Tags Posts tagged with "Mars"


Kaushik Mitra. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

From over 66 million miles away, they take pieces of a puzzle and try to fill in the picture. In addition to looking at what’s there now, they also use clues to look back in time.

For the last eight years, researchers suspected that the presence of manganese oxide suggested that Mars had atmospheric oxygen billions of years ago. That’s because, on Earth and in water, oxygen converts manganese to manganese oxide.

Such a process whets the appetite in the search for prehistoric life on Mars that, like so many creatures on Earth, breathed oxygen.

The Martian story, however, involves puzzle pieces that came together in a different way.

In a paper published last month in Nature Geosciences, Kaushik Mitra, a postdoctoral researcher at Stony Brook University in the Department of Geosciences, suggested through geochemical modeling that oxygen on Mars, even if it was abundant billions of years ago, wouldn’t have created manganese oxide.

That’s because the water on Mars was acidic, with a pH of less than 5.5, which is below the neutral 7 level. Under those conditions, oxygen wouldn’t oxidize manganese.

Using experiments, Mitra showed that the manganese oxide could form in acidic water in other ways.

“Mars and Earth fluid conditions are very different,” Mitra said. “What I showed in my experiments is that oxygen in acidic fluids will not be able to oxidize manganese.”

Mitra conducted research that were part of his PhD work in Jeffrey Catalano’s lab at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. 

Taking oxygen out of the picture, Mitra also detailed previous efforts that might explain the presence of manganese oxide, such as ultraviolet light. The manganese oxides formed in sub surface fractures, which this light couldn’t reach.

So, what happened?

“If the originally proposed (and plausible) oxidants were not the cause, there had to be some culprit,” Mitra explained in an email. “So there had to be some other oxidant.”

Bromine and chlorine

Enter chlorine and bromine, which are both halogens, or reactive non-metallic elements.

No one had looked into the potential of oxyhalogen compounds to produce manganese oxides in Mars-like conditions.

Bromate, which is a bromine atom attached to three oxygen atoms, can oxidize manganese in orders of magnitude faster than other oxidants, particularly in acidic conditions. Chlorate, which is also a chlorine atom attached to three oxygen atoms, alone can’t do it, but, with a small quantity of bromate, can create quantities of manganese oxide.

The oxygen attached to chlorine and bromine can come from water or any other ingredient, and doesn’t need oxygen gas to form.

“People didn’t really appreciate until [Mitra’s] paper came along that [manganese] is highly reactive towards these oxyhalogen compounds that he has been working with, so it gives us a whole new way to think about how [manganese-oxides] might form on Mars,” Joel Hurowitz, Associate Professor in Geosciences at Stony Brook University, explained in an email. Mitra has been working as a postdoctoral researcher in Hurowitz’s lab since November of 2021.

While oxygen may not have caused the change in manganese, the search for Martian life doesn’t end here. Some organisms, including on Earth, don’t need oxygen to survive.

Extremophiles, which can survive in the Great Salt Lake, the Dead Sea, and around hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, do not need oxygen.

Mitra’s research “teaches us to be cautious in our astrobiology strategy and consider all the alternative possibilities,” Hurowitz explained. “It is entirely possible that Martian life did not depend on [oxygen] or produce [oxygen] as a by-product of its metabolism.”

For the first two billion years of life on Earth, high concentrations of oxygen would have been toxic to microbial life, Hurowitz added.

To be sure, just because halogens like chlorine and bromine can explain the presence of manganese oxide instead of oxygen doesn’t rule out the possibility that Mars had oxygen.

Paradigm shift

Mitra has continued his exploration of the importance of oxyhalogen species in Hurowitz’s lab to improve the understanding of how they interact with various mineral phases that are considered key records of paleoenvironmental conditions on Mars.

On a more immediate scale, Mitra’s approach to his work has created something of a paradigm shift in Hurowtiz’s lab. When the postdoctoral researcher arrived at Stony Brook, he immediately started between 30 and 40 separate experiments within the span of a month. 

This effort contrasts with the attempt to create one perfect, completely controlled experiment that can take months of time that might be lost if something went wrong.

“It has actually changed the way that I think about experimental project methods,” Hurowitz wrote. “It’s a great new way to explore geochemistry and my students are adopting many of the approaches he’s brought into the lab.”

Hurowitz described Mitra as a “great addition” to the group.

A passion for science

A native of Bhagalpur, India, which is in the state of Bihar, Mitra had a strong interest in chemistry during his youth.

