Researchers have developed a new process that could make it much cheaper to produce biofuels such as ethanol from plant waste and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
Their approach, featuring an ammonia-salt based solvent that rapidly turns plant fibers into su…
Look out, Mars: Here we come with a fleet of spacecraft – WFMJ
By MARCIA DUNNAP Aerospace Writer
By MARCIA DUNNAP Aerospace Writer
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Mars is about to be invaded by planet Earth — big time.
Three countries — the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates — are sending unmanned spacecraft to the red planet in quick succession beginning this week, in the most sweeping effort yet to seek signs of ancient microscopic life while scouting out the place for future astronauts.
The U.S., for its part, is dispatching a six-wheeled rover the size of a car, named Perseverance, to collect rock samples that will be brought back to Earth for analysis in about a decade.
“Right now, more than ever, that name is so important,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said as preparations went on amid the coronavirus outbreak, which will keep the launch guest list to a minimum.
Each spacecraft will travel more than 300 million miles (483 million kilometers) before reaching Mars next February. It takes six to seven months, at the minimum, for a spacecraft to loop out beyond Earth’s orbit and sync up with Mars’ more distant orbit around the sun.
Scientists want to know what Mars was like billions of years ago when it had rivers, lakes and oceans that may have allowed simple, tiny organisms to flourish before the planet morphed into the barren, wintry desert world it is today.
“Trying to confirm that life existed on another planet, it’s a tall order. It has a very high burden of proof,” said Perseverance’s project scientist, Ken Farley of Caltech in Pasadena, California.
The three nearly simultaneous launches are no coincidence: The timing is dictated by the opening of a one-month window in which Mars and Earth are in ideal alignment on the same side of the sun, which minimizes travel time and fuel use. Such a window opens only once every 26 months.
Mars has long exerted a powerful hold on the imagination but has proved to be the graveyard for numerous missions. Spacecraft have blown up, burned up or crash-landed, with the casualty rate over the decades exceeding 50%. China’s last attempt, in collaboration with Russia in 2011, ended in failure.
Only the U.S. has successfully put a spacecraft on Mars, doing it eight times, beginning with the twin Vikings in 1976. Two NASA landers are now operating there, InSight and Curiosity. Six other spacecraft are exploring the planet from orbit: three U.S., two European and one from India.
The United Arab Emirates and China are looking to join the elite club.
The UAE spacecraft, named Amal, which is Arabic for Hope, is an orbiter scheduled to rocket away from Japan on Wednesday, local time, on what will be the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. The spacecraft, built in partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder, will arrive at Mars in the year the UAE marks the 50th anniversary of its founding.
“The UAE wanted to send a very strong message to the Arab youth,” project manager Omran Sharaf said. “The message here is that if the UAE can reach Mars in less than 50 years, then you can do much more. … The nice thing about space, it sets the standards really high.”
Controlled from Dubai, the celestial weather station will strive for an exceptionally high Martian orbit of 13,670 miles by 27,340 miles (22,000 kilometers by 44,000 kilometers) to study the upper atmosphere and monitor climate change.
China will be up next, with the flight of a rover and an orbiter sometime around July 23; Chinese officials aren’t divulging much. The mission is named Tianwen, or Questions for Heaven.
NASA, meanwhile, is shooting for a launch on July 30 from Cape Canaveral.
Perseverance is set to touch down in an ancient river delta and lake known as Jezero Crater, not quite as big as Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. China’s much smaller rover will aim for an easier, flatter target.
To reach the surface, both spacecraft will have to plunge through Mars’ hazy red skies in what has been dubbed “seven minutes of terror” — the most difficult and riskiest part of putting spacecraft on the planet.
Jezero Crater is full of boulders, cliffs, sand dunes and depressions, any one of which could end Perseverance’s mission. Brand-new guidance and parachute-triggering technology will help steer the craft away from hazards. Ground controllers will be helpless, given the 10 minutes it takes radio transmissions to travel one-way between Earth and Mars.
Jezero Crater is worth the risks, according to scientists who chose it over 60 other potential sites.
