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Water Still Flows On Mars, Scientists Say

By Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Where there’s brine, there’s water.

Scientists scouring the Red Planet using NASA’S Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter say they’ve found direct chemical evidence of transient saltwater flowing on the surface today.

Granted, they haven’t caught the liquid in the act — and what they’ve detected looks less like salty water and more like watery salt. But nonetheless, the discovery published by the journal Nature Geoscience helps solve a long-standing Martian mystery and sheds light on the potential for life on our nearest planetary neighbor.

“This is the first time we’ve found flowing water on a planet that’s not ours,” said lead author Lujendra Ojha, a planetary scientist and Ph.D. candidate at Georgia Tech.

Scientists got a tantalizing hint that there could be liquid water on the surface back in 2011, when Alfred McEwen, lead scientist for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera, along with Ojha and other colleagues, discovered these strange dark streaks on Martian slopes that seem to grow and fade with the seasons. These “recurring slope lineae,” which can stretch up to a few meters, extend downward when it gets warm and then later shrink and fade, reappearing each Martian year.

“Ever since the discovery in 2011 … a number of us have been incredibly excited by the prospect of liquid water on Mars,” said Bethany Ehlmann, a planetary geologist at Caltech who was not involved in the paper. Nonetheless, she added, “we try to be cautious — it’s a big thing to say there’s liquid water on Mars today.”

Granted, Mars’ atmosphere is cold and thin — which means that any pure water that made it to the surface would either freeze or immediately evaporate, depending on the temperature. But a recent study by scientists using NASA’s Curiosity rover found that water might indeed be able to exist briefly on the surface — provided there were enough salts, such as perchlorates, dissolved in the liquid. These salts would keep the water from freezing or evaporating quite as easily and could actually serve to suck moisture back out of the air.

So could liquid water — very salty, briny water — really explain these strange dark streaks on Martian slopes?

Theoretically, the scientists could look for water by using the orbiter’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, or CRISM. CRISM can look for different chemicals in a given spot on the surface by studying the telltale signature of dark bands they’ve left in the light. The problem is, it’s hard to check the light’s chemical fingerprint at the recurring slope lineae, or RSL, because, according to the study, “few locations exist in which RSL are wide or dense enough to fill even a single CRISM pixel.”

So researchers used a method where they focused on the handful of individual pixels that were mostly filled by the recurring slope lineae. They looked at four different spots with recurring slope lineae and discovered a strong fingerprint for hydrated salts — salts with water locked into the mineral structure, a clear sign that saltwater likely had flowed there. The hydrated salts included magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate.

The findings may further whet the appetite of astrobiologists looking to probe past habitable environments on the Red Planet, researchers said.

“I think it’s incredibly exciting, because when we look back at the broad scope of Mars history, it’s always in the past where there’s evidence for the most water,” Ehlmann said. “But if there’s liquid water even today, when Mars is supposedly at its driest … I think that says that there was probably liquid water for all of the last 4.5 billion years, just like there was on Earth. Not in the same quantity, but at least ephemerally, episodically, it’s there.”

Still, the water is so incredibly briny that it’s difficult to imagine microbes being able to survive with the harsh fluid.

In the meantime, where exactly the water comes from, how it’s released, and how it gets back into the soil to repeat the cycle every year remain open questions, the scientists said. Such questions could be answered by a future orbiting mission to Mars, Ehlmann added.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Portions of the Martian surface shot by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show many channels from 1 meter to 10 meters wide on a scarp in the Hellas impact basin, in this photograph taken January 14, 2011 and released by NASA March 9, 2011. REUTERS/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona/Handout

This Week In Health: Red Skies Ahead

“This Week In Health” offers some highlights from the world of health news and wellness tips that you may have missed this week:

Genetics Experiment Will Be First Chinese Project On Space Station. China has contracted with an American company to aid in their first experiments on the International Space Station. The Houston-based company, NanoRacks, has a $200,000 contract to launch a genetics experiment designed by the Beijing Institute of Technology. Though NASA is prohibited from cooperating with Chinese agencies due to political tensions, there is no law preventing private collaboration and the deal is not expected to meet resistance in a congressional vote.

