Astronomers just discovered a Morse code message in the dunes of Mars

NASA has spotted a series of strange, dark dunes on Mars that look uncannily like the dots and dashes that make up Morse code.

This isn’t the first time researchers have spotted this pattern in the sands of Mars, but thanks to its unique topography, this dune field – just south of the planet’s north pole – shows them in clearer detail than usual, allowing scientists to translate the message for the first time.

To be clear, this message is naturally formed – just like the dunes here on Earth, the dots and dashes of the dunes were carved out by the direction of the wind. There’s no spooky alien stuff at play here, promise.

As a press release from NASA explains, what makes the patterns in this dune so prominent is the fact that it’s found inside a natural circular depression, which means there’s a limited amount of sand available to be pushed around by the local winds.

The long ‘dashes’ are formed by bi-directional winds, which means wind that’s travelling at right angles to the dune.

Over time, wind coming from either direction funnels the material into a long, dark line, as you can see in the close-up image below:

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The Martian ‘dots’ are officially known as ‘barchanoid dunes‘, and are a little more mysterious.

Geophysicists believe they’re formed when something interrupts the production of the linear dunes – but NASA still isn’t quite sure what that is, and figuring it out is part of the reason they were photographing the region.

These images were taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera, which is on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been photographing the Red Planet for the past decade.

With more observation, geophysicists are hoping that they’ll be able to figure out more about how the dunes on the surface of Mars form, and what that can tell us about the potential habitability of the planet.

But while they’re figuring that out, NASA planetary scientist Veronica Bray translated the Morse code message for Maddie Stone over at Gizmodo.

So what do the sands of Mars have to tell us? According to Bray:

NEE NED ZB 6TNN DEIBEDH SIEFI EBEEE SSIEI ESEE SEEE !!

It’s very deep stuff – and not intended as anything other than a bit of geophysial fun.

But reading the sands of Mars might one day help us better understand life on the surface of our potential future outpost, so it’s worth paying attention.

 

Source: Science Alert Gizmodo

Liquid water flows on today’s Mars: NASA confirms evidence

Dark, narrow streaks on Martian slopes such as these at Hale Crater are inferred to be formed by seasonal flow of water on contemporary Mars. The streaks are roughly the length of a football field. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
Dark, narrow streaks on Martian slopes such as these at Hale Crater are inferred to be formed by seasonal flow of water on contemporary Mars. The streaks are roughly the length of a football field.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

New findings from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provide the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars.

Using an imaging spectrometer on MRO, researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks are seen on the Red Planet. These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons. They appear in several locations on Mars when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius), and disappear at colder times.

“Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water,’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water — albeit briny — is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”

These downhill flows, known as recurring slope lineae (RSL), often have been described as possibly related to liquid water. The new findings of hydrated salts on the slopes point to what that relationship may be to these dark features. The hydrated salts would lower the freezing point of a liquid brine, just as salt on roads here on Earth causes ice and snow to melt more rapidly. Scientists say it’s likely a shallow subsurface flow, with enough water wicking to the surface to explain the darkening.

“We found the hydrated salts only when the seasonal features were widest, which suggests that either the dark streaks themselves or a process that forms them is the source of the hydration. In either case, the detection of hydrated salts on these slopes means that water plays a vital role in the formation of these streaks,” said Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, lead author of a report on these findings published Sept. 28 by Nature Geoscience.

Ojha first noticed these puzzling features as a University of Arizona undergraduate student in 2010, using images from the MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). HiRISE observations now have documented RSL at dozens of sites on Mars. The new study pairs HiRISE observations with mineral mapping by MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM).

The spectrometer observations show signatures of hydrated salts at multiple RSL locations, but only when the dark features were relatively wide. When the researchers looked at the same locations and RSL weren’t as extensive, they detected no hydrated salt.

Ojha and his co-authors interpret the spectral signatures as caused by hydrated minerals called perchlorates. The hydrated salts most consistent with the chemical signatures are likely a mixture of magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate. Some perchlorates have been shown to keep liquids from freezing even when conditions are as cold as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 Celsius). On Earth, naturally produced perchlorates are concentrated in deserts, and some types of perchlorates can be used as rocket propellant.

Perchlorates have previously been seen on Mars. NASA’s Phoenix lander and Curiosity rover both found them in the planet’s soil, and some scientists believe that the Viking missions in the 1970s measured signatures of these salts. However, this study of RSL detected perchlorates, now in hydrated form, in different areas than those explored by the landers. This also is the first time perchlorates have been identified from orbit.

