Is Mars One’s one-way mission to the Red Planet just science fantasy?

By Stephanie Dube Wilson

Published April 03, 2013

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    Mars One
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    Mars One
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    Mars One
  • Mars One Concept Art 2.jpg
    Mars One
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    Mars One
Mars One co-founder Bas Lansdorp has sky-high plans for a solar system-sized reality show: a worldwide media event for “several billion online spectators” that would hand four ordinary people a one-way ticket to Mars — all filmed for a TV event set to launch in 2023.

But there’s less “reality” in this concept than in reality TV shows, some experts told

Nearly one year after its high-profile launch, the organization has barely taken a step toward its goal, with only one supplier on board to make a conceptual design.

“We expect to have the first results from most of our suppliers before the end of the year, but all of them will require additional contracts,” Lansdorp told


‘The potential revenue from a reality show just isn’t in the same league with mission cost for going to Mars.’

– Dani Eder, former Boeing employee from space systems division


That’s scarcely a beginning, said Dani Eder, who was in the space systems division of Boeing from 1981 to 2005 and worked on manned Mars mission studies.

“All they have are some words and pictures,” Eder told “Mars One needs to explain how they get to Mars, and not just show pictures of the surface habitat, before engineers like me will take them seriously.”

Paying for a ‘Suicide Mission’
The idea behind Mars One is certainly entertaining. The company wants to use a number of high-tech suppliers to send four people to the Red Planet for an estimated $6 billion. It plans to have its first supply launch to Mars in 2016, with human settlers landing in 2023, followed by four more every two years.

The astronauts won’t come back to Earth; they will live and die on Mars.

“The technology to get to Mars, land on Mars, keep humans alive in forbidden environments and prepare a settlement with robotics — all of that exists,” Lansdorp told “Of course there’s still a lot of engineering to be done and many hurdles to overcome…”

The reality show will help fund the bulk of the journey by filming astronaut training and letting viewers vote for who will go to Mars, along with broadcasting the takeoff and landing on Mars. Lansdorp believes the show will be bigger than the Olympics.

“[The] International Olympic Committee has revenues of over $1 billion per week,” he told “Mars One will do the same to finance the mission to Mars.”

Not everyone believes a TV show can fund such an undertaking. When Eder worked for Boeing, one of his studies involved a TV network asking if a manned mission to Mars could be supported by advertising revenues. It couldn’t.

“The potential revenue from a reality show just isn’t in the same league with mission cost for going to Mars,” he said.

Some scientists are excited about the project nevertheless. Dr. Gerard ‘t Hooft, a Dutch theoretical physicist and Nobel prize winner, is an official ambassador. He published a letter on the Mars One website to endorse the project.

“All confronted with it will, like I did, respond with skepticism… But look and listen to this proposal properly! Problems are to be solved… It will certainly be a spectacle worth watching.”

Mars One, a Netherlands-based nonprofit, owns about 90 percent of the for-profit company that will run the reality show, Interplanetary Media Group. Although the bulk of the mission will be funded by the show, Mars One will also receive funds from investors, donations from private individuals, and the astronaut selection process itself.

In January, Mars One announced its first investors, although it did not disclose the size of the investments: Trifork BV, a Dutch company that builds custom software, and Now&Partners, a creative agency in South Africa. Trifork did not respond to questions about the size of its investment.

“Most of the revenues will come in 2023 and after, [but] most of the expenses will be made before 2020,” Lansdorp told “Indeed we will have revenues from various sources before 2023 … but most likely not enough to keep up with the expenses.”

Is Existing Technology Enough?
Mars One says modifying existing tech will speed the project, something Hooft described as “genius.”

“The mission is kept as simple as possible,” he said. “All the fantastical technical concepts that have not been sufficiently and satisfactorily tested, will not be employed.”

Mars One proposes the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket and a slightly larger variation of the SpaceX Dragon capsule could make the flight. Some experts doubt this plan. Robert Harwood is the aerospace and defense industry director of ANSYS, Inc., a software company that simulates rocket launches to the moon and other planets.