He attended the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, where he earned an integrated Bachelors and Masters of Science Degree in Applied Geology.

Mitra, who currently lives in Centereach, is fluent in English, Hindi and Bengali and is learning Nepali, the native language of his spouse Priyanka Sharma who is from Nepal.

Sharma, who is an Indian Nepali, is applying for graduate school in English Literature and Comparative Literature.

An avid reader whose favorite genre is philosophy, Mitra is currently reading Fyodor Dostoesky and Friedrich Nietzsche.

A long distance runner, Mitra ran a 10K in Queens last year and would like to run a half marathon in the spring.

He will likely finish his postdoctoral research by next year, at the latest, at which point he will apply for a faculty job.

Passionate about teaching, Mitra has been a committed mentor to other students at Stony Brook, Hurowitz said.

Mitra created a YouTube channel for geology and geochemistry undergraduates and graduates in which he shares lessons about geoscience and chemistry in English and Hindi, which is available at https://www.youtube.com/@kmicalmindset6322.

“I am trying to inspire more people to come into planetary geoscience,” he said, especially undergraduates.

'Explore' Photo from Vanderbilt Museum

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum’s Reichert Planetarium, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport has just premiered its newest show, Explore, which is showing Friday and Saturday nights at 9 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 4 pm.

Explore is an odyssey to the planet Mars, seen through the lens of human history and scientific development. This visually stunning fulldome film begins with a look at how scholars and scientists throughout the ages used the sky as a clock and calendar to measure the passage of time. Their charts and star catalogs informed the modern science of astronomy.

Dave Bush, director of the Charles and Helen Reichert Planetarium, said “This is a planetarium show not to miss. We’ve presented dozens of original fulldome films, but this is one of the finest productions ever made available to our audiences. We are thrilled to have this new program on our 60-foot dome. It’s truly an immersive masterpiece.”

Once an object of mystery, the red planet may one day become a second home for humankind. Take an adventurous journey from ancient Mesopotamia to modern space exploration! Experience the fascinating history of astronomy, geocentric and heliocentric models, the laws of planetary motion, and discover the principles of orbital maneuvers which enable satellites and space travel.

The 45-minute show is recommended for ages 14 and up. Tickets are $16 adults, $15 seniors and students.

Purchase Tickets

For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

Pixabay photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

If you’ve ever watched the show “The Voice,” which teenage sensation Carter Rubin from Shoreham won last year, you know the format involves celebrity judges making blind choices during a prolonged audition process.

With their backs to the performers, the judges listen to the contestants sing several bars of familiar songs, sometimes swaying, sometimes mouthing the words, until they hear something in the voices that clicks or that they think they can improve to lead these aspiring artists to the promised land of a music contract, fame and fortune.

The process is imperfect, as are most decisions we make.

The judges don’t get to rate everyone, listening to the entire array of singers before rank ordering or assembling their team. As they go, they add aspiring musicians to their teams, competing against the other judges to encourage performers to work with them.

This process is akin to so many others in so many contexts.

Many years ago, I attended a spectacular and extravagant holiday party for Bloomberg News at the Museum of Natural History. The organization had rented the entire museum during after hours. Fortunately, I brought my then-girlfriend, who is now my wife, to that event, which has given us a party to remember over two decades later.

Anyway, each room had a performer and a collection of tables with mouth-watering food. Hungry and maneuvering slowly through each room, we probably ate more than we should have in the first few rooms, until we understood the spectacular assortment of foods, culminating with sushi under the blue whale in the main room.

Pixabay photo

Having eaten more than I should prior to reaching the whale, I could only sample a few pieces of sushi before shutting down the food consumption. Well, that was true until we waited for the one person in the coatroom who was matching tickets to coats. At that point, servers brought trays of dark and white chocolate-covered strawberries up and down the line.

The point, however, is that the imperfect choices my wife and I made earlier in the evening affected how much we could eat as the night wore on.

In the last few months, I spoke with several researchers in Stony Brook University’s Department of Geosciences, including Joel Hurowitz and Scott McLennan. They are working with a rover on Mars that is choosing rocks in the Jezero crater, putting together a collection of samples that will, one day, return with a round trip mission to the Red Planet.

They can’t sample every rock that might reveal something about Mars, indicating whether life could have existed on the planet billions of years ago.

The decision to choose something in the present, like the rock in front of the rover on Mars, the current singer who is living out his or her dream on “The Voice,” or the morsel of food in a buffet that stretches throughout a museum, can limit the ones those same people have in the future.

