouring the geologically revelatory region – the gnarled Isua supercrustal belt – for fossil signs of very early life.

Since that discovery the rock outcrop has been featured in a top journal and later throughout the world as potentially containing the earliest signature of life on Earth – the outlines of half inch to almost two inch-high stromatolite structures between 3.7 and 3.8 billion years old.

The Isua greenstone, or supracrustal belt contains some of the oldest known rocks and outcrops in the world, and is about 100 miles northeast of the capital, Nuuk.

If Earth could support the life needed to form primitive but hardly uncomplicated stromatolites that close to the initial cooling of the planet, then the emergence of life might not be so excruciatingly complex after all. Maybe if the conditions are at all conducive for life on a planet (early Mars comes quickly to mind) then life will probably appear.

Extraordinary claims in science, however, require extraordinary proof, and inevitably other scientists will want to test the claims.

Within two years of that initial ancient stromatolite splash in a Nature paper (led by veteran geologist Allen Nutman of the University of Wollongong in Australia), the same journal published a study that disputed many of the key observations and conclusions of the once-hailed ancient stromatolite discovery.  The paper concluded the outcrop had no signs of early life at all.

Debates and disputes are common in geology as the samples get older,  and especially in high profile science with important implications.  In this case, the implications of what is in the rocks reach into the solar system and the cosmos. … Read more

Cassini Nearing the End, Still Working Hard


Spiral density wave on Saturn’s moon Janus. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

As the Cassini mission embarks on its final dive this Friday into Saturn, it will continue taking photos all the way down (or as far as it remains operations.)

We’ve grown accustomed to seeing remarkable images for the mission and the planet, but clearly the show is not over, and perhaps far from it.

This is what NASA wrote describing the image above:

This view  shows a wave structure in Saturn’s rings known as the Janus 2:1 spiral density wave. Resulting from the same process that creates spiral galaxies, spiral density waves in Saturn’s rings are much more tightly wound. In this case, every second wave crest is actually the same spiral arm which has encircled the entire planet multiple times.

This is the only major density wave visible in Saturn’s B ring. Most of the B ring is characterized by structures that dominate the areas where density waves might otherwise occur, but this innermost portion of the B ring is different.

For reasons researchers do not entirely understand, damping of waves by larger ring structures is very weak at this location, so this wave is seen ringing for hundreds of bright wave crests, unlike density waves in Saturn’s A ring.

The image gives the illusion that the ring plane is tilted away from the camera toward upper-left, but this is not the case. Because of the mechanics of how this kind of wave propagates, the wavelength decreases with distance from the resonance. Thus, the upper-left of the image is just as close to the camera as the lower-right, while the wavelength of the density wave is simply shorter.

This wave is remarkable because Janus, the moon that generates it, is in a strange orbital configuration. Janus and Epimetheus (see PIA12602) share practically the same orbit and trade places every four years. Every time one of those orbit swaps takes place, the ring at this location responds, spawning a new crest in the wave.

The distance between any pair of crests corresponds to four years’ worth of the wave propagating downstream from the resonance, which means the wave seen here encodes many decades’ worth of the orbital history of Janus and Epimetheus.

According to this interpretation, the part of the wave at the very upper-left of this image corresponds to the positions of Janus and Epimetheus around the time of the Voyager flybys in 1980 and 1981, which is the time at which Janus and Epimetheus were first proven to be two distinct objects (they were first observed in 1966).… Read more

Where Should We Look for Ancient Biosignatures on Mars in 2020?

Jerezo crater contains a delta with abundant sedimentary layers that are the kind most likely to preserve fossil life, and so is one of three landing sites in the running for the Mars 2020 mission. The image has been colored to better show features of the site. (NASA)

One of the great successes of the Curiosity mission to Mars is that the rover landed at what turned out to be a goldmine of a location.

The mission has once and for all determined that the planet was habitable at least during its early days, that it contains the organic building blocks of life, and that liquid water ran and formed lakes.  And this leaves out the more basic Mars science that some day will some day produce new headline results.

The process of anointing a successor destination for NASA’s 2020 rover mission to Mars has been going on for several years now, and the field was narrowed to three possibilities earlier this year.

Because some of the primary goals of the 2020 mission differ from those of the Curiosity mission, the potential landing sites are unlike Gale Crater and all share certain features that are, not surprising, promising in terms of the new goals.  What’s new is the requirement that the 2020 mission will search for biosignatures of life in the ancient rocks and to identify, pick up and store rocks samples for later return to Earth.

Given those (and other) science goals, the leaders of the Mars 2020 mission — and the large community of scientists eager to become a formal or informal part of the mission — have been looking for sites where water was clearly present in the distant past and where conditions seem best for actually preserving fossil microbial biosignatures that may have been present.

This is quite a dramatic change, and will be the first NASA mission sent to look for life — albeit fossilized and ancient life — since the Viking missions of four decades ago.

