NASA Curiosity rover spots signs of ‘unimaginable’ Mars megafloods – CNET

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This image is a composite false-color view of Mount Sharp in the Gale Crater on Mars. The blue sky is rendered to resemble Earth to help highlight the stratification layers in the landscape.

NASA/JPL

NASA Curiosity rover's home-away-from-home in the Gale Crater on Mars seems like a fairly chill place. It's a bit windy and dusty, but it's dry and the rocky landscape is settled and calm. It wasn't always like that. Scientists have found evidence of brutal megafloods from deep in the crater's past.

Mars' wet history has been coming into greater focus in recent years. A study published in the journal Scientific Reports this month gives us our first identification of megafloods thanks to on-the-ground observations made by Curiosity. 

"Deposits left behind by megafloods had not been previously identified with orbiter data," said co-author and astrobiologist Alberto G. Fairén in a Cornell University statement last week.

The megaflooding would have taken place about 4 billion years ago and was likely triggered by a meteor impact that heated up ice on the planet's surface, creating rainfall and sending flash floods gushing across the landscape. Cornell described these events as "floods of unimaginable magnitude."

The megafloods left behind telltale evidence of in the form of "giant wave-shaped features in sedimentary layers of Gale crater." These are called "megaripples" or antidunes. The formations reach 30 feet (9 meters) in height and are spread out around 450 feet (137 meters) apart. These features look familiar to researchers who have seen similar shapes caused by melted-ice floods in Earth's past.

The remnant signs of megafloods in Gale Crater point to a warm and wet climate long ago. "The planet had the conditions needed to support the presence of liquid water on the surface – and on Earth, where there's water, there's life," said Fairén.

Whether Mars was once home to microbial life is still an open question, but it's one NASA's Perseverance rover will investigate once it lands in February 2021.

Water might not be just a lost relic from Mars' history. Research suggests there may be ancient underground lakes hidden away on the red planet. NASA also created a "treasure map" to water ice deposits in 2019 that could come in handy for future human explorers. Those same explorers will be grateful to know the Mars megafloods are long gone.

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Scientists spot signs of ‘fossil galaxy’ lurking in the heart of the Milky Way – CNET

This image shows the Milky Way seen from Earth. The reddish rings highlight where the stars of Heracles linger within our galaxy.

Danny Horta-Darrington (Liverpool John Moores University), ESA/Gaia, and the SDSS

Our very own Milky Way galaxy had a dramatic childhood. Astronomers have unveiled a new chapter in its memoir with the discovery of a likely "fossil galaxy" hidden near its heart.

The proposed fossil galaxy is named Heracles for the Greek hero. It probably tangled with the Milky Way around 10 billion years ago, back when our galaxy was a baby.

"Stars originally belonging to Heracles account for roughly one third of the mass of the entire Milky Way halo today -- meaning that this newly-discovered ancient collision must have been a major event in the history of our galaxy," the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) said in a statement Thursday. The SDSS was involved in the research.

This illustration shows how Heracles fits into the heart of the Milky Way if it were seen from above. The yellow dot points out our sun.

Danny Horta-Darrington (Liverpool John Moores University), NASA/JPL-Caltech, and the SDSS

A research team led by Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) graduate student Danny Horta published a paper on Heracles this week in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society journal. 

To find Heracles, the team spotted stars that didn't match the Milky Way's. "These stars are so different that they could only have come from another galaxy. By studying them in detail, we could trace out the precise location and history of this fossil galaxy," said Horta.

We've seen evidence of dramatic galactic mergers in the Milky Way's deep past. Recent studies have looked into a time when our galaxy gobbled up a dwarf galaxy called Gaia-Enceladus

Heracles has been particularly elusive, since signs of its existence are obscured by interstellar dust clouds. The research team used the SDSS Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment (APOGEE) to peer through this mess using near-infrared light. "To find a fossil galaxy like this one, we had to look at the detailed chemical makeup and motions of tens of thousands of stars," said study co-author and LJMU astrophysicist Ricardo Schiavon.

The Milky Way may not be done with its galaxy-colliding ways. A Milky Way-Andromeda galaxy crash is lurking billions of years into the future. It's tough being a galaxy. Sometimes you're the Milky Way, eating them up. Sometimes you're Heracles, the one getting swallowed. 

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Famous Arecibo telescope that starred in a James Bond film to be demolished – CNET

The Arecibo Observatory reflector dish suffered damage from a broken cable. 

University of Central Florida

It's a sad day for the astronomy world. The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, home to an epic telescope dish, is saying goodbye. The observatory suffered serious structural damage when a cable failed in August, and the situation's only gotten worse.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced on Thursday that it'll begin plans to decommission the 305-meter (1,000-foot) telescope, ending the device's 57 years of service. 