Hopefully, along the way, we learn from the decisions we’ve made, the ones that work out and the ones that don’t, that enable us to improve our ability to make informed choices.

And, even if whatever we chose may not be exactly what we thought it was, we, like the judges on “The Voice,” might be able to mold the raw materials of our lives into something even better than we’d initially imagined.

Rebecca Smith at the Sólheimajökull glacier in Iceland, where the scientist did field work during the 2015 Astrobiology Summer School. Photo from Rebecca Smith

By Daniel Dunaief

Rocks may not speak, move or eat, but they can and do tell stories.

Recognizing the value and importance of the ancient narrative rocks on Earth and on other planets provide, NASA sent vehicles to Mars, including the rover Perseverance, which landed on February 18 of this year.

Perseverance brought seven instruments, most of them identified by the acronym-loving teams at NASA, that carry out various investigations, such as searching for clues about a water-rich environment that may have sustained life about 3.5 billion years ago.

Several instrument teams developed and monitor these pieces of equipment, including Joel Hurowitz, Associate Professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University and Deputy Principal Investigator on the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PiXL.

In addition to the instrument leads, NASA chose participating scientists who can contribute to several teams, providing scientific support for a host of questions that might arise as the rover explores the terrain of the Red Planet 128 million miles from Earth.

Rebecca Smith, a post-doctoral researcher at Stony Brook in Geosciences Professor Scott McLennan’s lab, is one such participating scientist.

“I get to move around between all these different groups, which is fun,” said Smith, whose appointment will last for three years. While the Mars2020 program takes up about 20 percent of Smith’s time, the remainder is focused on the Mars Science Laboratory mission. Smith is likely to spend almost all of her time on Mars2020 starting this September.

Smith has helped make the science plans for the rover. The scientist and other researchers help select targets for the instruments that will help answer specific science questions. For this work, they collaborate with different science teams. Smith plans to get more involved with specific instrument teams soon, including SuperCam, PiXL and Sherloc.

For Smith’s own research, the scientist has a suite of rock samples that include lacustrine carbonates and hydrothermally altered volcanic rocks. The volcanic rocks formed under conditions that might be analogous to those once present in Jezero crater, where the rover landed and is currently maneuvering. The crater is just north of the Martian equator and has a delta that once long ago contained water and, potentially, life.

On Earth, Smith is using versions of the SuperCam, PiXL, and Sherloc to understand how these rocks would look to different instruments and determine what baseline measurements they need to tell the different types of rocks apart using the instruments aboard the rover.

Smith has studied rocks on Earth located in Hawaii, Iceland and the glaciers in the Three Sisters Volcanic Complex in Oregon.

Many planetary geologists use Earth as an analog to understand geologic processes on other planets. It is still uncertain if the climate of early Mars was warn and wet or cold and icy and wet, Smith explained in an email, adding, “It is possible the minerals we see with the rovers and from orbit can help us answer this question.” 

Most of the work the scientist been involved with is trying to understand how Mars-like volcanic rocks chemically weather under different climates.

Through previous research on Mars, scientists discovered that large regions had poorly crystalline materials. The poorly crystalline nature of the materials makes them difficult to identify using rover-based or orbiter-based instruments.

“The fact that they could have formed in the presence of water makes them important to understand,” Smith explained.

Part of the work Smith is doing is to understand if poorly crystalline material formed by water have specific properties that relate to the environment or climate in which they formed.

Smith said the bigger picture question of the work the teams are doing is, “was there life on Mars? If not, why not? We think that Mars, for the first billion years or so, was pretty similar to Earth around the same time and Earth developed life.”

Indeed, Earth had liquid water on its surface, which provided a habitat for microbial life about 3.5 billion years ago.

The ancient rock record on Mars provides a better-preserved history because the Red Planet doesn’t have plate tectonics.

“Based on what we know about Earth, if life ever developed on early Mars, it would likely have been microbial,” Smith wrote.

Other goals of Mars2020 include characterizing the climate and the geology. Both goals focus on looking for evidence of ancient habitable environments and characterizing those to understand a host of details, such as the pH of the water, the temperature and details about how long the water was on the surface.

Part of the reason NASA put out a call for participating scientists is to “bridge instrument data” from different pieces of equipment, Smith explained.

“I love the collaborative nature of working on a team like this,” Smith offered. “Everybody is interested in getting the most important information and doing the best job that we can.”