“It’s unlikely that these two systems would be directly involved in a journey to Mars,” he told “They are probably not big enough, powerful enough or use the right type of engine technology to sustain such a journey and carry all the things required.”

Mars One may also have overstated its ability to set up a colony, according to Harry Keller, who has a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry and runs Smart Science, an organization that advocates science education.

“Mars One, in its passion, has overlooked some things,” he said. “The Mars One people suggest their landing location will be where water is available but don’t give details. This omission is just the sort that makes me suspicious.”

Keller listed more problems that aren’t adequately addressed.

“[They] glibly talk about using local resources for building and maintaining facilities,” he said. “Just to make iron would require mining … and huge amounts of energy. Plastics require an organic source, but all organics would have to be food until the base expanded quite a bit, but expansion requires building materials. You see the vicious cycle here.”

According to Mars One, drinking water will be produced by heating ice in Martian soil. But current technology hasn’t yet proven up to the task in the field, experts told

“Digging up soil on Mars, with embedded ice or hydrated minerals, getting the water out, and having an electrolysis unit that is reliable enough for your life to depend on it is a whole different matter,” Eder said. “We might have the technology in a laboratory, but not as functional hardware we can use on Mars.”

When Lansdorp did a Q&A on social bookmarking site Reddit, participants questioned if the plan was a publicity stunt. He asked for patience: “It takes time for an idea to grow.”

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Dark matter, hidden substance that makes up the universe, possibly found by $2b space physics experiment

By Tia Ghose

Published April 03, 2013

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    The powerful Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 (AMS) is visible at center left. The blackness of space and Earth’s horizon provide the backdrop for the scene, on May 20, 2011 (Flight Day 5 of the STS-134 shuttle mission). (NASA)

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    Artist’s concept of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a particle physics detector that will be installed on the starboard truss of the International Space Station. (NASA)

A massive particle detector mounted on the International Space Station may have detected elusive dark matter at last, scientists announced Wednesday.

The detector, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), measures cosmic-ray particles in space. After detecting billions of these particles over a year and a half, the experiment recorded a signal that may be the result of dark matter, the hidden substance that makes up more than 80 percent of all matter in the universe.

AMS found about 400,000 positrons, the antimatter partner particles of electrons. The energies of these positrons suggest they might have been created when particles of dark matter collided and destroyed each other.

NASA will hold a press conference detailing the AMS science results at 1:30 p.m. EDT (1830 GMT) today. You can watch the AMS science results live on

Elusive matter
Dark matter emits no light and can’t be detected with telescopes, and it seems to dwarf the ordinary matter in the universe.

Physicists have suggested that dark matter is made of WIMPs, or weakly interacting massive particles, which almost never interact with normal matter particles. WIMPs are thought to be their own antimatter partner particles, so when two WIMPS meet, they would annihilate each other, as matter and antimatter partners destroy each other on contact. The result of such a violent collision between WIMPs would be a positron and an electron, said study co-author Roald Sagdeev, a physicist at the University of Maryland.

The characteristics of the positrons detected by AMS match predictions for the products of dark-matter collisions. For example, based on an overabundance of positrons measured by a satellite-based detector called the Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light-nuclei Astrophysics (PAMELA), scientists expected that positrons from dark matter would be found at energy levels higher than 10 gigaelectron volts (GeV), said study co-author Veronica Bindi, a physicist at the University of Hawaii.

And the positrons found by AMS increase in abundance from 10 GeV to 250 GeV, with the slope of the increase reducing by an order of magnitude over the range from 20 GeV to 250 GeV — just what scientists expect from positrons created by dark-matter annihilations.

Furthermore, the positrons appear to come from all directions in space, and not a single source in the sky. This finding is also what researchers expected from the products of dark matter, which is thought to permeate the universe.

Intriguing signal
The $2 billion AMS instrument was delivered to the International Space Station in May 2011 by the space shuttle Endeavour, and installed by spacewalking astronauts on the orbiting laboratory’s exterior backbone.

