Space News Update – November 2017


This time spacefans we’re doing a jigsaw puzzle with the young Mars and the young Earth to help us see beneath…


Deep sea hydrothermal vents have long been thought of as candidates as to how life on Earth arose and survived. Conditions were pretty damn hostile at the time in our planet’s youth. The atmosphere was (for us) toxic, and large bits of rock kept hitting everything in sight during the Late Heavy Bombardment as the young Solar system settled itself down. These vents were a nice warm safe place to sit and evolve. Even now, if the Earth had an impact from an object as big as Pluto, there’s a feasible chance that microbial life at the bottom of the Marianas Trench would shrug it off. Obviously not so good for the rest off us, of course! So finding evidence that Mars also had the same oceanic, volcanic conditions billions of years ago is very exciting!

And that’s just what we may have. A new report from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) shows indications of mineral deposits from ancient oceans that match up with deposits from the same era on Earth. This gives us clues as to the timeline moving on the same kind of path. Mars was very active at the time, and we know the planet had liquid water.

“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,” said Paul Niles of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston. “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.”

This view of a portion of the Eridania region of Mars shows blocks of deep-basin deposits that have been surrounded and partially buried by younger volcanic deposits. The image was taken by the Context Camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and covers an area about 12 miles wide.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

We know of course that today, standing bodies of water no longer exist on the surface of Mars. As for volcanism, nothing we’ve spotted shows that for a couple of hundred million years. These mineral deposits are very old, circa 3.7 billion years, but finding them correlate to what we think happened on the early Earth around the same time. When I say ‘think’, I mean we can’t have direct evidence as due to our planet’s tectonic activity recycling its crust over time. However, we still have active volcanic vents surrounded with life, so putting it together, finding this evidence, plus our focus on the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn with subsurface oceans, such as Europa and Enceladus, is an encouraging our need to examine whether the same conditions apply.

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

With all of this in mind, those good folks at NASA have been busy!


The Cassini mission may have recently ended in its fiery death in the atmosphere of Saturn, but that is far as all she wrote in having a closer look, albeit remotely. This new instrument, Submillimeter Enceladus Life Fundamentals Instrument, or amusingly acronymed SELFI (who says scientists don’t have a sense of humour!) has been designed to seek trace elements and chemical traces in order to hopefully catch a glimpse of what may be happening beneath its icy shell.

The Cassini spacecraft detected hydrogen in the plume of gas and icy material spraying from Enceladus during its deepest and last dive through the plume on Oct. 28, 2015. This graphic illustrates a theory on how water interacts with rock at the bottom of the moon’s ocean, producing hydrogen gas. A Goddard team wants to develop an instrument that would reveal even more details about the hydrothermal vents and perhaps help answer if life exists on this ocean world. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Southwest Research Institute

“Submillimeter wavelengths, which are in the range of very high-frequency radio, give us a way to measure the quantity of many different kinds of molecules in a cold gas. We can scan through all the plumes to see what’s coming out from Enceladus,” Chin said. “Water vapor and other molecules can reveal some of the ocean’s chemistry and guide a spacecraft onto the best path to fly through the plumes to make other measurements directly.”

“Molecules such as water and carbon monoxide, and others, are like little radio stations that broadcast on very specific frequencies that say, ‘hey, I’m water, I’m carbon monoxide,’” Chin continued, adding that a submillimeter spectrometer sensitive to these wavelengths is like tuning to a radio station with a specific molecular call-sign. “The spectral lines are so discrete that we can identify and quantify chemicals with no confusion whatsoever,” added Paul Racette, a Goddard engineer who serves as the effort’s chief systems engineer.

While spectroscopy is widely used across many areas of science, this is a far larger degree of fine tuning, like when you wrestle with your car radio trying not to drive into a hedge like no one should ever do.

I know Halloween has gone, but in the spirit of things, I found this amusing.


Trust me, it does make the hairs on the back of your neck stick up!

 See you next time spacefans!

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  • Alot

    Whats the official consensus on how Mars lost its water? Was it too small to hold in the water vapor with gravity or whatnot.

    November 6, 2017 at 7:45 AM
    • phuzz Alot

      Also, it’s core cooled down much quicker than the Earth’s, so there’s practically no internal magnetic field helping to deflect the solar wind away.

      November 6, 2017 at 12:04 PM
      • Alot phuzz

        I see, thanks for the explanation.

        November 6, 2017 at 1:36 PM