Smith enjoys the opportunity to study potentially conflicting signals in rocks to determine what they indicate about the past.“Geology is just so complex. It’s a big puzzle. Forces have been acting over a very long period of time and forces change over time. We are trying to tease apart what happened and when.”

While Smith works at Stony Brook, the post-doctoral scientist returned to California during the pandemic to live closer to her family. After finishing the current research program, Smith plans to remain open to various options, including teaching.

Smith appreciates the opportunity to work on the Mars 2020 mission, adding, “I’m really grateful for that during this past year in particular.”

Joel Hurowitz

By Daniel Dunaief

February 18th marked an end and a beginning.

On that day, the Mars Perseverance rover descended through the atmosphere with considerable fanfare back on Earth. Using some of the 23 cameras on Perseverance, engineers took pictures and videos of the landing.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration not only shared the video of the rover descending into the Jezero crater which held water and, perhaps, life three billion years ago, but also offered a view of the elated engineers who had spent years planning this mission.


In a calm, but excited voice, a female narrator counted down the height and speed of the rover, which weighs about a ton on Earth and closer to 800 pounds in the lower gravity of Mars. The NASA video showed staff jumping out of their seats, cheering for the achievement.

Launched from Cape Canaveral, the rover took 233 days to reach Mars, which is about the gestation period for a chimpanzee.

Some of the engineers “who got us there have reached the end of their marathon,” said Joel Hurowitz, Associate Professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University and Deputy Principal Investigator for one of the seven scientific instruments aboard the Perseverance. 

With ongoing support from other engineers who helped design and build the rover, the scientists “get the keys to the vehicle and we get to start using these things.”

Indeed, Hurowitz and Scott McLennan, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University are part of teams of scientists who will gather information to answer basic questions about Mars, from whether life existed, to searching for evidence of ancient habitable environments, to seeking evidence about the changing environment.

Both Stony Brook scientists were riveted by the recordings of the landing.

Scott McLennan

Hurowitz marveled at the cloud of dust that formed as the rover approached the surface.“You could see these chunks of rock flying back up at the sky crane cameras,” he said. “I was amazed at the amount of debris that was kicked up in the landing process.”

Hurowitz had seen pieces of rock on top of the Curiosity rover after it landed, but he felt he understood more about the process from the new video. “To see it happening, I realized how violent that final stage of the landing is,” he said.

McLennan said this has been his sixth Mars mission and he “never tires of it. It’s always exciting, especially when there is a landing involved.”

Like Hurowitz, who earned his PhD in McLennan’s lab at Stony Brook, McLennan was impressed by the dust cloud. “I understood that a lot of dust and surface debris was displaced, but it was quite remarkable to see the rover disappear into the dust for a short while,” he wrote in an email.

While previous missions and orbiting satellites have provided plenty of information about Mars, the Perseverance has the potential to beam pictures and detailed analysis of the elements inside rocks.

Hurowitz, who helped build the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL, said the team, led by Abigail Allwood at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has conducted its first successful instrument check, which involves turning everything on and making sure it works. Around April, the PIXL team will start collecting its first scientific data.

In addition to searching for evidence of previous life on Mars, Hurowitz will test a model for climate variation.

The SuperCam on the Perseverance Rover. Photo by Gregory M. Waigand

From measurements of the chemistry and mineralogy of sedimentary rock, the scientists can deduce whether the rocks formed in an environment that was oxygen-rich or oxygen-poor. Additionally, they can make inferences about temperature conditions based on their chemical compositions.

Looking at variations in each layer, they can see whether Mars cycled back and forth between cold and warm climates.

Warmer periods could have lasted for hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of years, depending on how much greenhouse gas was injected at any time, Hurowitz explained. “Whether this is long enough to enable biological development is probably one of the great questions in the field of pre-biotic chemistry,” he said.

The Martian atmosphere could have had dramatic swings between warm and oxygen-poor conditions and cold and oxygen-rich conditions. “This has not really been predicted before and provides a hypothesis we can test with the rover payload for how climate might have varied on Mars,” he added.

Tempering the expectation of confirming the existence of life, Hurowitz said he would be “shocked if we woke one morning and a picture in the rover image downlink [included] a fossil,” he said. “It’s going to take time for us to build up our understanding of the geology of the site well enough.” The process could take months or even years.

Using information from orbiters, scientists have seen minerals in the Jezero crater that are only found when water and rock interact.

With the 11-minute time lag between when a signal from Earth reaches Perseverance, Hurowitz said scientific teams send daily codes up to the rover and its instrument. Hurowitz will be involved in uploading the signals for PIXL.

