Mars offers insights into the origin of life on Earth

Oct. 9 (UPI) — The discovery of ancient hydrothermal deposits on Mars could offer insights into the origin of life on Earth, according to a team of NASA scientists.

Scientists have previously suggested hydrothermal vents on the ocean floors of early Earth would have offered ideal conditions for the emergence of life. Now, scientists have found evidence of such conditions on Mars.

Researchers discovered the signs of underwater hydrothermal activity while analyzing observations of a basin on southern Mars made by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

“Even if we never find evidence that there’s been life on Mars, this site can tell us about the type of environment where life may have begun on Earth,” Paul Niles, a scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in a news release. “Volcanic activity combined with standing water provided conditions that were likely similar to conditions that existed on Earth at about the same time — when early life was evolving here.”

Mars is now dry and dormant, but it once hosted water and volcanic activity. Scientists estimate the basin deposits surveyed by MRO were formed roughly 3.7 billion years ago.

Another study published this week argued methane outflows warmed Mars’ atmosphere during the time period, melting the planet’s ice and allowing water to flow across the Martian surface.

Mars’ seas burned off millions of years ago, but hydrothermal activity is still common on the floor of Earth’s oceans. Scientists have found complex communities of microbes and other types of organisms uniquely adapted to the niche environment.

Scientists have previously observed signs of hydrothermal activity inside Europa, one of Jupiter’s icy moons, as well Enceladus, one of Saturn’s 62 moons. Some planetary scientists believe the activity makes them ideal targets in the quest to find extraterrestrial life.

“This site gives us a compelling story for a deep, long-lived sea and a deep-sea hydrothermal environment,” Niles said. “It is evocative of the deep-sea hydrothermal environments on Earth, similar to environments where life might be found on other worlds — life that doesn’t need a nice atmosphere or temperate surface, but just rocks, heat and water.”

The MRO data suggests the Martian impression was once filled with water, making it the largest sea to grace the Red Planet’s surface. Younger lava deposits in the basin prove the region was volcanically active. MRO’s spectrometer identified deposits of serpentine, talc and carbonate, minerals created by underwater hydrothermal activity.

Researchers detailed their discovery this week in the journal Nature Communications.

“Ancient, deep-water hydrothermal deposits in Eridania basin represent a new category of astrobiological target on Mars,” scientists wrote. “Eridania seafloor deposits are not only of interest for Mars exploration, they represent a window into early Earth.”

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Mercury map renders the innermost planet's geology in color

Oct. 9 (UPI) — Scientists with the European Space Agency have rendered the dull, gray world of Mercury in bright colors as part of a new mapping effort in preparation for next year’s BepiColombo mission launch.

Using data collected by NASA’s Messenger mission between 2010 and 2015, scientists plotted a color-coded map of the Victoria Quadrangle, a crater-filled region in Mercury’s northern hemisphere.

Researchers used colors to distinguish different types of craters and geological features. Crater characteristics — like levels of degradation — helped scientists estimate the density and age of the surrounding surface. categorize

The entirety of the Victoria Quadrangle features 1,789 craters wider than three miles. In the image released this week by ESA, 867 craters are showcased — 268 in the newly mapped section are wider than 12 miles.

Scientists detailed their plotting project in the Journal of Maps.

The maps developed by ESA researchers will be used to inform the BepiColombo mission, scheduled to launch next year. The mission is a joint effort between ESA and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency.

The mission will feature a pair of probes, programmed to study Mercury. The duo will follow up on geologic features first identified by Messenger, as well as measure the innermost planet’s magnetic field, magnetosphere and interior structure.

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Study: Dads relax, play while mom works around the house

Oct. 9 (UPI) — New data suggests dads are more likely to relax or have fun while mom is working around the house or handling child-rearing duties than vice versa.

When scientists at Ohio State University surveyed the work-play patterns of 52 couples with newborns — mostly highly educated, white, dual-income earners — they found 20th century gender patterns among 21st century families.

Though women still shouldered a slightly larger load, men and women tended to split household chores and childcare duties fairly evenly on workdays. But on weekends, or days when neither parent works, dad was more likely to engage in leisure activities while mom continues to work around the house and take care of the infant.

“When there is more time available on the weekend and parents are not so pressed to get everything done, then we see the emergence of gendered patterns and inequality where women do a lot more housework and childcare while he leisures,” researcher Jill Yavorsky, now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said in a news release.

Parents who participated in the study completed detailed time diaries for three months after the birth of their first child. The data showed dads were relaxing 46 percent of the time that mom spent taking care of their newborn, while mom only relaxed 16 percent of the time dad was helping out with childcare. The numbers were similar, though not as stark, for work around the house.

Researchers acknowledged that their findings — detailed this week in the journal Sex Roles — are limited by their sample’s size and homogeneity.

“It is not the definitive answer, and is mostly relevant to similar couples,” said lead study author Claire Kamp Dush, an associate professor of human sciences at Ohio State. “But we need to look into this further and understand how dual-earner couples are sharing housework and child care.”

“I was expecting to see a lot more minutes where the couple was doing some kind of housework or child care together,” Kamp Dush added. “I suspect the situation may be even less equitable for women who don’t have all the advantages of the couples in our sample.”

Kamp Dush said she hopes her ongoing research will inspire new parents to talk more about how they will share household and childcare responsibilities. Patterns of inequality, once established, can last.

“At the time we studied them, these couples were setting up routines that may last several years as the kids grow,” she said. “Couples need to be having these conversations from the first few months.”

