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SPACE & SCIENCE NEWS: February 2004
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Mars grains
Round Mars grains excite NASA
(Feb 4, 2004)

NASA's robot rover Opportunity has found round grains in the soil of Mars, raising the possibility they may have been shaped by liquid water. Photos taken by the rover's microscopic imager show coarse soil grains of different shapes, including round ones. But few of the grains are spherical, which means other forces could be responsible for their shape. Scientists say meteorite collisions could have produced rounded grains by melting the Martian rock on impact. "We saw a bunch of really fine-grained stuff that we couldn't tell much about and then we saw these coarser grains on top," said Nasa principal investigator Steve Squyres, describing the soil's structure. "We began to notice that some of these grains looked awfully darn round." Mission scientist Hap McSween said there was a limited number of ways very round grains could have formed.

Read more. Source: BBC

sperm whales
Whales proving they're smart
(Feb 4, 2004)

Sperm whale have the largest brain of any animal and some in the Gulf of Alaska are proving it at mealtimes: letting humans do all the work. Researchers are now investigating what commercial fisherman have long noticed, that the whales have learned to pluck sablefish off hooks attached to their long fishing lines. "They somehow just pick them off like grapes," said fisherman Dick Curran, who has fished the gulf's deep waters for decades. "I don't know how they do it." No one knows how the whales have come to target sablefish, also called black cod, whose oily, rich flesh has become a lucrative product in Japanese markets. So a coalition of commercial fishermen and biologists has begun to investigate with about $200,000 from the North Pacific Research Board.

Read more. Source: CNN

Comet Puckett 3
Collision with comet may have hastened first plague epidemic
(Feb 4, 2004)

A collision between Earth and a passing comet in the 6th century AD may have caused the collapse of agriculture, mass famine and indirectly led to the bubonic plague in Europe, a study has suggested. Scientists have calculated that a relatively small comet, or fragment of a comet, could have caused huge amounts of dust and debris to be ejected into the atmosphere, blocking the sun for months at a time. The resulting crop failures and famine would have allowed bubonic plague to spread easily among a physically weakened population. Studies of tree rings – from preserved oaks retrieved from Irish bogs to ancient American pine trees – have shown that plant growth around the world almost stopped between about 536 AD to 545 AD. Chinese records from this time refer to a "dust veil" obscuring the skies. Mediterranean historians record a "dry fog" that blocked out much of the sun's heat for more than a year.

Read more. Source: Independent

possible water-cut channels on Mars
The growing case for water on Mars
(Feb 4, 2004)

After more than a century of wild speculation, decades of serious searching, and years of collecting increasingly compelling evidence, there is suddenly a scientific and media buzz over whether Mars is a planet sculpted by water. Thing is, that question is already answered in the minds of most Mars experts. For the first billion years or two, Mars was almost surely warmer and wetter, most scientists agree. What lingers is a big, multi-part mystery of what happened to all the water, how long ago it disappeared, and whether it was around long enough – and under the right conditions – to have possibly incubated life. The latest news – a previously unheralded mineral called hematite has been detected by NASA's Opportunity rover – dribbled out late last week and over the weekend. It might turn out to be a key moment in Mars exploration history, but some scientists think it is more likely to represent just another piece in a huge puzzle of a planet that could remain largely enigmatic for years to come.

Read more. Source:

Opportunity's robot arm
Both Mars rovers back in action
(Feb 3, 2004)

NASA's twin rovers reached out their robotic arms to touch the surface of Mars on Monday, marking the first day of the joint $820 million mission that both spacecraft were in full swing. Opportunity and Spirit, 6,600 miles apart on opposite sides of the planet, began the work week gearing up for in-depth analyses of the soil and rocks beneath their wheels. Opportunity rolled onto the martian ground on Saturday, a week after it landed. Spirit arrived January 3 but broke off its science work nearly two weeks ago after software problems crippled the vehicle. On Monday, mission manager Jennifer Trosper said Spirit had joined Opportunity back at work, even as engineers worked out the last kinks in its software.

Read more. Source: CNN

artist's conception of HD209458b
Oxygen and carbon discovered in exoplanet atmosphere
(Feb 3, 2004)

The well-known extrasolar planet HD 209458b, provisionally nicknamed Osiris, has surprised astronomers again. Oxygen and carbon have been found in its atmosphere, evaporating at such an immense rate that the existence of a new class of extrasolar planets – ‘the chthonian planets’ or ‘dead’ cores of completely evaporated gas giants – has been proposed. Oxygen and carbon have been detected in the atmosphere of a planet beyond our Solar System for the first time. Scientists using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have observed the famous extrasolar planet HD 209458b passing in front of its parent star, and found oxygen and carbon surrounding the planet in an extended ellipsoidal envelope – the shape of a rugby-ball. These atoms are swept up from the lower atmosphere with the flow of the escaping atmospheric atomic hydrogen, like dust in a supersonic whirlwind.

Read more. Source: ESA

Opportunity on Mars
Mars rover on track of watery mineral
(Feb 2, 2004)

The Mars rover Opportunity, which rolled off its landing platform onto the Martian surface early on Saturday, has returned its first real science data to Earth. The initial findings of the craft's mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometer show that the mineral hematite is found in the upper layer of the landing site's wine-dark soil. Hematite had been detected from orbit and was a key reason for the choice of the Meridiani Planum as a landing site. The iron oxide often, but not always, forms in the presence of liquid water. The lighter patches of soil that were squashed flat by Opportunity's landing show no signs of hematite at all, strongly suggesting it is in the dark surface pebbles, which were buried by the force of impact. The principal investigator for mini-TES, Phil Christensen of Arizona State University, said he was delighted by the finding, because the orbital data left open the possibility that the hematite might be in the fine surface dust, carried by wind from some distant place.

Read more. Source: New Scientist

Mars Express renews speculation about algae on Mars
(Feb 2, 2004)

The European Space Agency's Mars Express Orbiter has been exploring the Red Planet from an altitude of 300 km. Its high resolution stereo camera has been sending back extraordinary color images. Some, like Gusev crater in which the Spirit rover landed, have green areas. Some like the Reull Vallis ancient river channel, shown here, contain blue and blue-green regions. What causes the green, blue and blue-green colors in the Martian geography? Current scientific speculation includes mineral deposits, soil moisture and maybe even algae.

Read more. Source: Earthfiles

artist's conception of ancient Mars
Australian scientists, and their dog, say life once existed on Mars
(Feb 1, 2004)

Australian scientists said Thursday that a dog with a nose for sewage had found evidence that life once, and may still, exist on Mars. Biophysicist Tony Taylor said his mongrel had sniffed out bacteria in mud from Queensland state that matched fossils of primitive organisms in a Martian meteorite which plunged into Antarctica 13,000 years ago. This backed a theory by NASA scientists who examined the potato-sized meteorite, called ALH84001, after it was retrieved in 1984 and concluded 12 years later that life existed on Mars.

Read more. Source: Space Daily / AFP

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