"The decision comes after NSF evaluated multiple assessments by independent engineering companies that found the telescope structure is in danger of a catastrophic failure and its cables may no longer be capable of carrying the loads they were designed to support," the NSF said in a statement. 

A massive gash in the Arecibo Observatory dish is visible in this November 2020 image. 

University of Central Florida

A second cable failed in early November. This one was a main cable and it broke and fell into the reflector dish, damaging both the dish and other cables nearby. The cables were designed to support a 900-ton platform that hangs 450 feet above the dish. 

"Each of the structure's remaining cables is now supporting more weight than before, increasing the likelihood of another cable failure, which would likely result in the collapse of the entire structure," the University of Central Florida said in a statement on Nov. 13. UCF manages the facility for the National Science Foundation.

The observatory was the backdrop to a dramatic fight scene in the 1995 James Bond movie GoldenEye with Pierce Brosnan. It also appeared in the 1997 Jodie Foster movie Contact. But Arecibo's true legacy lies in the many scientific discoveries it made possible. It explored pulsars, expanded our knowledge of Mercury, spotted exoplanets and found fast radio bursts.

Scientists took to Twitter to mourn the observatory. "This is such a huge scientific gut punch. The end of an era," said planetary scientist Tanya Harrison.

Field geophysicist Mika McKinnon tweeted, "I'm stunned that we're losing Arecibo. Even if you don't pay much attention to ground-based astronomy, you know this telescope from pop culture & movies. It's somewhere special."

The NSF decommissioning plan will focus on the telescope while attempting to preserve surrounding observatory structures. "When all necessary preparations have been made, the telescope would be subject to a controlled disassembly," the foundation said.

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Hear the audio NASA’s Perseverance rover recorded on its way to Mars – CNET

The image inset shows a close-up of the EDL microphone on the Perseverance rover. 

NASA/JPL-Caltech

What does space travel sound like? If you're NASA's next-gen Perseverance rover on the way to Mars, it sounds like a gentle whirring. 

The rover is equipped with a microphone designed to capture the sounds of entry, descent and landing (EDL) once it reaches the red planet in February 2021. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) released an audio file on Wednesday that gives a sense of what the rover is hearing during interplanetary travel.  

The 60-second SoundCloud clip comes from Oct. 19 during checks of the rover's EDL camera and microphone system.

That whirring sound is coming from the rover's heat rejection fluid pump. "Located at the rear-starboard side of the Perseverance, the pump is part of the rover's thermal system, which will help maintain operational temperatures for vehicle components on even the coldest of winter nights," JPL said in a statement on Wednesday.

"With apologies to the person who came up with the slogan for Alien, I guess you could say that in space no one may be able to hear you scream, but they can hear your heat rejection fluid pump," said Dave Gruel, lead engineer for the rover's EDL Camera and Microphone subsystem at JPL. Gruel said the mic was able to pick up the pump's murmurs through mechanical vibration.

The Perseverance team is excited by this minor buzz because it means the mic system is working properly and should be able to record what Gruel describes as "the sound and fury of a Mars landing."

Perseverance will embark on a cutting-edge mission to seek out signs of ancient microbial life and collect rock and dust samples for later return to Earth. It also carries an experimental helicopter named Ingenuity

Circle Feb. 18 on your calendar for the rover's date with its Martian destiny. If all goes well, we could get some spectacular audio of its arrival.

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NASA spots wild dust devil tracks on Mars that look like claw marks – CNET

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught sight of some wild dust devil tracks on Mars in late 2018.

NASA/JPL/UArizona

It looks like some giant monster raked its clawed paws across the surface of Mars. An eye-opening set of images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter actually shows dark dust devil tracks against bright dunes.

Mars is dusty and windy, making it a prime location for dust devils. These localized whirlwinds can reach great heights. NASA spotted one in 2012 that was 12 miles (20 kilometers) high. They can also leave quite a mark on the landscape, as seen in the MRO views.

One image shows a close-up of the dark tracks while a second gives a wider view of the landscape. The tracks were spotted in Galle Crater, an area known for dust devil activity. Galle Crater was nicknamed the "happy face" crater because it resembles a classic smiley face thanks to formations inside.

NASA's MRO spacecraft's HiRise camera snapped this view of dark dust devils tracks on bright dunes in Galle Crater.

NASA/JPL/UArizona

MRO has been in orbit around Mars since 2006 and its HiRise (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera is responsible for some of our most spectacular images of the red planet. The HiRise team described the tracks as having an "odd distribution." 