A Martian day is 40 minutes longer than the Earth day, which is why the Matt Damon movie “The Martian” used the word “sol,” which represents the time between sunrises on Mars.

McLennan, who works on three teams, said PIXL and the SuperCam provide complementary skill sets. With its laser, the SuperCam can measure the chemical composition of rocks at under seven meters away. Up close, PIXL can measure sub millimeter spot sizes for chemistry.

SuperCam will then find areas of interest, enabling PIXL to focus on a postage-stamp sized area.

As a member of the Returned Sample Science Working Group, McLennan, who is a specialist in studying the chemical composition of sedimentary rocks, helps choose which rocks to collect and set aside to bring back to Earth. The rocks could return on a mission some time in the 2030s.

The scientists will collect up to 43 samples, including some that are completely empty. The empty tubes will monitor the history of contamination that the other rock samples experienced. 

For McLennan, the involvement of his former student is especially rewarding. Hurowitz “didn’t just help build the instrument, he’s one of the leaders,” McLennan said. “That’s really fabulous.”

For Hurowitz, any data that supports or refutes the idea about the potential presence of life on Mars is encouraging.

He is “cautiously optimistic” about finding evidence of past life on Mars. “We’ve done everything we can as a scientific community to maximize the chance that we’ve landed some place that might preserve signs of life.”

Photo from Pixabay

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

I have a surprising amount of “found time” these days.

I still have numerous responsibilities and deadlines, but the time between activities, when I’m walking and talking with my wife, when I’m driving to the supermarket or when I’m preparing dinner, my mind is free of the pattern it had developed over the course of the last four years.

No, I wasn’t training for the Olympics and no, I wasn’t preparing a machine to land on the Red Planet. I was, like so many other people, living my life and reading the headlines.

More often than not, the 45th president of the United States consumed the news cycle. Periodically, I wrote about him, but, for the most part, despite reading and reacting to the things other people wrote, I recognized that few ideas or thoughts I had were original or even worth printing.

Yet, I found myself reading and reacting with friends and family, pondering whether he was setting new presidential precedents.

While my body hasn’t gone on any distant vacations, except for a relaxing ski weekend, my mind suddenly has more time. Indeed, even when there are headlines about Supreme Court decisions related to the former president, I glance at a few sentences and move on to other things.

So what am I doing with all this found time? In no particular order, here are a few ways I have reengaged my mind:

■ I’m reading more books. I have had Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin next to my bed for a while. I’m now parsing through it more closely, enjoying the reality of an iconic American, learning about his love for travel and his well-known sense of self worth.

■ I’m thinking about Mars. At first, of course, I couldn’t help wondering how Marvin the Martian from the Bugs Bunny era might react to the Perseverance rover landing next to his home. On a more serious note, I enjoyed the absolutely giddy scene at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where scientists and engineers have been working tirelessly for years for this moment and where they saw and heard sights and sounds from Mars that bring us all closer to the planet’s surface.

■ I’m noticing the lighting around our neighborhood. As we approach spring, the colors of the light have changed, turning ordinary homes into glowing domiciles. If I were selling some of the houses around me, I would take pictures of them during the sunrise and sunset, showing prospective buyers these residences when they are glowing.

■ I’m becoming preoccupied with sports again. I am following the Brooklyn Nets more closely and, more directly, am excited for the days and weeks ahead when my son might play baseball. In his last year of high school, he has an opportunity to play for his school and himself, if the school and the league are able to get through an entire season during the pandemic.

■ I’m marveling, in a distant and impersonal way, at the turnabout in press coverage. CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post have toned down their Washington criticism, while the New York Post and Fox News seem intent to point out all the flaws and dangers of the new administration. The teeter-totter has tilted in the other direction now, with the New York Post attacking White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki with some of the same concerns that the more liberal papers attacked the previous press secretary.

■ Lastly, I’m listening to everything around me better. The children playing down the street and the returning birds calling to each other in the trees have captured my attention.

Joel Hurowitz before the PIXL launch at the end of July. Photo by Tanya Hurowitz

By Daniel Dunaief

For six years, Joel Hurowitz worked as Deputy Principal Investigator on a team to build an instrument they would send to another planet.

Joel Hurowitz

An Assistant Professor of Geosciences at Stony Brook University, Hurowitz and the team led by Abigail Allwood at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory created an instrument that would search for evidence of life that is likely long ago extinct on Mars.

