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Mars Science Laboratory
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This is a HiRISE image of the proposed landing site for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) in Becquerel Crater.

MSL001480_2015
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Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Image PSP_001480_2015 was taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft on 19-Nov-2006. The complete image is centred at 21.3 degrees latitude, 352.5 degrees East longitude. The range to the target site was 283.6 km. At this distance the image scale ranges from 28.4 cm/pixel (with 1 x 1 binning) to 113.5 cm/pixel (with 4 x 4 binning).
The image has been map-projected to 25 cm/pixel and north is up. The image was taken at a local Mars time of 03:27 PM and the scene is illuminated from the west with a solar incidence angle of 49 degrees, thus the sun was about 41 degrees above the horizon. At a solar longitude of 137.9 degrees, the season on Mars is Northern Summer.

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RE: Cyborg Astrobiologist
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On Monday, NASA announced $750,000 in funding for development of an instrument to detect signs of life on Mars proposed by a scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.
The instrument is designed to provide the most rigorous analysis possible for the past and present existence of biological compounds on Mars' surface, according to Jeffrey Bada, a professor at Scripps and lead investigator on the project team. Other principal scientists are Richard Mathies of UC Berkeley and Frank Grunthaner of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena as well as researchers at NASA's Ames Research Center in Menlo Park and the Leiden Institute of Chemistry in the Netherlands.

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RE: Mars Organic Analyzer
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The dry, dusty, treeless expanse of Chile's Atacama Desert is the most lifeless spot on the face of the Earth, and that's why Alison Skelley and Richard Mathies joined a team of NASA scientists there earlier this month.

The University of California, Berkeley, scientists knew that if the Mars Organic Analyzer (MOA) they'd built could detect life in that crusty, arid land, then it would have a good chance some day of detecting life on the planet Mars.



In a place that hadn't seen a blade of grass or a bug for ages, and contending with dust and temperature extremes that left her either freezing or sweating, Skelley ran 340 tests that proved the instrument could unambiguously detect amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.
More importantly, she and Mathies were able to detect the preference of Earth's amino acids for left-handedness over right-handedness. This "homochirality" is a hallmark of life that Mathies thinks is a critical test that must be done on Mars.

"We feel that measuring homochirality - a prevalence of one type of handedness over another - would be absolute proof of life," said Mathies, professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley and Skelley's research advisor. "We've shown on Earth, in the most Mars-like environment available, that this instrument is a thousand times better at detecting biomarkers than any instrument put on Mars before."

The instrument has been chosen to fly aboard the European Space Agency's ExoMars mission, now scheduled to launch in 2011.
The MOA will be integrated with the Mars Organic Detector, which is being assembled by scientists directed by Frank Grunthaner at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena together with Jeff Bada's group at UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Skelley, a graduate student who has been working on amino acid detection with Mathies for five years and on the portable MOA analyzer for the past two years, is hoping to remain with the project as it goes through miniaturization and improvements at JPL over the next seven years in preparation for its long-range mission. In fact, she and Mathies hope she's the one looking at MOA data when it's finally radioed back from the Red Planet.

"When I first started this project, I had seen photos of the Martian surface and possible signs of water, but the existence of liquid water was speculative, and people thought I was crazy to be working on an experiment to detect life on Mars," Skelley said. "I feel vindicated now, thanks to the work of NASA and others that shows there used to be running liquid water on the surface of Mars."

"The connection between water and life has been made very strongly, and we think there is a good chance there is or was some life form on Mars," Mathies said. "Thanks to Alison's work, we're now in the right position at the right time to do the right experiment to find life on Mars."

Mathies said that his experiment is the only one proposed for ExoMars or the United States' own Mars mission - NASA's roving, robotic Mars Science Laboratory mission - that could unambiguously find signs of life.
The experiment uses state-of-the-art capillary electrophoresis arrays, novel micro-valve systems and portable instrument designs pioneered in Mathies' lab to look for homochirality in amino acids. These microarrays with microfluidic channels are 100 to 1,000 times more sensitive for amino acid detection than the original life detection instrument flown on the Viking Landers in the 1970s.