The dust devil tracks date to late 2018 and were featured as a University of Arizona HiRise HiPod picture of the day on Tuesday. The MRO HiRise camera has sent back a wealth of images, which makes the HiPod archive a valuable resource for highlighting views of Mars that might otherwise be overlooked. 

The study of dust devils on Mars can tell scientists about wind patterns and how formations like dunes are shaped and then change over time. Martian whirlwinds can also act like dust busters for our robotic explorers. NASA's Insight lander got an assist from a wind vortex in 2019 that helped scrub some dust off its solar panels.

For a very different view of dust devils on Mars, check out this GIF from NASA's Curiosity rover showing a whirlwind in action from ground level. These temperamental twisters are quite a sight, no matter what angle you see them from.

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NASA spots wild dust devil tracks on Mars that look like claw marks – CNET

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught sight of some wild dust devil tracks on Mars in late 2018.

NASA/JPL/UArizona

It looks like some giant monster raked its clawed paws across the surface of Mars. An eye-opening set of images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter actually shows dark dust devil tracks against bright dunes.

Mars is dusty and windy, making it a prime location for dust devils. These localized whirlwinds can reach great heights. NASA spotted one in 2012 that was 12 miles (20 kilometers) high. They can also leave quite a mark on the landscape, as seen in the MRO views.

One image shows a close-up of the dark tracks while a second gives a wider view of the landscape. The tracks were spotted in Galle Crater, an area known for dust devil activity. Galle Crater was nicknamed the "happy face" crater because it resembles a classic smiley face thanks to formations inside.

NASA's MRO spacecraft's HiRise camera snapped this view of dark dust devils tracks on bright dunes in Galle Crater.

NASA/JPL/UArizona

MRO has been in orbit around Mars since 2006 and its HiRise (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera is responsible for some of our most spectacular images of the red planet. The HiRise team described the tracks as having an "odd distribution." 

The dust devil tracks date to late 2018 and were featured as a University of Arizona HiRise HiPod picture of the day on Tuesday. The MRO HiRise camera has sent back a wealth of images, which makes the HiPod archive a valuable resource for highlighting views of Mars that might otherwise be overlooked. 

The study of dust devils on Mars can tell scientists about wind patterns and how formations like dunes are shaped and then change over time. Martian whirlwinds can also act like dust busters for our robotic explorers. NASA's Insight lander got an assist from a wind vortex in 2019 that helped scrub some dust off its solar panels.

For a very different view of dust devils on Mars, check out this GIF from NASA's Curiosity rover showing a whirlwind in action from ground level. These temperamental twisters are quite a sight, no matter what angle you see them from.

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Virgin Galactic spaceflight delayed due to coronavirus surge – CNET

Virgin Galactic will delay its next space flight after New Mexico implemented new coronavirus restrictions.

Virgin Galactic
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

Virgin Galactic wants to take tourists on a journey to skim space. Those dreams have already been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and now new COVID-19 restrictions in New Mexico have pushed back a key test flight planned for this month.

The company had been gearing up for what would be the first spaceflight from New Mexico. The state is home to Virgin Galactic's Spaceport America, its base of operations for carrying passengers off this rock. As COVID-19 cases surge across the US, New Mexico issued new restrictions on nonessential businesses starting Monday. 

"In consultation with government officials, and as a result of these new operations restrictions, the space flight that was planned to occur between Nov. 19-23, 2020 will be rescheduled," Virgin Galactic said in a statement Monday.

The state's emergency public health order calls for nonessential businesses to "reduce in-person operations by 100%." Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said the company "will be minimizing our New Mexico operations to the greatest degree possible."

The VSS Unity rocket-powered plane was scheduled to carry two pilots and some research payloads into suborbital space, building on previous test flights that earned the crew commercial astronaut wings from the FAA.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson had hoped to be a passenger on the company's space plane this year, but already acknowledged that won't be happening until at least early 2021. Critical test flights will need to be completed before Branson and paying tourists (who are spending $250,000 for a seat) get on board. Space will just have to wait.

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Lego creates largest set ever: Roman Colosseum with 9,036 pieces – CNET

legocol1

The Lego Colosseum set will take some time to build.

Lego

Your Lego figures are about to embark on heart-stopping adventures with chariot races and gladiatorial combat. But first you'll need to assemble 9,036 pieces to create the Colosseum in Rome, the "largest Lego brick set launched to date." 

Architecture buffs as well as Lego fans will find plenty to admire here. "This epic Lego model features a recreation of the three distinct stories from the Colosseum, with each of these stories adorned with the columns of the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders," Lego said in statement Thursday when it unveiled the set.