The team designed a 10-pound machine (which will weigh less than four pounds in Mars’s lower gravity environment) that is about the size of a square lunchbox and houses x-ray equipment that can search along the surface of rocks for life that may have existed as long as three to four billion years ago.

Mars’s surface environment became less hospitable to life starting around three billion years ago, when the planet lost most of its atmosphere, causing the surface to dry out and become extremely cold. Surface life at this point likely became extinct.

Called the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL, the instrument was one of seven that lifted off at the end of July as part of a Mars 2020 mission. The Perseverance rover will land at the Jezero Crater on the Red Planet on February 18th, 2021.

After all that work, Hurowitz had planned to watch the launch with his family in Florida, but the pandemic derailed that plan.

“I got to watch the launch with my family,” Hurowitz said. He was on two zoom conferences, one with the Mars 2020 team and the other with members of the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook. “It was a really special experience” and was the “best teleconference of the last six months,” he said.

As the rocket makes its 35.8 million mile journey to Mars, the JPL team will turn on the PIXL to monitor it, run health checks and do routine heating of the components to make sure it is operating. After the rocket lands, the rover will go through a commissioning period. Numerous subsystems need to be checked out, explained Hurowitz.

The first test for the PIXL will be to analyze a calibration target the researchers sent to Mars, to make sure the measurements coincide with the same data they collected numerous times on Earth. This ensures that the instrument is “working the way we want it to. That’ll happen in the first 40 sols.”

A sol is a day on Mars, which is slightly longer by about 40 minutes than a day on Earth.

Once it passes its calibration test, the PIXL can start collecting data. Hurowitz described the instrument as “incredibly autonomous.” It sits at the end of the rover’s arm. When the scientists find a rock they want to explore, the PIXL moves an inch away from the surface of the rock and opens its dust cover. The scientists take pictures with a camera and a set of laser beams. These beams help determine whether the PIXL is an optimal distance from the rock. If it isn’t, the instrument manipulates itself, using struts that allow it to extend or retract away from the rock.

Once PIXL gets in the right position, it fires an X-ray beam into the rock. The beam is about the diameter of a human hair. The x-ray that hits the rock is like wind going through chimes. Rather than make a familiar sound, the elements in the rock emit a specific x-ray signal as the atoms return to their ground state. Putting together the signals from the rock enables Hurowitz and the PIXL crew to determine its chemistry.

Even though the rocks are likely a combination of numerous elements, they “separate themselves cleanly in our spectra,” Hurowitz said. The SBU Geosciences expert expects the elements in the rocks to have different proportions than on Earth. Mars, for example, has more iron than sodium. A granite rock on Earth would likely have considerable sodium and some potassium, with a little iron.

Hurowitz and the PIXL team will be looking for rocks that may have evidence of prokaryotic organisms that are Mars’s versions of similar species found in undisturbed areas of Western Australia, where researchers discovered ancient fossilized life.

The rocks in Australia contain the oldest accepted fossilized forms of life, which are about 3.5 billion years old and are considered the best analogues for what the PIXL team might find on Mars.

In Australia, which is where Allwood grew up, scientists discovered microbial mats, which are single-celled organisms that build up, one layer after another, into a colony. These mats worked together to build up towards the sunlight, which fuels their metabolism. They use raw chemicals in the environment like dissolved sulfur, iron and manganese.

The Martian mats, if they find them, likely had to adapt to considerably different conditions than on Earth. The Martian environment may not have had large oceans or river systems and craters filled with lakes.

The scientists won’t be able to look for an individual microbe, but rather for indirect signals, such as laminated structures that formed in ways that are unique to microbial communities.

Hurowitz, Allwood and the PIXL team are looking for clues from an unusual lamination in the rock that they would likely associate with a microbial mat. By looking closely at the lamination, they may be able to develop hypotheses about whether a mat was taking chemicals out and depositing it to make a mineralized home for itself.

If they find rocks of interest, the rover’s drill will collect a sample and hermetically seal it in a tube.

A future mission to Mars, planned for 2026, could retrieve some of these samples, which, when they return, could confirm the presence of life on Mars. PIXL will continue to operate as long as the filament in the x-ray tube lasts, which should be between 1,300 and 1,400 uses.

Allwood, who shared an office with Hurowitz when they worked together at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said she approached him when she started assembling a team.

Finding life on Mars would answer a question that has intrigued those on Earth for thousands of years, Allwood said. Such Martian life would indicate that “we’re not alone. There was life and it was next door,” she said.