MRO has been examining Mars since 2006 with its six science instruments.

“The ability of MRO to observe for multiple Mars years with a payload able to see the fine detail of these features has enabled findings such as these: first identifying the puzzling seasonal streaks and now making a big step towards explaining what they are,” said Rich Zurek, MRO project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

For Ojha, the new findings are more proof that the mysterious lines he first saw darkening Martian slopes five years ago are, indeed, present-day water.

“When most people talk about water on Mars, they’re usually talking about ancient water or frozen water,” he said. “Now we know there’s more to the story. This is the first spectral detection that unambiguously supports our liquid water-formation hypotheses for RSL.”

The discovery is the latest of many breakthroughs by NASA’s Mars missions.

“It took multiple spacecraft over several years to solve this mystery, and now we know there is liquid water on the surface of this cold, desert planet,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future.”


Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Lujendra Ojha, Mary Beth Wilhelm, Scott L. Murchie, Alfred S. McEwen, James J. Wray, Jennifer Hanley, Marion Massé & Matt Chojnacki. Spectral evidence for hydrated salts in recurring slope lineae on Mars AOP. Nature Geoscience, 2015; DOI: 10.1038/ngeo2546

Tales from a Martian rock: Clues to planet’s history of habitability

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The surface of Mars was once wet, but no water flows there now. UC San Diego chemists and others took a close look at meteorite that may have been blasted from this huge rift across the planet’s surface. The image is a composite of hundreds of photos taken by NASA’s Viking missions in the 1970s. Credit: USGS, NASA

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] new analysis of a Martian rock that meteorite hunters plucked from an Antarctic ice field 30 years ago this month reveals a record of the planet’s climate billions of years ago, back when water likely washed across its surface and any life that ever formed there might have emerged.

Scientists from the University of California, San Diego, NASA and the Smithsonian Institution report detailed measurements of minerals within the meteorite in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last December.

“Minerals within the meteorite hold a snapshot of the planet’s ancient chemistry, of interactions between water and atmosphere,” said Robina Shaheen, a project scientist at UC San Diego and the lead author of the report.

The unlovely stone, which fell to Earth 13 thousand years ago, looked a lot like a potato and has quite a history. Designated ALH84001, it is the oldest meteorite we have from Mars, a chunk of solidified magma from a volcano that erupted four billion years ago. Since then something liquid, probably water, seeped through pores in the rock and deposited globules of carbonates and other minerals.

The carbonates vary subtly depending on the sources of their carbon and oxygen atoms. Both carbon and oxygen occur in heavier and lighter versions, or isotopes. The relative abundances of isotopes forms a chemical signature that careful analysis and sensitive measurements can uncover.

Mars’s atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide but contains some ozone. The balance of oxygen isotopes within ozone are strikingly weird with enrichment of heavy isotopes through a physical chemical phenomenon first described by co-author Mark Thiemens, a professor of chemistry at UC San Diego, and colleagues 25 years ago.

“When ozone reacts with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it transfers its isotopic weirdness to the new molecule,” said Shaheen, who investigated this process of oxygen isotope exchange as a graduate student at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. When carbon dioxide reacts with water to make carbonates, the isotopic signature continues to be preserved.

The degree of isotopic weirdness in the carbonates reflects how much water and ozone was present when they formed. It’s a record of climate 3.9 billion years ago, locked in a stable mineral. The more water, the smaller the weird ozone signal.

This team measured a pronounced ozone signal in the carbonates within the meteorite, suggesting that although Mars had water back then, vast oceans were unlikely. Instead, the early Martian landscape probably held smaller seas.

“What’s also new is our simultaneous measurements of carbon isotopes on the same samples. The mix of carbon isotopes suggest that the different minerals within the meteorite had separate origins,” Shaheen said. “They tell us the story of the chemical and isotopic compositions of the atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

ALH84001 held tiny tubes of carbonate that some scientists saw as potential evidence of microbial life, though a biological origin for the structures has been discarded. On December 16, NASA announced another potential whiff of Martian life in the form of methane sniffed by the rover Curiosity.

Carbonates can be deposited by living things that scavenge the minerals to build their skeletons, but that is not the case for the minerals measured by this team. “The carbonate we see is not from living things,” Shaheen said. “It has anomalous oxygen isotopes that tell us this carbonate is abiotic.”