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Watch live: NASA streams first of three October spacewalks

Oct. 5 (UPI) — NASA TV is streaming the first of three October spacewalks on Thursday morning. Coverage began at 6:30 a.m. EDT, but the spacewalk didn’t commence until 8:05 a.m.

“Two NASA astronauts switched their spacesuits to battery power this morning at 8:05 a.m. EDT aboard the International Space Station to begin a spacewalk planned to last about 6.5 hours,” NASA announced.

The first of the three spacewalks is being carried out by Expedition 53 Commander Randy Bresnik and Flight Engineer Mark Vande Hei, both NASA astronauts.

Bresnik will lead all three of the scheduled spacewalks. The second spacewalk is scheduled for Oct. 10, and the third for Oct. 18.

Bresnik and Vande Hei are working to replace one of the two Latching End Effectors on Canadarm2, the space station’s robotic arm. The effectors serve as a grappling mechanism, allowing the space stations arm to receive and manipulate visiting cargo vehicles and payloads. The effectors, or LEEs, also field and transmit telemetry data to the rest of the Mobile Base System, or MBS. Canadarm2 is anchored to the MBS and can be moved along the base’s truss by the LEEs.

Last month, one of the effector’s mechanical latches stalled. The malfunction hasn’t impacted any operations, but it needs to be replaced. A spare LEE is located along the side of the station’s truss.

On the second and third spacewalks, astronauts will lubricate the new effector and replace several cameras.

The trio of spacewalks will be Bresnik’s third, fourth and fifth, while Vande Hei will experience his first two spacewalks.

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Elusive songbird, the Liberian greenbul, may have never existed

Oct. 5 (UPI) — Ornithologists may have spent three decades looking for a bird that never was.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Ornithology, the elusiveness of the Liberian greenbul, the rarest of songbirds, can be explained by its lack of existence.

Scientists didn’t invent the Liberian greenbul, Phyllastrephus leucolepis, out of thin air. In the early 1980s, researchers spotted what they believed to be a new species, but were only able to collect a single specimen, similar to the Icterine greenbul but with distinctive white markings on its feathers.

The ornithologists decided they had discovered a new species. For the last 30 years or so, the specimen has remained the sole evidence of Liberian greenbul’s existence. Liberia’s civil war made followup expeditions difficult, but surveys in 2010 and 2013 turned up no signs of the species.

Now, scientists have an explanation for the bird’s elusiveness. It never existed.

New DNA analysis by experts at the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland, suggests the specimen’s genome isn’t significantly different than that of the Icterine greenbul. Researchers hypothesized that the sole specimen is likely just an Icterine greenbul with an odd plumage variation, possibly caused by a nutritional deficiency.

Previous surveys have measured significantly genetic differences among other species of greenbul, offering further proof that the Liberian greenbul and Icterine greenbul are indeed the same.

“The Liberian Greenbul has gained almost ‘mythical’ status since it was sighted in the ’80s,” Martin Collinson, a geneticist from the University of Aberdeen’s Institute of Medical Sciences, said in a news release. “We can’t say definitively that the Liberian Greenbul is the same bird as the Iceterine Greenbul but we have presented enough evidence that makes any other explanation seem highly unlikely. The genetic work was performed independently by scientists here in Aberdeen and in Dresden to make sure there could be no error — we both came to the same conclusion.”

West Africa’s Cavalla Forest, where the single Liberian greenbul specimen was collected, is treasured as a haven of biodiversity. It is of ecological significant to a variety of threatened bird species.

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NASA pushes back launch date for James Webb Space Telescope, again

Sept. 29 (UPI) — NASA’s new target window for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope is between March and June 2019. The world’s most powerful space telescope was previously scheduled to launch in October 2018.

“The change in launch timing is not indicative of hardware or technical performance concerns,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s D.C. headquarters, announced in a news release this week. “Rather, the integration of the various spacecraft elements is taking longer than expected.”

An international agreement with the European Space Agency required NASA to analyze the telescope’s launch preparedness one year prior to the launch date. The assessment forced officials to reconsider their plans, and ultimately inspired NASA to push back the launch date once more.

JWST, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, was first conceived of in 1996. Along the way, the project has been replanned several times, each time pushing the target launch date backward — from 2011 to 2013, from 2015 to 2018 and now to the spring of 2019.

Scientists say the latest delay is largely the result of the complexity of the space telescope’s sunshield.

“The combination of some integration activities taking longer than initially planned, such as the installation of more than 100 sunshield membrane release devices, factoring in lessons learned from earlier testing, like longer time spans for vibration testing, has meant the integration and testing process is just taking longer,” said Eric Smith, program director for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA’s headquarters.

Unlike Hubble, which can be serviced by astronauts and have instruments swapped in and out, JWST must be in its final form before launch.

The construction of such a massive and complex telescope has been a lengthy process. NASA had to build new facilities in which to build and test the groundbreaking telescope — a painstaking and expensive process that may never be repeated.

“This may be the last [space] telescope that we build that is not modular,” NASA administrator Charles Boldentold reporters last year.

Once it begins its scientific mission, though, astronomers are sure to rejoice as they begin to field giant troves of rich astronomical data.

The telescope’s 18 hexagonal mirrors will field massive amounts of infrared light, allowing scientists to peer deeper into space with greater clarity and to study the universe’s first generation of stars and galaxies. JWST will also help scientists study the habitability of nearby exoplanets.

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