Watson Can Help You Treat Your Diabetes. In an effort to combat the rising costs of diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and heart disease, CVS Pharmacy and IBM are teaming up to identify at-risk patients and revolutionize preventive care. IBM’s supercomputer, Watson, will scour the records of CVS’ 70 million members in order to discern red flags and create custom care plans for those who use the company’s health clinics. The care plans will take into account medical history, prescription use, and behavioral patterns, hopefully increasing the accuracy and effectiveness of preventive medicine.

Researchers Successfully Transport Blood By Drone. In a science-fiction moment come to life, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Uganda’s Makerere University found that small quantities of blood can be safely flown by drone, rather than using the traditional driving method. If their findings are further substantiated by other studies, the discovery could make a significant difference in rural areas where supplies must travel longer distances to reach those in need.

Smoking Linked To Hot Flashes. A new study surveying 761 women aged 45-55 has concluded that smoking can greatly increase the number of hot flashes experienced during menopause — even if a woman had quit years prior. After tracking the survey group over a period of seven years, researchers found that women who had never smoked, or quit smoking five or more years earlier, had 45 percent fewer hot flashes than their smoking counterparts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks smoking as one of the top causes of preventable deaths.

Photo: AK Rockefeller via Flickr

U.S. Spacecraft Flies By Pluto After 9-Year, 3 Billion-Mile Trip

By Irene Klotz

LAUREL, MD (Reuters) – More than nine years after its launch, a U.S. spacecraft sailed past Pluto on Tuesday, capping a 3 billion mile (4.88 billion km) journey to the solar system’s farthest reaches, NASA said.

The craft flew by the distant “dwarf” planet at 7:49 a.m. after reaching a region beyond Neptune called the Kuiper Belt that was discovered in 1992. The achievement is the culmination of a 50-year effort to explore the solar system.

“It’s truly a mark in human history,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science from the mission control center at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Final confirmation that New Horizons passed some 7,800 miles (12,550 km) from Pluto was expected at 8:53 p.m. The spacecraft is so far from Earth that radio signals, traveling at the speed of light, take about four and a half hours to reach Earth.

“We’ll get information from the spacecraft and know if it’s healthy,” said Alice Bowman, the mission operations manager.

By then, New Horizons will have spent nearly a day in radio silence, running through a tightly choreographed series of observations as it shoots past Pluto and its entourage of five moons, traveling at about nine miles (14 km) per second.

For several hours following closest approach, the diminutive nuclear-powered probe, which is about the size of a baby grand piano, will look back at Pluto, now backlit by the sun, to study its atmosphere using radio signals beamed from Earth as a probe.

Scientists have many questions about Pluto, which when New Horizons launched in 2006 was still considered the solar system’s ninth planet. It was demoted to the status of “dwarf planet” after the discovery of other Pluto-like, ice-and-rock worlds orbiting beyond Neptune in the Kuiper Belt.

The objects are believed to be remnants from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

New Horizons doesn’t carry the propellant needed to fire braking rockets that would trim its speed so it could slip into orbit. Its cameras and science instruments must work on the fly.

It will take about 16 months for New Horizons to transmit back all the images and measurements taken during Tuesday’s flyby. By then, the spacecraft will be even deeper into the Kuiper Belt, heading for a possible follow-on visit to one of Pluto’s cousin.

(Editing By Frank McGurty)

Image: NASA

#NationalMeme: Spectacular Images And Video Of Yesterday’s Solar Eclipse

NationalMeme-2

Trending this morning on Twitter is #eclipse2015, the spectacular total solar eclipse that graced the skies over the North Atlantic yesterday.

Although in cloud-shrouded London the eclipse basically just turned the sky from dark gray to darker gray, other parts of the U.K. and Scandinavia got tremendous views of the celestial phenomenon. Perhaps no more so than in Svalberg, a Norwegian archipelago situated in the Arctic Ocean, where lucky observers witnessed a complete totality in crystal clear skies, as reported by Discover.

According to NASA, the next total solar eclipse that will be visible in North America will occur on August 21, 2017.

Via Telegraph