In just its first year and half, the AMS detector has measured 6.8 million positrons and electrons. As the instrument continues to collect data, scientists will be better able to tell whether the positron signal really does come from dark matter.

If the positrons aren’t created by annihilating WIMPs, there are other possible explanations. For example, spinning stars called pulsars spread out around the plane of our Milky Way galaxy.

But even with more AMS data, “we will still not be completely able to figure out if it’s really a dark-matter source or a pulsar,” Bindi told To understand dark matter thoroughly, scientists hope to detect WIMPs directly via underground experiments on Earth, such as the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search and XENON Dark Matter projects.

Read more:

UFOs Not of this Earth – a Dennis Berube Video Animation


Ever since the dawn of man, the UFO enigma has been with us.  The earliest civilizations even speak of star people coming down to enlighten mankind and show him how to progress technologically.  Through all of this it is still uncertain as to what their goals are. Is helping us what is truly on their minds? Could there be another more sinister reason for their presence?
Are they really from the stars, traversing light years to visit us, or have they arrived from a nearby dimension, just out of our sight but adjacent to ours? Today our modern science tells us that our Universe needs 11 other dimensions to exist. If so, could both Heaven and Hell be located just next door in a neighboring dimension?
What of claims that the Nazis are still a viable force, with UFO technology at their fingertips?  Could they really be operating bases, both at the North and South poles, and perhaps on the Moon as well?
What of the underwater unidentified objects, or Quakers as some have called them, that have for many years followed our submarines at great depths, with reports of collisions occurring from time to time. What could the mariners of both past and present be seeing lighting up the depths and flying from the underwater environments up into space?  Could any country on Earth have such technological vehicles capable of such feats?
What do some religions have to say about UFOs, and related subjects?  Could demons be piloting these craft, in order to trick mankind into believing the lie that star people are here to help us? If indeed they are here to be of benefit to us, why are abductions taking place, along with both animal and human mutilation encounters being reported?
What of hideous reports of the Greys being suspended in vats of both animal and human tissue, to acquire nourishment as they absorb these fluids through their skins instead of being able to eat as we do?
Could all of this be made up? Across the years humankind has been made aware of these events.  Are these tales total fabrications?  Join us in this fresh look at the UFO phenomenon, as we cross the centuries, up to modern times in an effort to answer the questions that surround this subject. Beware, you may not like what you hear!

NASA spacecraft snaps new photo of potential ‘comet of the century’

By Tariq Malik

Published April 01, 2013

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    The Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope aboard NASA’s Swift imaged comet ISON (center) on Jan. 30, when it was located about 3.3 degrees from the bright star Castor in the constellation Gemini. At the time of this 5.5-minute optical exposure, ISON wa (NASA/Swift/D. Bodewits, UMCP)

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    From now through October, comet ISON tracks through the constellations Gemini, Cancer and Leo as it falls toward the sun. Image released March 29, 2013. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Axel Mellinger)

A NASA spacecraft scanning for the most powerful explosions in the universe has captured a photo of Comet ISON, an icy wanderer that could potentially dazzle stargazers when it swings close to the sun later this year.

NASA’s Swift satellite, which is typically used to track intense gamma-ray bursts from distant stars, photographed Comet ISON on Jan. 30, with the space agency unveiling the photo today (March 29). By tracking the comet over the last two months, Swift has allowed astronomers to learn new details about how large the comet is and how fast it is spewing out gas and dust.

“Comet ISON has the potential to be among the brightest comets of the last 50 years, which gives us a rare opportunity to observe its changes in great detail and over an extended period,” said Lead Investigator Dennis Bodewits, an astronomer with University of Maryland at College Park (UMCP) who helped obtain the new image.

Some astronomers have predicted that ISON could be the “Comet of the Century” when it makes its closest approach to the sun in late November. But a recent analysis found that the comet is not brightening as expected, and may have a ways to go to meet such expectations.

Comet ISON was first discovered in September 2012 by Russian astronomers Vitali Nevski and Artyom Novichonok using the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) located near Kislovodsk. The comet’s official designation is Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON).

