Saturday, June 24, 2017

Reproduction On Mars Needs More Study!

Mars Rover Opportunity on Walkabout Near Rim

Mars Rover Opportunity on Walkabout Near Rim: NASA's senior Mars rover, Opportunity, is examining rocks at the edge of Endeavour Crater for signs that they may have been either transported by a flood or eroded in place by wind.

Why No One Under 20 Has Experienced a Day Without NASA at Mars

Why No One Under 20 Has Experienced a Day Without NASA at Mars: As the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft approached its destination on July 4, 1997, no NASA mission had successfully reached the Red Planet in more than 20 years.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Laser-Targeting A.I. Yields More Mars Science

NASA JPL latest news release
Laser-targeting A.I. Yields More Mars ScienceArtificial intelligence is changing how we study Mars.
A.I. software on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover has helped it zap dozens of laser targets on the Red Planet this past year, becoming a frequent science tool when the ground team was out of contact with the spacecraft. This same software has proven useful enough that it's already scheduled for NASA's upcoming mission, Mars 2020.
A new paper in Science: Robotics looks at how the software has performed since rolling out to Curiosity's science team in May 2016. The AEGIS software, or Autonomous Exploration for Gathering Increased Science, has been used to direct Curiosity's ChemCam instrument 54 times since then. It's used on almost every drive when the power resources are available for it, according to the paper's authors.
The vast majority of those uses involved selecting targets to zap with ChemCam's laser, which vaporizes small amounts of rock or soil and studies the gas that burns off. Spectrographic analysis of this gas can reveal the elements that make up each laser target.
AEGIS allows the rover to get more science done while Curiosity's human controllers are out of contact. Each day, they program a list of commands for it to execute based on the previous day's images and data. If those commands include a drive, the rover may reach new surroundings several hours before it is able to receive new instructions. AEGIS allows it to autonomously zap rocks that scientists may want to investigate later.
"Time is precious on Mars," said lead author Raymond Francis of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Francis is the lead system engineer for AEGIS' deployment on the Curiosity rover. "AEGIS allows us to make use of time that otherwise wasn't available because we were waiting for someone on Earth to make a decision."
AEGIS has helped the science team discover a number of interesting minerals. On separate occasions, higher quantities of chlorine and silica were discovered in nearby rocks -- information that helped direct science planning the following day.
"The goal is to provide more information for the science team," said Tara Estlin of JPL, co-author and team lead for AEGIS. "AEGIS has increased the total data coming from ChemCam by operating during times when the rover would otherwise just be waiting for a command."
Before AEGIS was implemented, this downtime was so valuable that the rover was instructed to carry out "blind" targeting of ChemCam. As it was carrying out commands, it would also fire the laser, just to see if it would gather interesting data. But the targeting was limited to a pre-programmed angle, since there was no onboard ability to search for a target.
"Half the time it would just hit soil -- which was also useful, but rock measurements are much more interesting to our scientists," Francis said.
With the intelligent targeting AEGIS affords, Curiosity can be given parameters for very specific kinds of rocks, defined by color, shape and size. The software uses computer vision to search out edges in the landscape; if it detects enough edges, there's a good chance it has found a distinct object, Francis said.
Then the software can rank, filter and prioritize those objects based on the characteristics the science team is looking for.
AEGIS can also be used for fine-scale pointing -- what Francis calls "pointing insurance." When Curiosity's operators aren't quite confident they'll hit a very narrow vein in a rock on the first try, they sometimes use this ability to fine-tune the pointing, though it only came up twice in the past year.
The upcoming Mars 2020 rover will also include AEGIS, which will be included in the next-generation version of ChemCam, called SuperCam. That instrument will also be able to use AEGIS for a remote RAMAN spectrometer that can study the crystal structures of rocks, as well as a visible and infrared spectrometer.
The U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico leads the U.S. and French team that jointly developed and operates ChemCam. IRAP is a co-developer and shares operation of the instrument with France's national space agency (CNES), NASA and Los Alamos. JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the Curiosity mission for NASA.

Is It Time To Rethink How We Search For Alien Life?

Is It Time to Rethink How We Search for Alien Life?

