Search results for: methane

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Curiosity Detects Fluctuating Methane Emissions on Mars

curiosityThis could be it, folks. The evidence for life on Mars is mounting—it’s still circumstantial at this point, but every new discovery and every tantalizing hint gets us closer to answering the million (billion?) dollar question: did life ever exist on Mars? And the obvious follow up question: does life exist on Mars right now? In addition to the evidence released last week about Gale Crater’s massive lake and the amount of time they now believe Mars was ripe for life, scientists released another new finding involving surprising and fluctuating methane emissions on the Red Planet. Sure, there are a few possible explanations for the methane, but one of them is that it comes from something biological—i.e., Martians. Probably only microbial ones, but still. This is a seriously big deal.

As you might know, Curiosity Rover’s time on Mars has culminated in its journey to Mount Sharp, where it’s been examining rocks and soil buried deep below the mountain’s surface. Mount Sharp is located in Gale Crater, which scientists now know used to have a bunch of lakes, rivers, and deltas, and seems like a pretty good spot to foster some kind of life. But life is tough to find, especially when you’re not exactly sure what you’re looking for. Martian meteorites have been found to contain organic compounds, but scientists still can’t say with certainty that they prove the existence of past life on Mars. So Curiosity keeps looking. One of the best ways scientists know of to hunt for life is by studying methane emissions (one of the gases responsible for the greenhouse effect).

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Massive Sinkhole Likely Caused By Methane

craterIn 1908, an asteroid or comet exploded over Tunguska, Siberia, creating a massive crater and going down in history as the biggest impact event of all time, roughly 1,000 times the magnitude of the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima. Recently, another huge crater showed up in Siberia on the Yamal peninsula, measuring roughly 100 feet wide. Scientists have been studying this massive hole, trying to figure out what caused it. This time around, it seems the cause is the release of methane caused by the warming of the Siberian permafrost.

Of course, before scientists devised this theory, some people attributed the crater to a UFO, which could have caused the hole during its landing (even though that doesn’t make too much sense — talk about coming in hot!). Scientists ruled out a meteorite as the cause early on, and suspected that the sinkhole had something to do with the temperature changes in the tundra, even as far as the Yamal peninsula, a place so remote it’s known as the “end of the world.”

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Mars MAVEN Probe Reveals New Information About Martian Atmosphere

MAVENRecently, there’s been a whole slew of information coming from Mars — a meteorite with organic compounds, findings from Curiosity that increase the likelihood that life once existed on the Red Planet, and now methane emissions that could suggest that life currently exists on Mars. All of that is a lot to wrap one’s mind around, so it’s easy to forget about NASA’s other Mars program — MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN). MAVEN’s goal is to try and obtain information that will help scientists figure out where Mars’ atmosphere went. Recently, NASA released some preliminary information gathered by MAVEN that starts to detail the process by which Mars lost its atmosphere, which likely involves solar wind.

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Did A Gamma Ray Burst Cause Mass Extinctions On Ancient Earth?

gamma-ray-burstThe Earth has been through five major mass extinction events since its formation roughly 4.6 billion years ago (Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about some of these on Cosmos). One of those events, the Cretaceous-Tertiary, wiped out the dinosaurs, but the biggest extinction event happened at the end of the Permian period roughly 248 million years ago, causing the extinction of roughly 96% of all species on the planet—it’s known as the “Great Dying.” There are numerous hypotheses for what caused these events, ranging from asteroids to volcanic eruptions to a drastic and cataclysmic release of methane. Now, in a study published in Physical Review Letters, scientists point to another possible cause: gamma ray bursts.

Gamma ray bursts are short, powerful electromagnetic radiation explosions that generate as much energy as the sun has since it formed. It’s not totally clear what causes gamma ray bursts, but scientists think hypernovas, massive exploding stars, account for longer bursts, and collisions between neutron stars account for shorter ones. Scientists believe the long bursts tend to occur in dwarf galaxies with low amounts of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium—if they occur in the Milky Way, they’d be in regions with similar properties.

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This Canadian Company Is Crowdfunding A Mission To Mars

Beaver rover

Beaver Rover

When I think of the past, current, and future space powers, a few different countries and agencies pop up. NASA, of course, and the ESA, Russia, JAXA, China, India. It wouldn’t occur to me to put Canada on that list, although one might argue that astronaut Chris Hadfield is a space force unto himself, but Canada is trying to put itself on the cosmic map by landing a couple of robots on Mars later this decade. Interestingly, it’s not the Canadian Space Agency that’s behind this plan—rather, the brains behind the idea belong to Thoth Technology, and the company intends to crowdfund the mission.

Crowdfunding is an increasingly popular approach to bankrolling space missions. The U.K. Lunar Mission One Kickstarter campaign is nearing its final week, and Planetary Resource’s Project ARKYD was funded the same way. Thoth Technology has launched an Indiegogo campaign for its Northern Light Mission, which seeks to raise over a million dollars to put a lander and a mini rover on Mars.

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Can Astronaut Waste Be Turned Into Fuel?

space toiletOne of my favorite aspects of Mary Roach’s book Packing for Mars is her hilarious but thorough examination of what happens to astronauts’ bodily functions in space. Given how much these rely on gravity, microgravity is a challenge in many ways, including using the bathroom. I certainly never thought about the advantages of a toilet with a vacuum system before reading the book. But all those messy details may soon amount to more than just a funny story. NASA commissioned researchers at the University of Florida to see how human waste could be useful, and the results indicate that we may be able to make rocket fuel out of astronaut poop.

Just yesterday I was watching a nature documentary that featured small communities living in India just south of the Himalayas. They burn goat and buffalo poop, which establishes the dual purpose of maintaining a degree of cleanliness while also providing cooking and heating energy–though they’re not trying to get rockets off the ground.

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