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NASA-Backed Team Developing Sensor to Check for Life on Mars

Thursday, March 8, 2007

NASA-funded researchers are refining a tool that could not only check for the faintest traces of life's molecular building blocks on Mars, but could also determine whether they have been produced by anything alive.

The instrument, called Urey: Mars Organic and Oxidant Detector, has already shown its capabilities in one of the most barren climes on Earth, the Atacama Desert in Chile. The European Space Agency has chosen this tool from the United States as part of the science payload for the ExoMars rover planned for launch in 2013. Last month, NASA selected Urey for an instrument-development investment of $750,000. Much of the development work on the instrument has been funded by the NASA Astrobiology Program.

The European Space Agency plans for the ExoMars rover to grind samples of Martian soil to fine powder and deliver them to a suite of analytical instruments, including Urey, that will search for signs of life. Each sample will be a spoonful of material dug from underground by a robotic drill.

"Urey will be able to detect key molecules associated with life at a sensitivity roughly a million times greater than previous instrumentation," said Dr. Jeffrey Bada of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. Bada is the principal investigator for an international team of scientists and engineers working on various components of the device.

More: NASA - NASA-Backed Team Developing Sensor to Check for Life on Mars

Volcanic Plume on Io

Thursday, March 8, 2007

lcanic plume on Io captured by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on New Horizons.
Volcanic plume on Io captured by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on New Horizons. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

This dramatic image of Io was taken by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on New Horizons at 11:04 Universal Time on February 28, 2007, just about 5 hours after the spacecraft's closest approach to Jupiter. The distance to Io was 2.5 million kilometers (1.5 million miles) and the image is centered at 85 degrees west longitude. At this distance, one LORRI pixel subtends 12 kilometers (7.4 miles) on Io.


This processed image provides the best view yet of the enormous 290-kilometer (180-mile) high plume from the volcano Tvashtar, in the 11 o'clock direction near Io's north pole. The plume was first seen by the Hubble Space Telescope two weeks ago and then by New Horizons on February 26; this image is clearer than the February 26 image because Io was closer to the spacecraft, the plume was more backlit by the Sun, and a longer exposure time (75 milliseconds versus 20 milliseconds) was used. Io's dayside was deliberately overexposed in this picture to image the faint plumes, and the long exposure also provided an excellent view of Io's night side, illuminated by Jupiter. The remarkable filamentary structure in the Tvashtar plume is similar to details glimpsed faintly in 1979 Voyager images of a similar plume produced by Io's volcano Pele. However, no previous image by any spacecraft has shown these mysterious structures so clearly.

The image also shows the much smaller symmetrical fountain of the plume, about 60 kilometers (or 40 miles) high, from the Prometheus volcano in the 9 o'clock direction. The top of a third volcanic plume, from the volcano Masubi, erupts high enough to catch the setting Sun on the night side near the bottom of the image, appearing as an irregular bright patch against Io's Jupiter-lit surface. Several Everest-sized mountains are highlighted by the setting Sun along the terminator, the line between day and night.

This is the last of a handful of LORRI images that New Horizons is sending "home" during its busy close encounter with Jupiter - hundreds of images and other data are being taken and stored onboard. The rest of the images will be returned to Earth over the coming weeks and months as the spacecraft speeds along to Pluto.

More: NASA - Gallery of Jupiter Images from New Horizons, Tvashtar's Plume