By measuring the isotopes in multiple ways, the chemists found carbonates depleted in carbon-13 and enriched in oxygen-18. That is, Mars’s atmosphere in this era, a period of great bombardment, had much less carbon-13 than it does today.

The change in relative abundances of carbon and oxygen isotopes may have occurred through extensive loss of Martian atmosphere. A thicker atmosphere would likely have been required for liquid water to flow on the planet’s chilly surface.

“We now have a much deeper and specific insight into the earliest oxygen-water system in the solar system,” Thiemens said. “The question that remains is when did planets, Earth and Mars, get water, and in the case of Mars, where did it go? We’ve made great progress, but still deep mysteries remain.”


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of California – San Diego. The original article was written by Susan Brown. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Robina Shaheen, Paul B. Niles, Kenneth Chong, Catherine M. Corrigan, and Mark H. Thiemens. Carbonate formation events in ALH 84001 trace the evolution of the Martian atmosphere. PNAS, December 22, 2014 DOI:10.1073/pnas.1315615112

Mars, too, has macro-weather: But trickier than on Earth

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[dropcap]W[/dropcap]eather, which changes day-to-day due to constant fluctuations in the atmosphere, and climate, which varies over decades, are familiar. More recently, a third regime, called “macroweather,” has been used to describe the relatively stable regime between weather and climate.

A new study by researchers at McGill University and UCL finds that this same three-part pattern applies to atmospheric conditions on Mars. The results, published in Geophysical Research Letters, also show that the sun plays a major role in determining macroweather.

The research promises to advance scientists’ understanding of the dynamics of Earth’s own atmosphere — and could provide insights into the weather of Venus, Saturn’s moon Titan, and possibly the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

The scientists chose to study Mars for its wealth of data with which to test their theory that a transitional “macroweather” regime exists on other planets. They used information collected from Viking — a Mars lander mission during the 1970s and 1980s — and more recent data from a satellite orbiting Mars.

By taking into account how the sun heats Mars, as well as the thickness of the planet’s atmosphere, the scientists predicted that Martian temperature and wind would fluctuate similarly to Earth’s — but that the transition from weather to macroweather would take place over 1.8 Martian days (about two Earth days), compared with a week to 10 days on Earth.

“Our analysis of the data from Mars confirmed this prediction quite accurately,” said Shaun Lovejoy, a physics professor at McGill University in Montreal and lead author of the paper. “This adds to evidence, from studies of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, that the sun plays a central role in shaping the transition from short-term weather fluctuations to macroweather.” The findings also indicate that weather on Mars can be predicted with some skill up to only two days in advance, compared to Earth’s 10 days.

Co-author Professor Jan-Peter Muller from the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory, said: “We’re going to have a very hard time predicting the weather on Mars beyond two days given what we have found in weather records there, which could prove tricky for the European lander and rover!”


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by McGill University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Shaun Lovejoy, J.-P. Muller, J. P. Boisvert. On Mars too expect macroweather.Geophysical Research Letters, 2014; DOI: 10.1002/2014GL061861

Secrets of Mars’ birth revealed from unique meteorite

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[dropcap]A[/dropcap] Florida State University scientist has uncovered what may be the first recognized example of ancient Martian crust.

The work of Munir Humayun — a professor in FSU’s Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science and a researcher at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (MagLab) — is based on an analysis of a 4.4 billion-year-old Martian meteorite that was unearthed by Bedouin tribesmen in the Sahara desert. The rock (NWA 7533) may be the first recognized sample of ancient Martian crust and holds a wealth of information about the origin and age of the Red Planet’s crust.

Humayun’s groundbreaking discoveries about the crust and what it reveals about the Red Planet’s origins will be published in the journal Nature.

In order to detect minute amounts of chemicals in this meteorite, Humayun and his collaborators performed complex analysis on the meteorite using an array of highly sophisticated mass spectrometers in the MagLab’s geochemistry department. High concentrations of trace metals such as iridium, an element that indicates meteoritic bombardment, showed that this meteorite came from the elusive cratered area of Mars’ southern highlands.

“This cratered terrain has been long thought to hold the keys to Mars’ birth and early childhood,” Humayun said.

While craters cover more than half of Mars, this is the first meteoric sample to come from this area and the first time researchers are able to understand Mars’ early crustal growth.

