Plus, a big job for a tiny spacecraft |

By Jeffrey Kluger
Editor at Large

Dear readers,

Mars may be a wasteland today, but for the first billion or so years of its 4.5 billion year life span, it was awash in oceans and seas and protected by a thick blanket of air. Eventually its magnetic field shut down, allowing the solar wind to claw away the atmosphere and the water to vanish into space. But that first billion years offered Mars plenty of time to cook up at least microbial life. Now, a study published Jan. 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests researchers may have found lingering surface markers of such ancient biology.

The new research, led by geoscientist Christopher House of Pennsylvania State University, was based on work conducted by NASA's Curiosity rover, which has spent nearly a decade in Mars's Gale Crater, which NASA believes was once a lake. In the first part of House's study, the rover collected rock and soil samples at 24 different sites around Gale Crater. The samples were then transferred to a laboratory oven within the body of the rover and heated to about 850º C (1,500º F). A laser spectrometer then analyzed the chemistry of the samples. It was looking especially closely for carbon, the elemental backbone of all life as we know it. It found plenty, which was pretty much as expected. The surprise was just which type.

Carbon comes in two principal isotopes: carbon-13, with six protons and seven neutrons; and carbon-12, with six protons and six neutrons. Carbon-13 doesn't play well with biology; its heavier structure makes for tougher molecular bonds that don't allow for the nimble recombining that makes biological processes possible, and that carbon-12 performs so easily. The more carbon-12 you find in a Martian sample, the greater the possibility that you're looking at an artifact of early life. And Curiosity found plenty of it: Nearly half of the samples it collected had significantly higher levels of carbon-12 than scientists typically detect in Martian meteorites or in the Martian atmosphere.

House and his colleagues posit an intriguing biological explanation for their findings: Ancient Martian microbes growing in and under the soil would have preferentially grabbed the available carbon-12, metabolizing the isotope and producing methane as a byproduct. The methane would have then risen into the atmosphere, where it would have been broken down by ultraviolet light, and the carbon-12 would then have precipitated back down as a dusting on the surface.

"In some ways" wrote House in an email to TIME, "the Martian samples resemble Earth rocks from Australia from 2.7 billion years ago, when our atmosphere was rich in biological methane."

NASA is sanguine about the findings too—though it adds a word of caution. "We're finding things on Mars that are tantalizingly interesting," said Paul Mahaffy, a recently-retired member of the Curiosity science team, in a statement. "But we would really need more evidence to say we've identified life."

House agrees. "We are being cautious with our interpretations here," he says, "but that is the right approach when studying another world such as Mars."


IMAGE OF THE WEEK

Felix & Paul Studios/TIME

The forward section of the International Space Station (ISS) as captured in August 2021 by the on-board 3D, virtual reality camera built by Felix & Paul Studios and launched in association with TIME Studios. A touring, VR immersive experience created with the camera, The Infinite, is now on exhibit in Houston.


WHAT WE'RE READING...

Tiny Spacecraft to Visit Tiny Asteroid

Almost everything about the initial flight of NASA's new Space Launch System (SLS) moon rocket set for this spring will be huge—the 32-story behemoth will put out 4 million kg (8.8 million lbs.) of thrust, making it the most powerful rocket ever launched. But as NASA reports, riding aboard the rocket will be one of the niftiest little spacecraft the agency has ever built: the Near-Earth Asteroid Scout (NEAS), a shoe box-sized machine that will not only provide the space agency with information about small asteroids that could menace Earth, but also serve as one more test of a fuel-free means of space propulsion.

During the SLS's uncrewed mission around the moon and back, the NEAS will be released into space and will unfurl an 86 sq. m (925 sq. ft.) aluminum solar sail. The space sail will act like an ocean sail, but propelled by solar wind—photons streaming from the sun—that will theoretically accelerate it to tens of thousands of miles per hour. The tiny spacecraft's target will be a fittingly tiny asteroid, known as 2020 GE, which measures about the size of a school bus—making it the smallest asteroid ever visited by a spacecraft. The NEAS will study 2020 GE up close, trying to determine its mass and density. The more we know about the make-up of small asteroids, the better we will be able to determine which ones pose the greatest threat to Earth. In 2013, an asteroid the size of 2020 GE exploded in the skies over Chelyabinsk, Russia, injuring 1,600 people and damaging more than 7,200 buildings.

Slow Boat to the Moon

The last time the U.S. sent astronauts to the moon, it didn't fool around. From December 1968 to December 1972, there were nine crewed Apollo lunar missions, six of which involved landings. But Artemis—NASA's new crewed lunar exploration program—is no Apollo, and this time around, space fans will need a little more patience for repeat trips. As SpaceNews reports this week, Artemis 1—an uncrewed launch of the SLS planned for Spring 2022—will not be followed by Artemis 2, a crewed launch around the moon, until two years later, in the spring of 2024. The first crewed landing, Artemis 3 won't come until 2025—maybe. After that, don't hold your breath.

There is indeed an Artemis 4 on the launch manifest, but the date is uncertain, and it will not involve a lunar landing. Instead, the mission will be used to begin construction of the Lunar Gateway, a mini-space station in lunar orbit that NASA plans to use as a staging platform for trips to and from the lunar surface. Don't expect a second crewed landing until Artemis 5 in 2027 at the earliest. One of the key factors slowing things down: Last year, NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to build a new lunar landing vehicle, but the space agency budget has money for just one lander so far.

Blood Problems in Space

Not that you were planning to go to space anytime soon, but just in case you were, here's one more reason to rethink things: A new study published in Nature Medicine and reported by Space.com has found that long-term exposure to the space environment can lead to anemia—and pretty serious cases of it, in fact. On Earth, the body destroys about 2 million red blood cells every second and then quickly replenishes them. But studies with 14 astronauts conducted before, during and after they spent six months aboard the ISS found their blood cell destruction increased to more than 3 million per second.

So-called space anemia had been observed before, but researchers had hoped that astronauts' bodies would adjust over the course of long-term stays in space. But the new study belies that. Once the astronauts returned to Earth, things improved at least a little, but their blood cell destruction still exceeded normal levels by about 30%. So far, space station astronauts have not shown any of the symptoms of severe anemia, such as fatigue, weakness and dizziness. But the longer they remain in space, the greater the risk. One simple solution for now, the researchers recommend, is to change astronauts' diet to include more iron-rich foods.

Hollywood in Space

First it was Russia, which in October launched a director and actor to the ISS to shoot on-location scenes for a movie set in space. Now the U.S. and U.K. are following suit—and upping the ante considerably. As The Verge, CNBC, and others report, U.K.-based Space Entertainment Enterprise has inked a deal with Houston-based engineering company Axiom to build an inflatable, 6 m (20-ft.) diameter module that will dock with the ISS in December 2024 and serve as an orbiting movie studio. The first film intended to be shot there is a Tom Cruise project whose storyline has not yet been released.

NASA had already signed a $140 million deal with Axiom to send one module to the station in Sept. 2024; the movie module would then link up with that one. Ultimately, before the ISS is retired and de-orbited in 2030, the Axiom modules will detach and remain in space, serving as the core for world's first private—and expandable—space station. In a conversation with TIME earlier this month, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson voiced his support for turning all space station activities over to the private sector, so that the space agency "can concentrate on exploring the heavens."


THANKS FOR READING

TIME Space is written by Jeffrey Kluger, Editor at Large at TIME and the author of 12 books, including Apollo 13, Apollo 8, and the new space novel Holdout. Follow him at @jeffreykluger. It is edited by Alex Fitzpatrick.

We welcome any feedback at space@time.com.

 
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