Where there was water — and Jezero was apparently flush with it 3.5 billion years ago — there may have been life, though it was probably only simple microbial life, existing perhaps in a slimy film at the bottom of the crater. But those microbes may have left telltale marks in the sediment layers.
Perseverance will hunt for rocks containing such biological signatures, if they exist.
It will drill into the most promising rocks and store a half-kilogram (about 1 pound) of samples in dozens of titanium tubes that will eventually be fetched by another rover. To prevent Earth microbes from contaminating the samples, the tubes are super-sterilized, guaranteed germ-free by Adam Stelzner, chief engineer for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
“Yep, I’m staking my reputation on it,” he said.
While prowling the surface, Perseverance as well as China’s rover will peek below, using radar to locate any underground pools of water that might exist. Perseverance will also release a spindly, 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) helicopter that will be the first rotorcraft ever to fly on another planet.
Perseverance’s cameras will shoot color video of the rover’s descent, providing humanity’s first look at a parachute billowing open at Mars, while microphones capture the sounds.
The rover will also attempt to produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the thin Martian atmosphere. Extracted oxygen could someday be used by astronauts on Mars for breathing as well as for making rocket propellant.
NASA wants to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 and send them from there to Mars in the 2030s. To that end, the space agency is sending samples of spacesuit material with Perseverance to see how they stand up against the harsh Martian environment.
The tab for Perseverance’s mission, including the flight and a minimum two years of Mars operations, is close to $3 billion. The UAE’s project costs $200 million, including the launch but not mission operations. China has not disclosed its costs. Europe and Russia dropped plans to send a life-seeking rover to Mars this summer after falling behind in testing and then getting slammed by COVID-19.
Perseverance’s mission is seen by NASA as a comparatively low-risk way of testing out some of the technology that will be needed to send humans to the red planet and bring them home safely.
“Sort of crazy for me to call it low risk because there’s a lot of hard work in it and there are billions of dollars in it,” Farley said. “But compared to humans, if something goes wrong, you will be very glad you tested it out on a half-kilogram of rock instead of on the astronauts.”
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.
Climate change: what Antarctica’s ‘doomsday glacier’ means for the planet – Financial Times
Thwaites Glacier is melting at an alarming rate, triggering fears over rising sea levels
Even by the standards of Antarctica, there are few places as remote and hostile as Thwaites Glacier. More than 1,000 miles from the nearest research base, battered by storms that can last for weeks, with temperatures that hit -40C in winter, working on the glacier is sometimes compared to working on the moon.
Dubbed the “doomsday” glacier, Thwaites, perhaps more than any other place in the world, holds crucial clues about the future of the planet.
Only a handful of people had ever set foot on Thwaites before last year. Now it is the focus of a major research project, led by British and American teams, as scientists race to understand how the glacier — which is the size of Britain and melting very quickly — is changing, and what that means for how much sea levels rise during our lifetimes.
“It is the most vulnerable place in Antarctica,” says Rob Larter, a marine geophysicist and UK principal investigator for the Thwaites Glacier Project at the British Antarctic Survey. He takes a map and points to parts of the deteriorating glacier that have already broken off. “A lot of this is no longer there,” he says.
The scientists studying Thwaites go to extreme lengths to carry out their research. Geologist Joanne Johnson spent eight weeks sharing a tent with just one other person in the Thwaites area earlier this year.
“If something goes wrong, you are a very, very long way from help,” says Ms Johnson, a geologist at the British Antarctic Survey. Getting along with your colleague is crucial for survival. “Although you are in isolation, you are actually not very isolated at all, because you have this person who is with you 24 hours a day.”
The extreme version of lockdown, she says, was not too bad. “I really enjoy that kind of world, I enjoy the isolation, and feeling like you are at one with the landscape,” she says. But the situation of Thwaites Glacier is more alarming. “The glacier is changing so fast at present, that we are very concerned that it will drain a lot of ice into the sea,” says Ms Johnson. “It is quite unstable, and you can see that when you fly over it, with loads of crevassing.”
Ms Johnson is studying the rocks underneath the glacier, which will help to reveal its history. Knowing more about how Thwaites behaved in the past, she explains, should help scientists predict how it will respond to a warmer climate in the future. Her research is part of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, a £20m effort by British and American scientists that is one of the most ambitious Antarctic research projects ever undertaken.