Swift’s Comet ISON view
Bodewits and his university colleagues teamed up with the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., to capture new views of Comet ISON using the Swift spacecraft. The satellite’s Jan. 30 photo shows the comet as a bright, fuzzy white ball. At the time, Comet ISON was about 375 million miles from Earth and 460 million miles from the sun.

“Using images acquired over the last two months from Swift’s Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT), the team has made initial estimates of the comet’s water and dust production and used them to infer the size of its icy nucleus,” NASA officials wrote in a statement.

Swift’s observations revealed that Comet ISON is currently shedding about 112,000 pounds of dust and about 130 pounds of water every minute, an odd mismatch for such an anticipated comet.

All comets are made of dust and frozen gases that mix together to form a sort of “dirty snowball” in space, NASA officials explained. Water ice in comets typically stays frozen until the comet approaches within three times the Earth’s distance to the sun, at which time the water ice heats up and changes directly into gas (a process called sublimation), creating jets of material that can brighten the comet.

“The mismatch we detect between the amount of dust and water produced tells us that ISON’s water sublimation is not yet powering its jets because the comet is still too far from the sun,” Bodewits said. “Other more volatile materials, such as carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide ice, evaporate at greater distances and are now fueling ISON’s activity.”

Currently, Comet ISON is about 5,000 times fainter than the dimmest object the human eye can see.

NASA’s Comet ISON campaign
NASA’s Swift spacecraft is one of several satellites and probes to observe Comet ISON as it passes through the inner solar system. The space agency has formed the Comet ISON Observing Campaign (CIOC) to make the most of the comet’s visit.

On Oct. 1, the comet will pass within 6.7 million miles of Mars, and may be spotted by orbiters around the Red Planet. [Comet ISON’s Path Through Solar System (Video)]

“During this close encounter, Comet ISON may be observable to NASA and ESA spacecraft now working at Mars,” said Michael Kelley, a UMCP astronomer and also a Swift and CIOC team member. “Personally, I’m hoping we’ll see a dramatic postcard image taken by NASA’s latest Mars explorer, the Curiosity rover.”

On Nov. 28 — 58 days after swing close by Mars — Comet ISON will make its closest approach to the sun, flying within 730,000 miles of the star’s surface during the encounter. Several sun-watching observatories will be tracking the comet at that time, and ISON may even become visible in the daytime sky to observers who block the sun’s light with their hand, NASA officials said.

The comet will make its closest approach to Earth on Dec. 26, coming with 39.9 million miles of the planet as a late Christmas present.

But whether Comet ISON will live up to its celestial hype or fizzle out in a whimper still remains to be seen, astronomers warned. The comet must still survive the approach into the inner solar system, as well as its close encounter with the sun.

“It looks promising, but that’s all we can say for sure now,” Matthew Knight, an astronomer at Lowell Observatory said. “Past comets have failed to live up to expectations once they reached the inner solar system, and only observations over the next few months will improve our knowledge of how ISON will perform.”

Read more:

Gate to Hell found in Turkey

By Rossella Lorenzi

Published April 01, 2013

Discovery News

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    A digital illustration shows the ancient Plutonium, celebrated as the portal to the underworld in Greco-Roman mythology. (Francesco D’Andria)

A “gate to hell” has emerged from ruins in southwestern Turkey, Italian archaeologists have announced.

Known as Pluto’s Gate — Ploutonion in Greek, Plutonium in Latin — the cave was celebrated as the portal to the underworld in Greco-Roman mythology and tradition.

Historic sources located the site in the ancient Phrygian city of Hierapolis, now called Pamukkale, and described the opening as filled with lethal mephitic vapors.


‘Any animal that passes inside meets instant death.’

– Greek geographer Strabo (64/63 BC — about 24 AD)


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“This space is full of a vapor so misty and dense that one can scarcely see the ground. Any animal that passes inside meets instant death,” the Greek geographer Strabo (64/63 BC — about 24 AD) wrote.

“I threw in sparrows and they immediately breathed their last and fell,” he added.