Using the chemical information found in pieces of soil contained in the meteorite, the researchers were able to calculate the thickness of Mars’ crust. Their calculation aligned with estimates from independent spacecraft measurements and confirms that Mars did not experience a giant impact that melted the entire planet in its early history.

Using a powerful microprobe at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, the team dated special crystals within the meteorite — called zircons — at an astounding 4.4 billion years old.

“This date is about 100 million years after the first dust condensed in the solar system,” Humayun said. “We now know that Mars had a crust within the first 100 million years of the start of planet building, and that Mars’ crust formed concurrently with the oldest crusts on Earth and the Moon.”

Humayun and his collaborators hypothesize that these trailblazing discoveries are just the tip of the iceberg of what continued research on this unique meteorite will uncover. Further studies may reveal more clues about the impact history of Mars, the nature of Martian zircons and the makeup of the earliest sediments on the Red Planet.

Humayun’s international team of collaborators include curator of meteorites Brigitte Zanda with the National Museum of Natural History (the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle) in Paris; A. Nemchin, M. Grange and A. Kennedy with Curtin University’s Department of Applied Geology in Perth, Australia; and scientists R.H. Hewins, J.P. Lorand, C. Göpel, C. Fieni, S. Pont and D. Deldicque.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Florida State University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. M. Humayun, A. Nemchin, B. Zanda, R. H. Hewins, M. Grange, A. Kennedy, J.-P. Lorand, C. Göpel, C. Fieni, S. Pont, D. Deldicque. Origin and age of the earliest Martian crust from meteorite NWA 7533. Nature, 2013; DOI:10.1038/nature12764

NASA Mars ‘Flying Saucer’ Returns To Earth

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — A saucer-shaped NASA vehicle testing new technology for Mars landings rocketed high over the Pacific on Saturday and deployed a novel inflatable braking system, but its massive parachute failed to fully unfurl as it descended to a splashdown.

Control room cheers that greeted successful steps in the complex test rapidly died as the parachute appeared to emerge tangled.

“Please inform the recovery director we have bad chute,” a mission official ordered.

NASA planned to hold a news conference on the flight Sunday.

The vehicle, called the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator, was testing methods for slowing big, heavy spacecraft hurtling into the thin Martian atmosphere.

Despite the parachute problem, “what we just saw was a really good test,” said NASA engineer Dan Coatta with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

After taking off at 11:40 a.m. PDT from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, the balloon boosted the disc-shaped vehicle over the Pacific. Its rocket motor then ignited, carrying the vehicle to more than 30 miles high at supersonic speeds.

The environment that high up is similar to the thin Martian atmosphere. As the vehicle prepared to drop back the Earth, a tube around it expanded like a Hawaiian puffer fish, creating atmospheric drag to dramatically slow it down from Mach 4, or four times the speed of sound.

Then the parachute unfurled — if only partially — and the vehicle splashed down about three hours later.

Since the twin Viking spacecraft landed on the red planet in 1976, NASA has relied on a parachute to slow landers and rovers.

But the $150 million experimental flight tested a novel vehicle and parachute. At 110 feet in diameter, the chute was twice as big as the one that carried the 1-ton Curiosity rover through the Martian atmosphere in 2011.

Coatta said engineers won’t look at the parachute problem as a failure but as a way to learn more and apply that knowledge during future tests.

“In a way, that’s a more valuable experience for us than if everything had gone exactly according to plan,” he said.

Viewers around the world with an Internet connection followed portions of the mission in real time thanks to cameras on board the vehicle that beamed back low-resolution footage.

A ship was sent to recover a “black box” designed to separate from the vehicle and float. Outfitted with a GPS beacon, the box contains the crucial flight data that scientists are eager to analyze.

“That’s really the treasure trove of all the details,” Coatta said. “Pressure, temperature, force. High-definition video. All those measurements that are really key to us to understanding exactly what happens throughout this test.”

The test was postponed six times because of high winds. Conditions needed to be calm so that the balloon didn’t stray into no-fly zones.

Engineers planned to conduct several more flights next year before deciding whether to fly the vehicle and parachute on a future Mars mission.

“We want to test them here where it’s cheaper before we send it to Mars to make sure that it’s going to work there,” project manager Mark Adler of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said during a pre-launch news conference in Kauai in early June.

The technology envelope needs to be pushed or else humanity won’t be able to fly beyond the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit, said Michael Gazarik, head of space technology at NASA headquarters.

Technology development “is the surest path to Mars,” Gazarik said at the briefing.