But understanding the Thwaites Glacier is not just academic — it is crucial for predicting how sea level rises will impact on cities, and how we should prepare for a radically different world. If Thwaites continues to deteriorate, then by the end of the century the glacier could be responsible for centimetres or tens of centimetres of sea level rise.
“That doesn’t sound like much, but it is,” says David Vaughan, director of science at the British Antarctic Survey. “It is not about the sea coming up the beach slowly over 100 years — it is about one morning you wake up, and an area that has never been flooded in history is flooded.”
Melting ice threatens US
Antarctica holds around 90 per cent of the ice on the planet. It is equivalent to a continent the size of Europe, covered in a blanket of ice 2km thick. And as the planet heats up due to climate change, it doesn’t warm evenly everywhere: the polar regions warm much faster. It puts the icy continent of Antarctica and Greenland, the smaller Arctic region, right at the forefront of global warming. The South Pole has warmed at three times the global rate since 1989, according to a paper published last month.
As Antarctic ice melts and the glaciers slide toward the ocean, Thwaites has a central position, that governs how the other glaciers behave. Right now, Thwaites is like a stopper holding back a lot of the other glaciers in West Antarctica. But scientists are worried that could change.
“It is a keystone for the other glaciers around it in West Antarctica . . . If you remove it, other ice will potentially start draining into the ocean too,” says Paul Cutler, programme director for Antarctic glaciology at the National Science Foundation in the US.
Thwaites is getting thinner and smaller, losing ice at an accelerating rate. “The big question is how quickly it becomes unstable,” Mr Cutler adds. “It seems to be teetering at the edge.”
By itself, Thwaites could raise sea levels about 65cm as it melts. But if Thwaites goes, the knock-on effect across the western half of Antarctica would lead to between 2m and 3m of sea level rise, says Mr Cutler, a rise that would be catastrophic for most coastal cities.
Right now climate modellers say sea levels will rise between 61cm and 110cm by the end of the century, assuming the world keeps emitting carbon dioxide at current levels. But if Thwaites collapses faster than expected, then the amount of sea level rise caused by Antarctica could be double what is in the models.
The influence of gravity on the ocean means that sea levels will rise more in certain places. And an increase of that order would leave some cities more exposed than others, particularly the east coast of North America.
Impact of warming oceans
The good news is that the Antarctic continent is not melting that much, yet. It currently contributes about 1mm per year to the sea level rise, a third of the annual global increase. But the pace of change at glaciers like Thwaites has accelerated at an alarming rate, even though it would take thousands of years for Antarctica itself to melt.
As concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increase to levels never before experienced by humans, researchers are trying to understand how the planet is changing. Antarctica is central to that task.
“Antarctica is by far the biggest risk,” in terms of extreme sea level rise, says Anders Levermann, a professor at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and the author of several papers on the Antarctic ice sheet.
The big question is not whether, but how quickly, sea levels will rise. Ice takes time to melt and heat takes time to distribute through the climate system. Little is known about the physical properties of ice sheets and how they deteriorate over time, which is why understanding Thwaites is so critical.
Mr Levermann explains that the physics involved are similar to putting an ice cube on a plate and watching it melt. “It is very difficult to say how fast sea level is rising, but it is not very difficult to say how much ice can survive on a planet that is 1C or 2C or 3C warmer, and how much the ocean will expand,” he says.
Even though emissions of carbon dioxide have fallen significantly during worldwide lockdowns, the long-term prognosis is not good. Carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for a century or longer, its levels are still increasing and the planet is still warming. Recent months have seen a series of grim new milestones: last month was the hottest June on record. And in July, a heatwave in the Russian Arctic near Siberia reached a record 38C, triggering a series of devastating wildfires.
Many of the warming processes taking place on the planet are already “locked in” — like the disappearance of summer Arctic sea ice or the melting permafrost of Siberia — meaning that we may not be able to stop or reverse them. All we can do is research them, and understand what they mean for our lives.