Announced this month at a conference on Italian archaeology in Istanbul, Turkey, the finding was made by a team led by Francesco D’Andria, professor of classic archaeology at the University of Salento.

D’Andria has conducted extensive archaeological research at the World Heritage Site of Hierapolis. Two years ago he claimed to discover there the tomb of Saint Philip, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ.

Founded around 190 B.C. by Eumenes II, King of Pergamum (197 B.C.-159 B.C.), Hierapolis was given over to Rome in 133 B.C.

ANALYSIS: Tomb of Jesus’ Apostle Found In Turkey?

The Hellenistic city grew into a flourishing Roman city, with temples, a theater and popular sacred hot springs, believed to have healing properties.

“We found the Plutonium by reconstructing the route of a thermal spring. Indeed, Pamukkale’ springs, which produce the famous white travertine terraces originate from this cave,” D’Andria told Discovery News.

Featuring a vast array of abandoned broken ruins, possibly the result of earthquakes, the site revealed more ruins once it was excavated. The archaeologists found Ionic semi columns and, on top of them, an inscription with a dedication to the deities of the underworld — Pluto and Kore.

D’Andria also found the remains of a temple, a pool and a series of steps placed above the cave — all matching the descriptions of the site in ancient sources.

“People could watch the sacred rites from these steps, but they could not get to the area near the opening. Only the priests could stand in front of the portal,” D’Andria said.

According to the archaeologist, there was a sort of touristic organization at the site. Small birds were given to pilgrims to test the deadly effects of the cave, while hallucinated priests sacrificed bulls to Pluto.

The ceremony included leading the animals into the cave, and dragging them out dead.

Top 10 Animal Mysteries and Myths Explained

“We could see the cave’s lethal properties during the excavation. Several birds died as they tried to get close to the warm opening, instantly killed by the carbon dioxide fumes,” D’Andria said.

Only the eunuchs of Cybele, an ancient fertility goddess, were able to enter the hell gate without any apparent damage.

“They hold their breath as much as they can,” Strabo wrote, adding that their immunity could have been due to their “menomation,” “divine providence” or “certain physical powers that are antidotes against the vapor.”

According to D’Andria, the site was a famous destination for rites of incubation. Pilgrims took the waters in the pool near the temple, slept not too far from the cave and received visions and prophecies, in a sort of oracle of Delphi effect. Indeed, the fumes coming from the depths of Hierapoli’s phreatic groundwater produced hallucinations.

“This is an exceptional discovery as it confirms and clarifies the information we have from the ancient literary and historic sources,” Alister Filippini, a researcher in Roman history at the Universities of Palermo, Italy, and Cologne, Germany, told Discovery News.

Fully functional until the 4th century AD, and occasionally visited during the following two centuries, the site represented “an important pilgrimage destination for the last pagan intellectuals of the Late Antiquity,” Filippini said.

During the 6th century AD, the Plutonium was obliterated by the Christians. Earthquakes may have then completed the destruction.

D’Andria and his team are now working on the digital reconstruction of the site.

Read more:

Topping FBI’s ‘most wanted’ list: UFO info

By Megan Gannon

Published March 28, 2013


The FBI says its most viewed public record is a memo from 1950 recounting a strange story someone told an agent about three “flying saucers” that were allegedly recovered in New Mexico.

The so-called Hottel memo was first released in the late 1970s under the Freedom of Information Act, but it’s been viewed nearly a million times since 2011, when the FBI launched an online database of public records called the Vault.


‘Our Washington Field Office didn’t think enough of that flying saucer story to look into it.’

– FBI statement


Dated March 22, 1950, the memo was addressed to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and written by Guy Hottel, then head of the Bureau’s field office in Washington, D.C. Hottel was reporting what an Air Force investigator said that someone else told him about the crashed saucers.

The following details of the report have perhaps fueled the hopes of those who want to believe: “They [the saucers] were described as being circular in shape with raised centers, approximately 50 feet in diameter. Each one was occupied by three bodies of human shape but only three feet tall, dressed in metallic cloth of a very fine texture. Each body was bandaged in a manner similar to the blackout suits used by speed fliers and test pilots.”