Buzz Aldrin signs a copy of "No Dream Is Too High" at the Book Revue on April 5. Photo by Victoria Espinoza
Buzz Aldrin signs a copy of “No Dream Is Too High” at the Book Revue on April 5. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step on the Moon during NASA’s Apollo 11 mission in 1969, visited the Book Revue in Huntington on Tuesday evening to sign copies of his new bestseller, “No Dream Is Too High: Life Lessons from a Man Who Walked on the Moon.”

A large crowd gathered in the aisles of the bookstore on New York Avenue to get a glimpse of Aldrin, now 86, as well as his John Hancock.

Buzz Aldrin signs a copy of "No Dream Is Too High" at the Book Revue on April 5. Photo by Elana Glowatz
Buzz Aldrin signs a copy of “No Dream Is Too High” at the Book Revue on April 5. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Aldrin rose to prominence for his role in the first lunar landing, stepping out from the lunar module Eagle onto the Moon’s surface right after Commander Neil Armstrong, as command module pilot Michael Collins stayed behind in the spacecraft Columbia in orbit around the Moon. But Aldrin has more recently been noted for his statements and advocacy for reaching Mars, including authoring books on the subject.

In addition to signing copies of “No Dream Is Too High,” Aldrin signed copies of his children’s books.

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BNL’s Peter Guida with Daniela Trani, a summer school student at the NASA Space Radiation Lab. Photo from BNL

Ferdinand Magellan didn’t have the luxury of sending a machine into the unknown around the world before he took to the seas. Modern humans, however, dispatch satellites, rovers and orbiters into the farthest reaches of the universe. Several months after the New Horizons spacecraft beamed back the first close-up images of Pluto from over three billion miles away, NASA confirmed the presence of water on Mars.

The Mars discovery continues the excitement over the possibility of sending astronauts to the Red Planet as early as the 2030s.

Before astronauts can take a journey between planets that average 140 million miles apart, scientists need to figure out the health effects of prolonged exposure to damaging radiation.

Each year, liaison biologist Peter Guida at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL) at Brookhaven National Laboratory coordinates the visits of over 400 scientists to a facility designed to determine, among other things, what radiation does to the human body and to find possible prevention or treatment for any damage.

Guida is working to “improve our understanding of the effects that space radiation from cosmic rays have on humans,” explained Michael Sivertz, a physicist at the same facility. “He would like to make sure that voyages to Mars do not have to be one-way trips.”

Guida said radiation induces un-repaired and mis-repaired DNA damage. Enough accumulated mutations can cause cancer. Radiation also induces reactive oxygen species and produces secondary damage that is like aging.

The results from these experiments could provide insights that lead to a better understanding of diseases in general and may reveal potential targets for treatment.

This type of research could help those who battle cancer, neurological defects or other health challenges, Guida said.

By observing the molecular changes tissues and cells grown in the lab undergo in model systems as they transition from healthy to cancerous, researchers can look to protect or restore genetic systems that might be especially vulnerable.

If the work done at the NSRL uncovers some of those genetic steps, it could also provide researchers and, down the road, doctors with a way of using those genes as predictors of cancer or can offer guidance in tailoring individualized medical treatment based on the molecular signature of a developing cancer, Guida suggested.

Guida conducts research on neural progenitor cells, which can create other types of cells in the nervous system, such as astrocytes. He also triggers differentiation in these cells and works with mature neurons. He has collaborated with Roger M. Loria, a professor in microbiology and immunology at Virginia Commonwealth University, on a compound that reverses the damage from radiation on the hematological, or blood, system.

The compound can increase red blood cells, hemoglobin and platelet counts even after exposure to some radiation. It also increases monocytes and the number of bone marrow cells. A treatment like this might be like having the equivalent of a fire extinguisher nearby, not only for astronauts but also for those who might be exposed to radiation through accidents like Fukushima or Chernobyl or in the event of a deliberate act.

Loria is conducting tests for Food and Drug Administration approval, Guida said.

If this compound helps astronauts, it might also have applications for other health challenges, although any other uses would require careful testing.

While Guida conducts and collaborates on research, he spends the majority of his time ensuring that the NSRL is meeting NASA’s scientific goals and objectives by supporting the research of investigators who conduct their studies at the site. He and a team of support personnel at NSRL set up the labs and equipment for these visiting scientists. He also schedules time on the beam line that generates ionizing particles.

Guida is “very well respected within the space radiation community, which is why he was chosen to have such responsibility,” said Sivertz, who has known Guida for a decade.

Guida and his wife Susan, a therapist who is in private practice, live in Searingtown.

