Water, Methane, and even Organics on Mars – Amazing new Data!

It’s been an amazing week for detection and study of water in our Solar system.  Just last week we received the first results of the Rosetta mission’s analysis of water from comet 67P. Now we’ve received the latest breakthrough from the Curiosity Rover on Mars, results on Water, Methane, and even Organic material!

Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (SAM) took measurements of the Martian atmosphere over a period of 20 months, and for two of these months in late 2013 and early 2014, the Methane levels were 10 times as high as measurements before and after the spike.

“This temporary increase in methane — sharply up and then back down — tells us there must be some relatively localized source,” said Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Curiosity rover science team. “There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock.”

Cumberland Drill Site on Mars May 19th, 2013 Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Drilling into a rock dubbed ‘Cumberland’ on May 19th, 2013, the dust sample was transferred to the SAM instrument.  Analysis of this sample indicated water, and the first definitive detection of organic molecules below the surface.  The organics could have formed on Mars, or they could have been deposited by ancient meteorites.

Organic molecules, which contain Carbon and Hydrogen, are the building blocks of life.  However, finding these molecules on Mars does not definitively prove Mars has or once had life, rather that Mars is currently chemically active and there were favourable conditions for life on ancient Mars.

Plot showing abundances of Organic Molecules at each drilling site. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

SAM also analysed a sample of water molecules bound into minerals in the rock Billions of years ago.  By looking at the ratio of Deuterium (A hydrogen atom with a proton and a Neutron) to normal Hydrogen, scientists were able to compare the past Martian water from when the Cumberland rock formed to current water vapour in the atmosphere.  This is because Deuterium water is heavier and is less likely to be lost into Space, while lighter water can be liberated from the upper atmosphere more readily.

The ratio in the Cumberland rock is about half the current ratio in the atmosphere, suggesting that much of the Martian water loss has occurred since the rock formed.  However, the D/H ratio in the water is still 3 times as high as the original ratio on Mars, suggesting that a large amount of Martian water was lost before the rock formed.  The original ratio on Mars is assumed to be the same as the current D/H ratio of Earth’s oceans.

The results are arguably the most significant from the Curiosity rover thus far.  As the rover moves further on its journey to the summit of mount sharp, the data from each successive rock layer should reveal the geological history of Mars, giving us insights into if and when Mars could have harboured life.


Voyager has been Rocked by Interstellar Tsunamis!

Voyager 1, launched way back in 1977, is still giving us Science, far away beyond the influence of the Sun.  In the past few years, the spacecraft has passed the boundary between the Solar System and the Interstellar Medium, the so called Heliopause.  This has given scientists the first ever direct look at the Space between stars.

Since then, Voyager has felt some interesting shock waves, which are being referred to as ‘Tsunami Waves.’

When the Sun emits a Coronal Mass Ejection, the charged particles travel through the Solar System as a pressure wave.  When this wave hits the Heliopause and the charged particle plasma of interstellar space, it creates a shock wave, similar to a large ripple.

Voyager 1 Artist’s Concept against the Background of Stars Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The tsunami causes the ionized gas that is out there to resonate — “sing” or vibrate like a bell,” said Ed Stone, project scientist for the Voyager mission based at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “The density of the plasma is higher the farther Voyager goes.  Is that because the interstellar medium is denser as Voyager moves away from the heliosphere, or is it from the shock wave itself? We don’t know yet.”

Voyager has felt three such waves, and the current one has been ongoing since February 2014!  During this time, Voyager has travelled 400 Million Km through Space.

The second plasma wave in December 2013 helped scientists verify once and for all that Voyager had left the Heliosphere, the solar wind bubble surrounding the Sun and Planets in the Solar System.  They found that the waves ‘ring’ in lower frequencies at higher plasma densities, and measured a density 40 times higher than when Voyager was within the Heliosphere.

Amazing that even in deep Space, Earthbound Physics such as fluid dynamics can help us solve mysteries and piece together our knowledge of the Cosmos.


Motivation Monday: Momentum

“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.”

– J.R.R. Tolkien “The Hobbit”


You can start with a step, then another.  The steps build and become a slow walk, then a fast one, and then a trot.  The next thing you know, you’re jogging, faster and faster, then it’s a run.  The energy builds as you speed up, into a full sprint, and then the fastest run of your life, feeling your heart pump and your body working all at once, pushing harder to the goal.

Momentum is something you have to build, whether it’s physical momentum as you build up speed running, or forward motion toward a goal.  You can start with something small, and do it each day.  As the days go on you can add to it, build on it, and eventually it grows into something you never thought you would see when you started.

This can be in any area of your life.  Maybe you have a pet project you’ve always wanted to work on, or maybe you want to start a new exercise program, or change the way you eat, or organize your home.  You work on it a little bit every day, and before you know it you’ve made huge leaps.

So how do we build momentum in the right direction?

Before we can start building positive momentum, we have to realize that everything takes time, and that we have to overcome our nature of instant gratification, wanting everything right away for no effort, and being discouraged when something doesn’t come to us right away.  Once you’ve accepted this, you can start the process, and it all begins with one thing.