For the record, FBI officials said in a statement on Monday (March 25) that the Hottel memo “does not prove the existence of UFOs; it is simply a second- or third-hand claim that we never investigated.”

Bureau officials also say there is no reason to believe that the story has anything to do with the infamous 1947 Roswell crash in New Mexico.

Hoover did actually order his agents to verify any UFO sightings after the Roswell incident and until July 1950. That the Hottel report was never investigated suggests “our Washington Field Office didn’t think enough of that flying saucer story to look into it,” the FBI statement says.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Biological computer created with human DNA

By Tanya Lewis

Published March 29, 2013


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The transistor revolutionized electronics and computing. Now, researchers have made a biological transistor from DNA that could be used to create living computers.

A transistor is a device that controls the flow of electrons in an electrical circuit, which acts as an on-off switch. Similarly, the biological transistor — termed a transcriptor — controls the flow of an enzyme as it moves along a strand of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). These cellular building blocks could be used to do anything from monitoring their environment to turning processes on and off in the cells. The findings were reported Thursday, March 28, in the journal Science.

“Transcriptors are the key component behind amplifying genetic logic,” lead author Jerome Bonnet, a bioengineer at Stanford University, said in a statement. On their own, these devices do not represent a computer, but they allow for logical operations, such as “if this-then that” commands, one of three basic functions of computers (the other two being storing and transmitting information).

To make the transcriptors, the researchers took a group of natural proteins, the workhorses of cells, and used them to control how the enzyme known as RNA polymerase zipped along a DNA molecule. The team used these transcriptors to create the mathematical operators that perform computations using Boolean logic.

1s and 0s
Boolean logic, named for the 19th-century mathematician George Boole, refers to a branch of math in which variables can have a true or false value (a 1 or a 0). In a Boolean circuit, the logic gates are like traffic conductors, deciding which of these values gets transmitted. [Album: The World’s Most Beautiful Equations]

For example, the “AND” gate takes in two values as input, and only outputs 1 (a true value) if both inputs are 1. An “OR” gate, by contrast, outputs a 1 if either of its inputs is 1. Combining these simple gates in different ways gives rise to even the most complex forms of computing.

The scientists created biological versions of these logic gates, by carefully calibrating the flow of enzymes along the DNA (just like electrons inside a wire). They chose enzymes that would be able to function in bacteria, fungi, plants and animals, so that biological computers might be made with a wide variety of organisms, Bonnet said.

Living Computers
Like the transistor, one main function of the transcriptor is to amplify signals. Just as transistor radios amplify weak radio waves into audible sound, transcriptors can amplify a very small change in the production of an enzyme to produce large changes in the production of other proteins. Amplification allows signals to be carried over large distances, such as between a group of cells.

The new technology offers some electric possibilities: sensing when a cell has been exposed to sugar or caffeine, for example, and storing that information like a value in computer memory. Or telling cells to start or stop dividing depending on stimuli in their environment.

The researchers have made their biological logic gates available to the public to encourage people to use and improve them.

Copyright 2013 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Green meteorite may be from Mercury, a first

By Miriam Kramer

Published March 30, 2013

  • nwa7325-mercury-meteorite

    This green meteorite that landed in Morocco in 2012 could be from Mercury. (Stefan Ralew/

Scientists may have discovered the first meteorite from Mercury.

The green rock found in Morocco last year may be the first known visitor from the solar system’s innermost planet, according to meteorite scientist Anthony Irving, who unveiled the new findings this month at the 44th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas. The study suggests that a space rock called NWA 7325 came from Mercury, and not an asteroid or Mars.

NWA 7325 is actually a group of 35 meteorite samples discovered in 2012 in Morocco. They are ancient, with Irving and his team dating the rocks to an age of about 4.56 billion years.