While Guida recalls making a drawing in crayon after watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon, he didn’t seek out an opportunity at BNL because of a long-standing interest in space. Rather, his scientific interest stemmed from a desire to contribute to cancer research.

When he was 15, his mother Jennie, who was a seamstress, died after a two-year battle with cancer. Guida started out his career at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where he hoped to make at least the “tiniest contribution” to cancer research.

He pursued postdoctoral research at BNL to study the link between mutations, radiation and cancer.

Guida feels as if he’s contributed to cancer research and likes to think his mother is proud of him. “Like a good scientist,” though, he said he’s “never satisfied. Good science creates the need to do more good science. When you find something out, that naturally leads to more questions.”

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Martian water, in a lab. Maria-Paz Zorzano, of the Centro de Astrobiologia in Madrid, Spain, recreates the conditions in which perchlorate salts would melt water during the Martian summer night. Photo from Maria-Paz Zorzano

By Daniel Dunaief

It’s not exactly an oasis filled with unexplored life in the middle of a barren dessert. Rather, it is likely a small amount of liquid water that forms during the night and evaporates during the day. What makes this water so remarkable and enticing, however, is that, while it’s in our solar system, it is far, far away: about 225 million miles.

The rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in the summer of 2012 after a 253-day journey from Earth, has gathered weather data from the Gale Crater on the Red Planet for the last year. That data has suggested the likely presence of liquid water.

“The cool part of this is the present-day nature of it,” said Tim Glotch, an associate professor at the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University, who studies the role of water in shaping the surface of Mars. “It’s there right now.”

The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station  on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover includes temperature and humidity sensors mounted on the rover’s mast. Photo from Maria-Paz Zorzano
The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover includes temperature and humidity sensors mounted on the rover’s mast. Photo from Maria-Paz Zorzano

The liquid water is in the form of brine, which is a mix of water and salts. The perchlorate salts on or near the surface of Mars melt the ice that forms during the cold parts of the Martian night. It’s similar, Glotch said, to the way salts melt black ice during a frigid Long Island evening.

Curiosity, which is about the size of a small car, can’t detect this liquid water because its electronics don’t operate during temperatures that plunge at night to around 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

The findings, which were reported last week in the journal Nature Geosciences, have competing implications. For starters, said lead author Javier Martin-Torres, who works at Lulea University of Technology in Sweden and is a part of the Spanish Research Council in Spain and a member of Curiosity’s science team, the water is in one of the least likely places on Mars.

“We see evidence of conditions for brine in the worst-case scenario on Mars,” Martin-Torres said in a Skype interview last week from Sweden. “We are in the hottest and driest place on the planet. Because we know that perchlorates are all over the planet — which we have seen from satellite images — we think there must be brine everywhere.”

Given the radiation, temperature fluctuations and other atmospheric challenges, however, the conditions for life, even microorganisms, to survive in these small droplets of water are “terrible,” Martin-Torres said.

Still, the fact that “we see a water cycle, in the present atmosphere, is very exciting,” Martin-Torres said. “This has implications in meteorology.”

Deanne Rogers, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook, said the likelihood of water bound to perchlorate salts directly affects her own research.

“Something I work on is sulfate minerals on Mars,” she said. “They can take on water and get rid of them easily by exchanging water vapor with the atmosphere.” She may incorporate perchlorates into future grant proposals.

Briny water, Rogers said, may also explain the dark streaks that appear on Mars at mid and low latitudes. These streaks look like running water going down a slope.

“People try to explain what these are,” she said. “It can’t be pure liquid water. It might be perchlorates taking on water vapor and producing dark streaks.”

By landing on the planet and sending readings back to researchers, Curiosity and other land-based vehicles can offer firsthand evidence of environmental conditions.

“Direct measurements are way more precise than what we can do from orbit,” Rogers said.

In the first week after the paper came out, Martin-Torres said he spent about 85 percent of his work time talking to the media, scientists or people asking questions about his studies. He has also received more than 10 times the typical number of requests from prospective Ph.D. students who would like to work in his lab while scientists from around the world have reached out to form collaborations.

Rogers explained that students might react to this kind of discovery the same way she did to other data and images from Mars in the early stages of her career.

“When Pathfinder landed in 1997, I saw the beautiful, colorful panoramas in the newspaper,” she said. “That’s when I knew what I was going to do. I hope that kids feel the same way.”

Martin-Torres, who said he has already submitted additional research proposals based on this discovery, described the current era of Mars research as the “golden age of Mars exploration.”