“What we’re down to now is three sites featuring different kinds of ancient water settings,” said Kenneth Williford of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.  He’s deputy project scientist for the 2020 mission and a specialist in identifying fossil remnants of lifeforms in ancient Earth rocks.

“On the list we have a site that was clearly a river delta, one that had a large concentration of subsurface water, and another that may be the site of a possible hot spring. … Read more

What Scientists Expect to Learn From Cassini’s Upcoming Plunge Into Saturn

Saturn as imaged from above by Cassini last year. Over the next five months, the spacecraft will orbit closer and closer to the planet and will finally plunge into its atmosphere. (NASA)

Seldom has the planned end of a NASA mission brought so much expectation and scientific high drama.

The Cassini mission to Saturn has already been a huge success, sending back iconic images and breakthrough science of the planet and its system.  Included in the haul have been the discovery of plumes of water vapor spurting from the moon Encedalus and the detection of liquid methane seas on Titan.  But as members of the Cassini science team tell it, the end of the 13-year mission at Saturn may well be its most scientifically productive time.

Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) put it this way: “Cassini will make some of its most extraordinary observations at the end of its long life.”

This news was first announced last week, but I thought it would be useful to go back to the story to learn more about what “extraordinary” science might be coming our way, with the help of Spilker and NASA headquarters Cassini program scientist Curt Niebur.

And the very up close encounters with Saturn’s rings and its upper atmosphere — where Cassini is expected to ultimately lose contact with Earth — certainly do offer a trove of scientific riches about the basic composition and workings of the planet, as well as the long-debated age and origin of the rings.  What’s more, everything we learn about Saturn will have implications for, and offer insights into, the vast menagerie of  gas giant exoplanets out there.

“The science potential here is just huge,” Niebur told me.  “I could easily conceive of a billion dollar mission for the science we’ll get from the grand finale alone.”


The Cassini spacecraft will make 22 increasingly tight orbits of Saturn before it disappears into the planet’s atmosphere in mid-September, as shown in this artist rendering.  (NASA/JPL-Caltech)


The 20-year, $3.26 billion Cassini mission, a collaboration of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency,  is coming to an end because the spacecraft will soon run out of fuel.  The agency could have just waited for that moment and let the spacecraft drift off into space, but decided instead on the taking the big plunge.

This was considered a better choice not only because of those expected scientific returns, but also because letting the dead spacecraft drift meant that theoretically it could be pulled towards Titan or Enceladus — moons that researchers now believe just might support life.… Read more

Jupiter’s Stripes Run Deep, But Hopefully Juno’s Problems Do Not

Though on holiday, I wanted to share these images and a bit of the Juno at Jupiter news.

This composite image depicts Jupiter's cloud formations as seen through the eyes of Juno's microwave radiometer (MWR) instrument as compared to the top layer, a Cassini imaging science subsystem image of the planet. The MWR can see a couple of hundred miles into Jupiter's atmosphere with the instrument's largest antenna. The belts and bands visible on the surface are also visible in modified form in each layer below. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/GSFC

This composite image depicts Jupiter’s cloud formations as seen through the eyes of Juno’s microwave radiometer (MWR) instrument as compared to the top layer, a Cassini imaging science subsystem image of the planet. The MWR can see a couple of hundred miles into Jupiter’s atmosphere with the instrument’s largest antenna. The belts and bands visible on the surface are also visible in modified form in each layer below. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/GSFC)

Because telescopes have never been able to see clearly down through the thick clouds of Jupiters– the ones that together form the planet’s glorious stripes– it has remained a mystery how deep they may be.

Based on the Juno spacecraft’s August pass, we now know via its microwave radiometer that the stripes reflect dynamics that occur deep into the planet.

Scott Bolton, leader of the Juno mission reported the team’s conclusions during a press conference at the 2016 meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences.

“The structure of the zones and belts still exists deep down,” Bolton said.  “So whatever is making those colors, whatever is making those stripes, is still existing pretty far down into Jupiter. That came as a surprise to many of the scientists. We didn’t know if this was [just] skin-deep.”

The new images penetrate to depths of about 200 to 250 miles below the surface cloud layer, Bolton said. While the bands seen on the cloud tops are not identical to the bands identified further down, there is a strong resemblance. “They’re evolving. They’re not staying the same,” Bolton said.

The findings have intriguing implications for exoplanet research.  Bolton said that the hint at “the deep dynamics and the chemistry of Jupiter’s atmosphere. And this is the first time we’ve seen any giant planet atmosphere underneath its layers. So we’re learning about atmospheric dynamics at a very basic level.”

Outer jets and belts composed largely of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gas can block study of the inner atmosphere. Winds blow the cloud regions in different directions. (NASA)

Outer jets and belts composed largely of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gas can block study of the inner atmosphere. Winds blow the cloud regions in different directions. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

These early Juno findings came as it was also reported that the spacecraft had two malfunction that caused it to go into safe mode, just as it was approaching Jupiter for an October 19 flyby.

Right now, Juno makes one orbit every 53 days. Juno was scheduled to fire its engines on Oct.… Read more

© 2021 Many Worlds

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