“It might be a sample from Mercury, or it might be a sample from a body smaller than Mercury but [which] is like Mercury,” Irving said during his talk. A large impact could have shot NWA 7325 out from Mercury to Earth, he added. [10 Most Enduring Mercury Mysteries]

Irving is an Earth and Space Sciences professor at the University of Washington and has been studying meteorites for years. But the NWA 7325 meteorite is unlike anything found on Earth before,  he told

Meteorites from Mars are imbued with some Martian atmosphere, making them somewhat simple to tell apart from other rocks. Space rocks from Vesta, one of the largest asteroids in the solar system, are also chemically distinct, but NWA 7325 does not resemble any space rock documented by scientists today.

Irving thinks that the meteoritewas created and eventually ejected from a planet or other body that had flowing magma on its surface at some point in its history. Evidence suggests that the rock could have been formed as “scum” on the top of the magma, Irving said.

NWA 7325 has a lower magnetic intensity — the magnetism passed from a cosmic body’s magnetic field into a rock — than any other rock yet found, Irving said. Data sent back from NASA’s Messenger spacecraft currently in orbit around Mercury shows that the planet’s low magnetism closely resembles that found in NWA 7325, Irving said.

Messenger’s observations also provided Irving with further evidence that could support his hypothesis. Scientists familiar with Mercury’s geological and chemical composition think that the planet’s surface is very low in iron. The meteorite is also low in iron, suggesting that wherever the rock came from, its parent body resembles Mercury.

While Messenger’s first extended mission just finished, the team has put in a request to continue researching the planet with the orbiter for the next two years. If the mission is extended until 2015, the science returned by the spacecraft could help further validate or invalidate Irving’s ideas about the origin of the meteorite.Although finding meteorites on Earth that came from Mercury is less likely than finding Martian meteorites, it could be possible, Irving said.

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Saturn’s rings are 4 billion years old

Published March 29, 2013

  • prometheus-affect-saturn-rings

    The effects of the small moon Prometheus loom large on two of Saturn’s rings in this image taken a short time before Saturn’s August 2009 equinox. A long, thin shadow cast by the moon stretches across the A ring on the right. The gravity of po (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

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    The Cassini spacecraft observes three of Saturn’s moons set against the darkened night side of the planet. Saturn is present on the left this image but is too dark to see. Rhea (1,528 kilometers, or 949 miles across) is closest to Cassini here (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

  • iapetus-color-dichotomy

    These two global images of Iapetus show the extreme brightness dichotomy on the surface of this peculiar Saturnian moon. The left-hand panel shows the moon’s leading hemisphere and the right-hand panel shows the moon’s trailing side. Image publ (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

The dazzling rings of Saturn and its moons are likely more than 4 billion years old — the cosmic remnants of the solar system’s birth, scientists say.

The finding comes after a new study of observations from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, which suggests that the planet’s rings and moons formed at the same time as the rest of the solar system’s planetary bodies soon after the sun sparked into life. Since Saturn’s rings and moons formed from the same planetary nebula of gas and dust around the early sun that led to the solar system’s other planets, they are a time capsule of sorts for astronomers, the researchers said.

“Studying the Saturnian system helps us understand the chemical and physical evolution of our entire solar system,” Cassini scientist Gianrico Filacchione, of Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome, said in a statement. “We know now that understanding this evolution requires not just studying a single moon or ring, but piecing together the relationships intertwining these bodies.”

Filacchione and his colleagues analyzed data from Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, or VIMS, to understand the distribution of water ice and colors across Saturn’s rings and moons. Different colors in the rings and moons provide evidence of non-water organic materials, while water ice is a vital clue into the timeline that led to the formation of the Saturnian system, the researchers said. [See photos of Saturn’s spectacular rings up close]

Observations from VIMS showed that there is too much water ice in the Saturn system to have been dumped there by comets or other more recent means, leading the researchers to conclude that the water ice must have formed around the time the solar system did.

The researchers also discovered that the surfaces of Saturn’s moons typically get redder the farther away they orbit the huge planet. Some of these outer moons, like Hyperion and Iapetus, may have been coated with reddish dust shed by Phoebe, a small, retrograde moon believed to have originated in the Kuiper Belt, the researchers said.

