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BVT News Roundup, Friday 7 March 2014

So NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity found something interesting: what appears to be a rock, coated with some sort of white substance, on the surface where it hadn’t been just days earlier.  During a press conference held by the space agency, one scientist said, of the mysterious object, “This is strange,” adding “Mars keeps throwing new stuff at us.”   Which prompted a reportorial question, via Twitter, from William “Captain Kirk” Shatner: “Are you going to cover the alien rock throwers?”  (via the New York Times)

So NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity found something interesting: what appears to be a rock, coated with some sort of white substance, on the surface where it hadn’t been just days earlier.  During a press conference held by the space agency, one scientist said, of the mysterious object, “This is strange,” adding “Mars keeps throwing new stuff at us.”   Which prompted a reportorial question, via Twitter, from William “Captain Kirk” Shatner: “Are you going to cover the alien rock throwers?”  (via the New York Times)

Year after year, (NASA’s Mars rover) Opportunity goes farther than anyone dreamed. The expectation had been that it would drive about a kilometer — six-tenths of a mile — before dust accumulated on the solar panels and the batteries drained.

Unexpectedly, fortuitous winds periodically cleaned off the solar panels, and Opportunity, as well as its twin, Spirit, continued to operate. Spirit got stuck in a sand dune 2009 and then fell silent in 2010 after it was not able to point its solar panels toward the sun during the winter months.

Instead of one kilometer, Opportunity has driven 38.7 kilometers, or about 24 miles, exploring a series of ever larger craters, taking 170,000 pictures along the way.

“It’s a well-made American vehicle,” said Raymond E. Arvidson, the (mission’s) deputy principal investigator.

The New York Times, "Mars Rover Marks an Unexpected Anniversary With Mysterious Discovery"

BVT News Roundup 10 January 2014.

image

Evening News Wrap 17 December 2013.

Evening News Wrap 12 December 2013.

(Photo: AP via The New York Post)

Evening News Wrap 3 December 2013.

FLAIR FLIGHT   A contrast-enhanced image produced from the Hubble images of comet ISON taken April 23, 2013 reveals the subtle structure in the inner coma of the comet; the coma decreases in brightness proportionally to the distance from the nucleus.  Comet ISON, thought to have travelled from the Oort Cloud surrounding our solar system beginning a million years ago, will make its closest approach to the Sun on Thursday.  (Photo: NASA via AP / The Telegraph)

FLAIR FLIGHT   A contrast-enhanced image produced from the Hubble images of comet ISON taken April 23, 2013 reveals the subtle structure in the inner coma of the comet; the coma decreases in brightness proportionally to the distance from the nucleus.  Comet ISON, thought to have travelled from the Oort Cloud surrounding our solar system beginning a million years ago, will make its closest approach to the Sun on Thursday.  (Photo: NASA via AP / The Telegraph)

In findings that are as scientifically significant as they are crushing to the popular imagination, NASA reported Thursday that its Mars rover, Curiosity, which has been trundling across the red planet for a little over a year, has deflated hopes that life could be thriving on Mars today.

The conclusion, published in the journal Science, comes from the fact that Curiosity has been looking for methane, a gas that is considered a possible calling card of microbes, and has so far found none of it. While the absence of methane does not entirely preclude the possibility of present-day life on Mars, it does return the idea to the realm of pure speculation without any hopeful data to back it up.

“You don’t have direct evidence that there is microbial process going on,” as Sushil K. Atreya, a professor of atmospheric and space science at the University of Michigan and a member of the science team, put it.

The history of human fascination with the possibility of life on Mars is rich, encompassing myriad works of science fiction, Percival Lowell’s quixotic efforts to map what turned out to be imaginary canals, Orson Welles’ panic-inducing 1938 “Attack by Mars” radio play, and of course Bugs Bunny’s nemesis Marvin the Martian.

But NASA scientists are going strictly by their data, and they are having none of it. Asked the same question once posed by David Bowie — “Is there life on Mars?” — John Grotzinger, the project scientist for the Curiosity mission, would only go so far as to say that the lack of methane “discounts” the possibility of living creatures going about their business on Mars.

“It does diminish the argument that there are methanogenic organisms there,” Dr. Grotzinger said.

A decade ago, observations from telescopes on Earth and a spacecraft orbiting Mars suggested that vast plumes of methane were rising from certain regions, but Curiosity’s readings now bring the earlier claims into question.

“It just isn’t there,” said Dr. Atreya, referring to methane.

The New York Times, "Mars Rover Comes Up Empty In Search for Methane"