Awareness. This is paramount.  We can’t determine our direction if we aren’t aware of our current situation.  To gain awareness we need to track, write, record, and recall.  We need to think about where we are and actually physically quantify our situation.  We need to look at where we have been, where we are going, and where we want to go.  We have to look to the future and see where our current path can take us.  If nothing changes from the way it is right now, where will you go? Will it be somewhere amazing? Or will things never get better, leaving you years from now wishing things were better.  Is this future person someone you want to be? Or do you want something else? Something better? Something more.

Then, start with a goal, a vision of where you want to be, and it can be a big goal, but make sure it’s realistic, that you can actually picture yourself achieving it.  Then choose a timeline, how long it will take you to achieve it.  Again make sure this is realistic and even a little generous.  We want to make sure we aren’t setting up unreal expectations because we want success not failure.

Then comes action.  take action.  Do something small, start.  A step in the right direction.  I encourage you to make it a small step, and then take another small step the next day, and every day after that.

But old habits creep in all the time, how do we keep making those small steps each day? Track! Write! Catalogue! Measure your journey.  This is the only way to ensure awareness, progress, and forward momentum.  Do it every day, write it every day, and then every do often look back and see how things have changed.

Negative Momentum

It’s important to note that momentum can be in any direction, not just forward.  Sometimes you realize that all your momentum is taking you in the wrong direction, and it can’t be stopped all at once.  So if you find yourself moving in the wrong direction, remember that there is no quick fix, things don’t turn around instantly.  You have to fight against that negative motion, and slowly you will bring it to a halt.  If you keep going, you will turn yourself in the right direction.  Even if you are still unhappy with the way things are, you can see progress in the right direction, and that can be motivating. Whichever way you are going, if you want to create positive momentum, the principles are the same. Become aware, set goals, track your progress, and make it realistic.

Sharing with Others

Momentum can also be shared.  When you have a positive momentum built up, you can start to transfer it to others, like balls on a pool table, you can help push people in the right direction, and they can do the same for you.  Leverage this.  Find others who know what they are doing, and ask them for help.  Look for people moving forward, who’ve built up a lot of momentum and are willing to share some of it with you.  The leaps can truly be extraordinary.  Do the same for others.  When you help others gain some momentum in their own lives, it just reinforces your path and reminds you that what you are doing is right.

The most important thing is to remember that whatever your situation, however hopeless it may seem, it can be changed.  You can build momentum, and you can succeed.



Non-Expert Post: Biology: Human DNA Shows 40 MY Battle between Primate and Pathogen

I am an astronomer, and have spent vast amount of my time studying Space and Astronomy, and even a bit of Planetary Geology.  As a Science communicator and someone interested in how the world works, all types of Science fascinate me, and sometimes stories pop up that are really interesting to me.  It also helps that the current exhibit at the Ontario Science Centre is about the Brain.  This has me spending a lot of time learning how the Brain works and how it has evolved over the generations that led to our current human brains and bodies.

So in the spirit of broadening my horizons, I want to introduce an occasional non-expert post.  The disclaimer in all this is that I am looking at the story from the eyes of an enthusiastic observer, and so I won’t be able to fill in the gaps of the Science in the way I try to do with Astronomy.  So let’s learn together. Today: The resilience of Humanity revealed in a 40 Million year evolutionary battle between primates and the deadly pathogens that we have resisted over time.

We all get sick, in fact I’ve been sick far too often this fall, and one of the results of infection is the well known immune response.  We get a runny nose, sneeze, cough, fever, fatigue, inflammation, and a host of other symptoms that are all a response to hostile invaders in the body.  We also have a lesser known immune response, called nutritional immunity, that takes place below the skin where we barely notice it.  It involves the body starving pathogens of Iron, which they need for survival, by hiding it inside the protein transferrin, which transports Iron in the bloodstream.

Still, Evolution doesn’t choose favourites.  Bacteria have evolved a protein called Transferrin Binding Protein (TbpA) that can liberate the Iron from the transferrin.  Though we have known of this attack mechanism for a long time, we never realized its importance in the fight for survival.

A recent study of the DNA of 21 primate species from Monkeys to Humans has shown just how important nutritional immunity is. The study shows how the battle for Iron over the past 40 Million years has led to the evolution of our nutritional immunity, and has defined our resistance to foreign invaders.

Traces of the Pathogen battle seen in Human DNA worldwide. Source: University of Utah Health Care

“We’ve known about nutritional immunity for 40 years,” says Matthew Barber, Ph.D., first author and postdoctoral fellow in human genetics at the University of Utah. “What this study shows us is that over the last 40 million years of primate evolution, this battle for iron between bacteria and primates has been a determining factor in our survival as a species.”

Interactions between the proteins are temporary, but their evolution catalogues the battle.  By looking at transferrin and TbpA over time, they could see the battle unfold as small changes occurred over the area where they interact, going back and forth between the liberation and protection of Iron.

The most recent sign of this long battle is a small mutation in the transferrin gene, which prevents recognition by infectious bacteria. “Up until this study no one had come up with a functional explanation for why this variation occurs at an appreciable frequency in human populations,” says senior author Nels Elde, Ph.D., assistant professor of human genetics at the University of Utah. “We now know that it is a consequence of the pathogens we and our ancestors faced over millions of years.”

The importance of this study is in finding new ways to resist pathogen invasion as we find new emerging diseases and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

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The above video shows how transferrin (Green) and TbpA (Blue) have evolved (dots) along the contact site to battle between protection of Iron by transferrin and liberation of Iron by TbpA.