Meanwhile, parts of the planet’s main ring system may have been painted with a more subtle reddish hue by meteoroids slamming into the Saturnian system. That red may be a sign of oxidized iron (rust) or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, compounds that could give rise to more complex molecules, the researchers said.

The scientists were surprised to observe reddish tones on the potato-shaped moon Prometheus, which orbits in an area where moons are generally more whitish in color. The finding hints that Saturn’s rings may have given rise to some of the planet’s moons.

“Scientists had been wondering whether ring particles could have stuck together to form moons — since the dominant theory was that the rings basically came from satellites being broken up,” study researcher Bonnie Buratti, a VIMS team member based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement. “The coloring gives us some solid proof that it can work the other way around, too.”

The research is detailed in the March 26 edition of the Astrophysical Journal.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft launched toward Saturn in 1997 and arrived in orbit around the ringed planet in 2004. The spacecraft completed its primary mission in 2008 and is currently in the midst of its second extended mission, which runs through 2017.

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Creators of mysterious desert ‘fairy circles’ found

By Tanya Lewis

Published March 29, 2013


  • fairy-circles-1

    Here, numerous tracks of Oryx antelopes crossing fairy circles in an interdune pan, shown in this aerial view of Namibrand, Namibia. (Image courtesy of N. Juergens)

The “artists” behind bizarre, barren, grassless rings dotting the desert of Southwest Africa have been found lurking right at scientists’ feet: termites.

Known as fairy circles, these patches crop up in regular patterns along a narrow strip of the Namib Desert between mid-Angola and northwestern South Africa, and can persist for decades. The cause of these desert pockmarks has been widely debated, but a species of sand termite, Psammotermes allocerus, could be behind the mysterious dirt rings, suggests a study published Thursday, March 28, in the journal Science.

Scientists have offered many ideas about the circles’ origin, ranging from “self-organizing vegetation dynamics” to carnivorous ants. Termites have been proposed before, but there wasn’t much evidence to support that theory.

Finding patterns in circles
While studying the strange patterns, biologist Norbert Juergens of the University of Hamburg noticed that wherever he found the dirt patches (the barren centers inside fairy circles), he also found sand termites. [See Photos of the Bizarre Fairy Circles]

Juergens measured the water content of the soil in the circles from 2006 to 2012. More than 2 inches of water was stored in the top 39 inches of soil, even during the driest period of the year, Juergens found. The soil humidity below about 16 inches was 5 percent or more over a four-year stretch.

Without grass to absorb rainwater and then release it back into the air via evaporation, any water available would collect in the porous, sandy soil, Juergens proposed. That water supply could be enough to keep the termites alive and active during the harsh dry season, while letting the grass survive at the circles’ rims.

Juergens conducted surveys of the organisms found at fairy circles. The sand termite was the only creature he found consistently at the majority of patches. He also discovered that most patches contained layers of cemented sand, foraged plant material and underground tunnels — telltale signs of sand termites.

The scientist found a few other termite species, as well as three ant species, at fairy circles in areas that get rain during the summer or during the winter, but not at all the sites he studied.

Teensy engineers
The termite behavior provides an example of “ecosystem engineering,” Juergens wrote in the Science paper. The insects appear to be feeding on the grass roots to create the characteristic rings, the study suggests. As to why the termites would create circular-shaped patches, Juergens doesn’t say.

“The paper is a useful addition to debating the origin of the fairy circles,” chemist Yvette Naude of the University of Pretoria, South Africa, who was not involved in the study, told LiveScience in an email. But, Naude added, the study “does not address the key question as to what is the primary factor that causes sudden plant mortality, i.e. the birth of a fairy circle.”

The soil in fairy circles seems to be altered so that plants can’t survive, whereas termites usually enrich soil, making it more hospitable to plants, she said. (Juergens actually thinks the termites chew up the plant roots, and that’s what leads to the barren patches.)

It is possible the termites don’t cause the fairy circles, but merely live in them. However, Juergens found the insects were present even during the early stages of patch formation, before the grass had died off on the surface. Over the termites’ lifetime, they munch on the grassy borders and gradually widen the circles.

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