The Atacama Desert was selected by NASA scientists as one of the key spots to test instruments destined for Mars, primarily because of its oxidizing, acidic soil, which is similar to the rusty red oxidized iron surface of Mars. Skelley and colleagues Pascale Ehrenfreund, professor of astrochemistry at Leiden University in The Netherlands, and JPL scientist Frank Grunthaner visited the desert last year, but were not able to test the complete, integrated analyzer.

This year, Skelley, Mathies and other team members carried the complete analyzers in three large cases to Chile by plane - in itself a test of the ruggedness of the equipment - and trucked them to the barren Yunguy field station, essentially a ramshackle building at a deserted crossroads. With a noisy Honda generator providing power, they set up their experiments and, with six other colleagues, tested the integrated subcritical water extractor together with the MOA on samples from popular test sites such as the "Rock Garden" and the "Soil Pit."

One thing they learned is that with low environmental levels of organic compounds, as is likely to be the case on Mars, the microfluidic channels in the capillary disks don't get clogged as readily as they do when used to test samples in Berkeley with its high bioorganic levels.
That means they'll need fewer channels on the instrument that travels to Mars, and the scanner used to read out the data needn't be as elaborate. This translates into a cheaper and easier way to build instruments, but more importantly, an instrument that is smaller and uses less power.
With the success of this crucial field test, Skelley and Mathies are eager to get to work on a prototype of their instrument that would fit in the allowed space within the ExoMars spacecraft.
"I'm much more optimistic that we could detect life on Mars, if it's there," Mathies said.


The capillary electrophoresis instrument of the Mars Organic Analyzer (right) and the subcritical water extractor, both of which together form the Mars Organic Detector being assembled by UC Berkeley, JPL and Scripps. (Alison Skelley/UC Berkeley)

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RE: Cyborg Astrobiologist
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A computer system designed to look for life on Mars has been tested at a site on Earth resembling a Martian region being explored by one of Nasa's rovers.
The system, to be worn by an astronaut, underwent a trial at red sandstone beds in Spain with similarities to Meridiani Planum, where Opportunity rover landed.
Software picks out interesting features and highlights them in real-time in a visor on one eye or a tablet display.
The "intelligent" system can replace geologists' duties, say its creators.
The cyborg astrobiologist consists of a 667MHz wearable computer, a tablet display with stylus or visor, a colour video camera and tripod.
It would provide "augmented reality" allowing astronauts on future Mars missions to narrow down their search for targets relevant to life processes on the Red Planet.


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The Cyborg Astrobiologist: Scouting Red Beds for Uncommon Features with Geological Significance.
Authors: Patrick C. McGuire, Enrique Diaz-Martinez, Jens Ormo, Javier Gomez-Elvira, Jose A. Rodriguez-Manfredi, Eduardo Sebastian-Martinez, Helge Ritter, Robert Haschke, Markus Oesker, Joerg Ontrup

The `Cyborg Astrobiologist' has undergone a second geological field trial, at a red sandstone site in northern Guadalajara, Spain, near Riba de Santiuste.
The Cyborg Astrobiologist is a wearable computer and video camera system that has demonstrated a capability to find uncommon interest points in geological imagery in real-time in the field.
The first (of three) geological structures that we studied was an outcrop of nearly homogeneous sandstone, which exhibits oxidized-iron impurities in red and an absence of these iron impurities in white. The white areas in these ``red beds'' have turned white because the iron has been removed by chemical reduction, perhaps by a biological agent.



The computer vision system found in one instance several (iron-free) white spots to be uncommon and therefore interesting, as well as several small and dark nodules. The second geological structure contained white, textured mineral deposits on the surface of the sandstone, which were found by the Cyborg Astrobiologist to be interesting.
The third geological structure was a 50 cm thick paleosol layer, with fossilized root structures of some plants, which were found by it to be interesting.
A quasi-blind comparison of the Cyborg Astrobiologist's interest points for these images with the interest points determined afterwards by a human geologist shows that the Cyborg Astrobiologist concurred with the human geologist 68% of the time (true positive rate), with a 32% false positive rate and a 32% false negative rate.
(Abstract has been abridged).

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-- Edited by Blobrana at 14:49, 2005-05-26

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