Is It Time to Rethink How We Search for Alien Life?
This artist’s impression shows an imagined view from the surface of a planet that was part of a star system found recently using the TRAPPIST telescope at the European Space Observatory's La Silla Observatory in Chile. These worlds' sizes and temperatures are similar to those of Venus and Earth, and are the best targets found so far in the search for life outside our solar system.
WASHINGTON — From the lovable, candy-munching E.T. to the deadly Xenomorphs from the "Alien" movies, science-fiction stories are bursting with all kinds of alien encounters. But in reality, we've yet to achieve contact — though not for lack of trying.
Plenty of scientists are looking for signs of extraterrestrial life — intelligent or not — using a variety of methods, Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, told an audience here on June 18 during a talk at Future Con, a festival that highlights the intersection between science, technology and science fiction.
But the more our own technology moves forward and the more humans explore the rapidly evolving concept of synthetic intelligence (smart machines), the more experts suspect that intelligent extraterrestrial life could be advanced in ways that would stymie current efforts to find them, Shostak said.
However, perhaps the first question to ask is why people are so fascinated by the idea of alien life — particularly alien invaders, Shostak suggested. This preoccupation with an unseen extraterrestrial threat may be an echo from our distant past, when early humans learned that survival frequently depended on being able to imagine and prepare for attacks from predators or enemies that you couldn't see, he said.  
What we now know about the universe suggests that it's very unlikely that humanity is the only form of life in it.
"Work from the last 20 years shows that there are planets all over the place," Shostak said. In fact, NASA announced yesterday (June 19) that the Kepler Space Telescope mission has discovered 219 more exoplanets (planets orbiting stars other than our sun), bringing the total of planets discovered by Kepler to 4,034, reported.
Most stars — 70 to 80 percent of them, by some estimates — probably host planets, Shostak added. With an estimated 100 billion stars in our galaxy, that gives us around 1 trillion planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone. Data from Kepler suggests that about one in five of these planets is Earth-like — rocky and capable of supporting liquid water and possibly life, "so now you have 100 billion planets in our galaxy that are sort of like Earth," Shostak said.
And with recent studies hinting that there may be as many as 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe, that adds up to a lot of planets that might host some form of life.
When you look at it that way, "saying, 'I don't believe in aliens' is a daring position to take," Shostak said.
There are three methods most commonly used by scientists to search for alien life, according to Shostak. The first is straightforward enough — and is also the one that's most popular with sci-fi writers: "Just go out and find it," he said. This includes missions to send spacecraft to destinations such as Saturn's moon Enceladus, where probes would sample water vapor from surface plumes to see if they hold anything interesting. 

The final method — and the one practiced by Shostak and his SETI Institute colleagues — is eavesdropping on radio signals that an alien civilization might broadcast.Another method is to image distant planets with very large space telescopes capable of detecting enough detail to provide scientists with data about their atmospheres. Big telescopes — such as the James Webb Space Telescope, expected to launch in October 2018 — could allow astronomers to analyze the spectrum of light surrounding a far-off planet for evidence of atmospheric oxygen or methane, both of which are known to sustain life on Earth.
"That's how you find intelligent life," Shostak said.
All of these parameters offer scientists a reasonable range of variables for discovering life — but only as long as that life is "the soft, squishy kind, like us," Shostak said. However, a sophisticated extraterrestrial civilization could theoretically have advanced far beyond that, creating forms of artificial intelligence housed in machinery, which simply don't have the same requirements as organic life.
"Machines live forever, and they can go anywhere — they don't care about oceans and atmospheres," Shostak said.
With that view, many of the factors that are currently thought to be indicators of life on other worlds, such as liquid water and a breathable atmosphere, are rendered irrelevant. As such, researchers would need to identify other signals to pinpoint which planets might harbor aliens, Shostak said.
But Shostak also offered reassurances, telling the Future Con attendees that at least they won't need to worry about scientists or the government concealing the news when alien life finally does appear — the story would be too big for them to hide it for long, he said.
"Will we all start singing 'Kumbaya' and just get along when that happens? I don't think so," Shostak said at Future Con. "But it'll change things. Forever after, you will know — as amazing as you are — that you're not the only miracle, you're not the only kid on the block. And I think that'll be very interesting to learn."

Explore Mars Sponsors Rock Opera-One-Way Trip To Mars