One of the more unlikely tools helping scientists in that quest is a long yellow robot named Icefin. Designed to look for alien life on Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, it was trialled at Thwaites Glacier in December and January. Shaped like a cylinder so that it can be lowered down through a narrow hole in the ice, the robot has cameras, chemical sensors and sonar scanners. Its mission has been to reach the bottom of the glacier, where the ice meets the bedrock and most of the melting takes place.
“[This] vehicle can get into places that nothing else can really get to,” says Britney Schmidt, leader of the Icefin team and associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Icefin and other research teams have discovered that it is the ocean, not the air, that is the real culprit behind the melting of Thwaites Glacier. As the planet warms up due to climate change, the ocean is absorbing most of the extra heat.
In Antarctica the ice cap that covers the continent is stable right now, the melting is primarily occurring around the edges, where the ice meets the sea. This warming ocean is having an outsized impact on Thwaites Glacier, because much of it sits on bedrock that is below sea level. The lower part of the glacier, closer to the ocean, acts like a champagne cork, preventing the rest of the ice from flowing into the sea.
“If that ice is removed,” says Mr Vaughan, “that is the cork, there is the pop, and what follows is a big rush of ice that comes behind it.”
Infrastructure planners around the world are grappling with the challenge of rising sea levels, which is complicated by the uncertainty involved. Should they be preparing for 50cm of sea level rise, or for twice that level? Finding out more about Thwaites will help to answer that question — but the answers may not arrive in time.
Coastal cities are already spending hundreds of millions of dollars to prepare. San Francisco is building defences around its airport, which sits just 10ft above sea level. In London officials are deciding when to increase the height of the Thames Barrier. Meanwhile, Jakarta has been building a string of sea walls to protect itself, although this has not yet been enough to stave off government plans to relocate Indonesia’s entire capital city.
The economic cost of rising seas is vast: as much as 4 per cent of global gross domestic product by the end of the century, according to a study published earlier this year in Environmental Research Communications. Higher seas mean more coastal flooding, damaged infrastructure, more storm surges during typhoons, and the destruction of low-lying agricultural land, as it gets infiltrated by salty seawater.
It’s much more cost-effective to prepare ahead of time for rising seas, rather than wait to deal with the aftermath, says Thomas Schinko, the author of the study and a researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. “If we don’t adapt we will experience huge losses,” he adds.
But that preparation is hard if planners don’t know what to expect. “It is really about giving society a more accurate sense of how much, how fast,” says Mr Cutler of the US National Science Foundation. “How urgent is this challenge — what are we already in store for, based on the inertia in the whole global climate system?”
With coronavirus spreading across the world, the next research season in Antarctica — normally December to February — has been reduced to a skeleton staff. Antarctica is the only continent with zero cases of coronavirus, and the research teams are determined to keep it that way.
For Thwaites Glacier, that means the research teams and Ms Johnson will have to wait a bit longer to have all the answers. “We still don’t know that much about Thwaites,” says the geologist who is adamant that she will return to the glacier one day. “Most of our discoveries are yet to come.”
NASA and HeroX are Looking to Light Up the Moon! – Universe Today
With a prize purse of up to $5 million, NASA and HeroX are looking for ideas on how we could provide sustainable power for astronauts exploring the Moon and Mars!
NASA is busy preparing to land astronauts around the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin by 2024, which will be the first time astronauts have walked on lunar soil since the Apollo Era. By 2028, they plan to establish the Lunar Gateway and Lunar Base Camp, which will facilitate long-term lunar exploration and also missions to Mars. Naturally, a lot of things need to be figured out beforehand, like seeing to the astronauts’ needs.
This includes shelter from the elements, food, and water, but also electricity. To meet that demand, the NASA Centennial Challenges Program has once again launched an incentive challenge through HeroX to inspire solutions. It’s called the Watts on the Moon Challenge, and in exchange for a prize purse of up to $5 million, NASA is looking for solutions on how to provide a reliable supply of energy for lunar missions.
The goal of this competition, which is expected to kick off no earlier than the end of September of 2020, is to enable new solutions for power distribution, management, and storage on the lunar surface. At the same time, NASA hopes that incentivizing solutions for providing sustainable energy on the Moon will also lead to the development of more reliable and eco-friendly technologies for use here on Earth.