The 9,036 pieces of the Colosseum snatched the record for biggest Lego set from the 7,541-piece Star Wars Millennium Falcon released in 2017.

Lego has taken pains with the details of the Colosseum kit. Three shades of brick colors give it an authentic look. Lego even counted the "ribs" that make up a key part of the spectator stands. There are 80 of them. Once completed, the set will be 10.5 inches (27cm) high, 23.5 inches (59cm) long and 20.5 inches (52cm) wide.

"Hopefully, people will be inspired to learn more about the original through the experience of building the Lego model," said set designer Rok Zgalin Kobe. 

Lego recommends the ambitious brick kit for builders 18 and up. It will be available in Lego retail stores and on Lego.com starting Nov. 27, which is Black Friday in the US. 

Such a massive set comes with a substantial price tag. Lego has it listed at $550 (£450, AU$750). 

You'll need to provide your own Russell Crowe minifig.

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NASA gets go-ahead to bring Mars rocks back to Earth – CNET

This illustration shows a NASA Mars Ascent Vehicle concept carrying samples into Mars orbit.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

It's one thing to send a spacecraft to Mars. It's another to land on the surface, pick up some pieces of the planet and then bring them all the way back to Earth. But NASA is going to try to do just that.

On Tuesday, NASA announced the results of an Independent Review Board (IRB) evaluation of its planned Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission that would at long last bring a bit of the red planet back for our scientists to study.

"Following an examination of the agency's ambitious Mars Sample Return plan, the board's report concludes that NASA is prepared for the campaign, building on decades of scientific advancements and technical progress in Mars exploration," NASA said in a statement on Tuesday.

The IRB issued an extensive series of recommendations, such as establishing offices that will help NASA and its partner in the mission, the European Space Agency (ESA), work together more smoothly. It also called for independent assessments of hardware and resources, and a fresh look at the budget, which is expected to top $4 billion for the initial phases of the campaign.

NASA already has one key part of the larger mission in place. The Perseverance rover is on its way to Mars, with a scheduled arrival in February 2021. The rover is equipped with a series of sample tubes that it will use to collect rocks and soil for later retrieval by MSR.

The plans calls for more major components, including a "fetch" rover from ESA that will collect the sample tubes left by Perseverance and carry them to a NASA-made Mars Ascent Vehicle that would launch them into orbit around Mars. An ESA Earth Return Orbiter would meet up in Mars orbit with that vehicle to bring the samples back to us. 

If that sounds complicated, it's because it is. That's one of the reasons NASA initiated what it called "the earliest independent review of any NASA Science Mission Directorate large strategic mission."   

NASA and ESA hope to launch the next phases of MSR in the mid- to late-2020s. If all goes well, we could have pristine pieces of Mars delivered to Earth in the 2030s.

Said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science,  "Ultimately, I believe this sample return will be well worth the effort and help us answer key astrobiology questions about the red planet -- bringing us one step closer to our eventual goal of sending humans to Mars."  

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NASA: Spellbinding Earthshine will make the moon glimmer in November – CNET

This 2011 image shows Earthshine on the moon as seen from the International Space Station.

ISS Crew Earth Observations Facility/Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Johnson Space Center.

The full moon may hog all the glory, but there's a quiet, stunning beauty to a moon that is reflecting light from Earth. The phenomenon is called Earthshine, and you have a good opportunity to catch some of its rays in the night sky this month.

NASA described Earthshine as an "eerily beautiful glow" in a November skywatching update. You'll know you're seeing it when the dark face of the moon takes on a ghostly gleam. It's subtle, but sublime.

Earthshine is generated by a game of cosmic ping-pong. Sunlight reflects off of Earth, strikes the moon and bounces back to us. "Changes in the brightness of Earthshine are mainly caused by changes in cloudiness -- the cloudier the Earth, the brighter the Earthshine," said NASA back in 2004.

The best time to enjoy Earthshine is around the new moon, when the usual bright moonshine doesn't interfere with viewing. It's especially lovely when the moon sports a slight crescent, highlighting the contrast between bright and dark.

While most people will want to circle Nov. 17-20 on their calendars to go out after sunset and bathe in some Earthshine, there's an additional viewing opportunity going on through Nov. 12 before dawn. As a bonus on the morning of Thursday the 12th, the moon will make its appearance above Venus. That might be worth getting up early for.

The good news is that even if you miss the Earthshine this month, there will be other opportunities. Now that you know what to look for, you can get more enjoyment out of the new-moon process. Skywatching doesn't have to be all about the fanfare of a full moon. There's magic even in the seeming darkness.

See also: These telescopes work with your phone to show exactly what's in the sky

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