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Scientists Seek Signs of Life in the Universe



NASA scientists discuss how and what they're looking for to determine whether extraterrestrial life exists. The Mars Science Laboratory is scheduled to arrive at the Red Planet next August.



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Rio Tinto
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Technology tested for future manned missions to Mars

Looking around, it is easy to see why: the landscape is a vision in red. Only the odd splashes of greenery give the game away.
Rio Tinto in southern Spain is a former mining area, and with its unusual chemical and geological make up, it is surprisingly similar to the Red Planet.
Expedition leader Professor Groemer, who is based at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, explains: "We have a mineral here called jarosite - and that is exactly what we have on Mars."

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Atacama Desert
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NASA scientists are studying possible scenarios and are conducting tests in Chiles Atacama Desert with an eye toward the possibility of sending astronaut crews to other planets like Mars, El Mercurio newspaper reported Sunday.
The dryness, the high ultraviolet radiation and heavy winds associated with violent storms that can degrade and break down organic materials are similar to conditions found on the Martian surface, say the scientists who are carrying out their tests in what is considered to be Earths most arid region.
Eight scientists from NASA and several universities headed by biologist Judson Wynne are doing ongoing research in eight open salt, gypsum and sediment caverns located in the Los Flamencos National Preserve, some 1,600 kilometres northeast of Santiago.

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MARTE
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Title: MARTE: Technology development and lessons learned from a Mars drilling mission simulation
Authors: Howard N. Cannon, Carol R. Stoker, Stephen E. Dunagan, Kiel Davis, Javier Gómez-Elvira, Brian J. Glass, Lawrence G. Lemke, David Miller, Rosalba Bonaccorsi, Mark Branson, Scott Christa, José Antonio Rodríguez-Manfredi, Erik Mumm, Gale Paulsen, Matt Roman, Alois Winterholler, Jhony R. Zavaleta

The NASA Mars Astrobiology Research and Technology Experiment (MARTE) performed a field test simulating a robotic drilling mission on Mars in September 2005. The experiment took place in Minas de Riotinto in southwestern Spain, a highly relevant Mars analogue site. The experiment utilised a 10 m class dry auger coring drill, a robotic core sample handling system, onboard science and life detection instruments, and a borehole inspection probe, all of which were mounted to a simulated lander platform. Much of the operation of the system was automated, and the resulting data were transmitted via satellite to remote science teams for analysis. The science team used the data to characterise the subsurface geology and to search for signs of life. Based on the data being received and operational constraints, the science team also directed the daily operation of the equipment. The experiment was highly successful, with the drill reaching over 6 m in depth in 23 days of simulated mission. The science team analysed remote sensing data obtained from 28 cores and detected biosignatures in 12 core subsamples. This experiment represents an important first step in understanding the technology and operational requirements for a future Mars drilling mission. In the past there have been numerous rover field tests that have helped guide the design and implementation of the highly successful rover missions to Mars. However, a drilling mission potentially adds a new level of complexity, and it is important to understand the associated challenges. This paper documents the design of the experimental system, highlighting some of the more important design criteria and design trades. It also discusses the results of the field testing and lists some of the key technological lessons learned. © 2007 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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The success of a robotic drilling mission to search for subsurface life has demonstrated that robotic core sampling combined with remote laboratory analysis is both technically feasible and could be used for life detection on Mars, according to a report in the latest issue (Volume 8, Number 5) of Astrobiology, a peer-reviewed journal published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. Several key papers in the issue are available free online at www.liebertpub.com/ast
Promising results from the Mars Astrobiology Research and Technology Experiment (MARTE) have led scientists to conclude that it would be possible to use robotic coring drills to collect subsurface samples from Mars. The findings also hold promise for applying state-of-the-art bioanalytical tools to detect biosignatures and identify life forms.

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Fossil microbes found along an iron-rich river in Spain reveal how signs of life could be preserved in minerals found on Mars. The discovery may help to equip the next generation Mars rover with the tools it would need to find evidence of past life on the planet.
The Rio Tinto arises from springs west of Seville. These springs percolate up through iron ores that were deposited by geothermal activity more than 200 million years ago.

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AMASE expedition
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For two weeks, an international crew of scientists and engineers are field-testing instruments for future Mars missions. Thea Falkenberg, winner of a student contest to join the AMASE expedition, reports back on her experiences through a daily blog.
 The Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition (AMASE) takes advantage of similarities between the conditions on Mars and those at Svalbard in order to do scientific research in preparation future Mars missions, such as ESA's ExoMars and NASA's Mars Science Laboratory.
Through a joint competition, ESA and the Norwegian Space Centre offered one European student the chance to join the expedition team. Thea Falkenberg, a final year engineering student at the Technical University of Denmark, impressed the judges with her experience and enthusiasm.

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Title: The Cyborg Astrobiologist: Porting from a wearable computer to the Astrobiology Phone-cam
Authors: Alexandra Bartolo, Patrick C. McGuire, Kenneth P. Camilleri, Christopher Spiteri, Jonathan C. Borg, Philip J. Farrugia, Jens Ormo, Javier Gomez-Elvira, Jose Antonio Rodriguez-Manfredi, Enrique Diaz-Martinez, Helge Ritter, Robert Haschke, Markus Oesker, Joerg Ontrup

We have used a simple camera phone to significantly improve an 'exploration system' for astrobiology and geology. This camera phone will make it much easier to develop and test computer-vision algorithms for future planetary exploration. We envision that the 'Astrobiology Phone-cam' exploration system can be fruitfully used in other problem domains as well.

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ChemCam
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Los Alamos ChemCam to vaporise rocks on Mars to determine composition
Mars mission Job One: Get there. Job Two: Find rocks and zap them with your laser tool. Now learn the nature of the debris by spectrographically analysing the ensuing dust and fragments. Its every kids dream, vaporising pebbles on other planets, and thanks to a team at Los Alamos National Laboratory, its going to happen.
When the JPL-NASA Mars Science Laboratory rover launches in 2009, it will carry this combination laser-telescope unit and enable the gadget-packed rover to know a great deal about rocks in its general vicinity. The ChemCam package includes a mast unit, projecting above the rover with a laser and telescope, and a body unit, the brains of the beast, with three spectrographs and the instrument controls.

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Mars Yard
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JPL scientists and engineers unveiled a little piece of Mars Tuesday right in their own back yard.
With giant ceremonial scissors, they cut the ribbon for the laboratory's new Mars Yard, a playground of volcanic rocks and brown sand for testing future generations of rovers.

On Mars, said Samad Hayati, JPL's Mars technology program manager, rovers "have to work on a surface that is not known ahead of time ... one little mistake can actually end the whole mission."

But by practicing with prototypes in the Mars Yard, he said, engineers can understand the limitations of their robotic explorers, preventing any such dire errors.
The 24,000-square-foot, $1million Mars Yard replaces a much smaller area that engineers used for testing the rovers now on the Red Planet.
The expansion, Hayati said, was necessary to accommodate trials with the much larger Mars Science Laboratory, a mission now being prepared to search for signs of life on Mars.

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