Elevation data of the Moon showing the South Pole-Aitken Basin. Credit: NASA/GSFC/University of Arizona
The challenge is expected to have two phases that, together, will last no longer than three years. In Phase I, which will last approximately 8 months (including judging), teams will need to submit a concept design that can perform mission scenarios in a simulated lunar environment. NASA will select the facility in which the environment is built, which could include its own facilities or ones outside of the administration.
In this simulated lunar setting, teams will be presented three mission activities that they will be free to choose one or more of. Each activity presents a different combination of requirements, distances between energy sources and sites of operation, limitations, and challenges that the teams must account for. As NASA describes them in the competition guidelines:
“Water and oxygen are fundamental to exploration and future habitat on the lunar surface. Specifically, collecting and processing of water-ice and oxygen-bearing minerals to produce propellant and other mission consumables is a desirable early capability goal of the Artemis Program. The Mission Scenario describes a set of activities related to harvesting, processing, and purifying water from ice-laden lunar soil(regolith), as well as oxygen production.”
The Mission Scenario and three associated activities are based on the kinds of mission operations and environmental features that are anticipated on the Moon. All activities will be designed to simulate conditions inside the rim of a permanently-shadowed lunar crater in a polar region where temperatures are perennially -269 °C (-452 °F).
An illustration of NASA’s VIPER lunar rover. It’ll explore the Moon’s south pole and map water resources. Credit: NASA Ames/Daniel Rutter
In addition, the proposed ideas must be able to contend with the long periods of illumination and darkness in the polar regions (aka. the diurnal cycle), which lasts 706 hours – 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 3 seconds, to be exact. The three activities include:
Collecting Regolith: For this activity, teams must be able to provide power to a mobile platform operating inside the crater. This platform will be required to collect ice-bearing lunar regolith for 100 hours and then deliver it to a water extraction plant located 5 km (3 mi) away for processing. The total mission scenario time must not exceed 200 hours, and the platform must be able to ascend and descent into the crater (if needed).
Water Production: Here, the teams must deliver power to the water production plant, located 1000 meters (1094 yards) from the power source on the crater rim. The regolith, which will be 20% ice and 80% dry regolith by mass fraction, will be heated to 200 ºC (392 °F) to fully extract the water. During 100 hours of operation, the plant will produce 20 kg (44 lbs) of water, with three deliveries made over a total of 300 hours.
Oxygen Production: Teams must provide thermal energy storage for the oxygen production plant outside the crater, located 100 m (330 ft) from the power source. The plant heats dry regolith, which is 14% oxygen by mass, to temperatures of 1,800 ºC (3,272 °F) to extracts oxygen gas. The plant must produce oxygen at an average rate of 1 kg (2.2 lbs) per hour over the full 709-hour diurnal cycle.
Illustration of Artemis astronauts on the Moon. Credits: NASA
The Prize purses for Phase I will total up to $500,000. Up to three 1st place winners be awarded $100,000 for each Mission Activity while up to four runner-up teams will receive up to $50,000 each. If submissions for Phase I should prove to be viable and particularly promising, the second phase will be held that will take things to the next level, lasting up to two and a half years with a prize purse of $4.5 million!
As with all challenges that have been launched to date by the NASA Centennial Challenges Program (many of which have been hosted by HeroX), the Watts on the Moon Challenge is in keeping with the mission of the NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate (of which it is part). As always, the goal is to foster innovation and the creation of new technologies that will support and facilitate future NASA missions.
The all-important issue of sustainability, which informs much of NASA’s plans for future space exploration, is also a major part of this challenge. As missions take astronauts farther from Earth and for longer periods of time, power systems that utilize sustainable technologies will become more and more important.
Not only do they need to rely on local resources, they must also be able to operate for long periods without resupplying and (wherever possible) produce zero waste. And of course, this type of technology would have endless applications here on Earth, where demand for electricity is rising concurrently with the decline of fossil fuels and a mounting climate crisis.
Whether it’s at home or in deep space, the ability to keep the lights on without breaking the bank and ruining the local environment is a must!
Further Reading: HeroX
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