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Cradle for Life? Ancient Mars Likely Had Deep-Sea Hydrothermal Vents



This view of a portion of the Eridania region of Mars shows blocks of deep-basin deposits that have been surrounded and partially buried by younger volcanic deposits.

Ancient Mars may have harbored deep-sea hydrothermal vents, the same type of environment where many scientists think life on Earth got its start, a recent study suggests. 

Observations by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) show evidence of ancient sea-floor hydrothermal deposits within the Eridania basin — a region in the southern hemisphere where some of the Red Planet’s most ancient crust is exposed. 

The deposits are believed to have formed due to volcanic activity in the planet’s crust at the bottom of the basin. Study team members therefore think that hot, mineral-laden water pumped directly into the ancient Martian sea, which probably held 10 times more water than all of North America’s Great Lakes combined, NASA officials said. [The Search for Life on Mars (A Photo Timeline)]

“Even if we never find evidence that there’s been life on Mars, this site can tell us about the type of environment where life may have begun on Earth,” co-author Paul Niles, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in a statement. “Volcanic activity combined with standing water provided conditions that were likely similar to conditions that existed on Earth at about the same time — when early life was evolving here.”

The Eridania basin of southern Mars is believed to have held a sea about 3.7 billion years ago, with seafloor deposits likely resulting from underwater hydrothermal activity.

Credit: NASA

Researchers estimate that the hydrothermal deposits found within the Eridania basin are approximately 3.7 billion years old. Life got its start on Earth at about that time, and deep-sea hydrothermal environments may have been the cradle. (Although many different life-forms continue to thrive in these environments on Earth today, we are unable to find direct geological evidence preserved from the time when life began because of our planet’s active crust, study team members said.)

Similar deep-sea hydrothermal environments found on other worlds — possibly beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus — could facilitate the evolution of extraterrestrial life, according to the statement.

Using data from MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars instrument, the researchers were able to identify the mix of minerals contained in the deposits, as well as the shape and texture of the thick bedrock layers. Also, the observations show that lava flows buried some of the deposits after the ancient Eridania sea disappeared, which further supports the idea that this region was volcanically active. 

As scientists continue to search for signs of past life on Mars, the recent study highlights yet another type of wet environment that may have once existed on Mars. 

This diagram illustrates an interpretation for the origin of some deposits in the Eridania basin of southern Mars as resulting from seafloor hydrothermal activity more than 3 billion years ago.

This diagram illustrates an interpretation for the origin of some deposits in the Eridania basin of southern Mars as resulting from seafloor hydrothermal activity more than 3 billion years ago.

Credit: NASA

“Ancient, deep-water hydrothermal deposits in Eridania basin represent a new category of astrobiological target on Mars,” researchers said in the statement. “Eridania seafloor deposits are not only of interest for Mars exploration, they represent a window into early Earth.”

Their findings were published online July 10 in the journal Nature Communications.

Follow Samantha Mathewson @Sam_Ashley13. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on is the premier source of space exploration, innovation and astronomy news, chronicling (and celebrating) humanity's ongoing expansion across the final frontier. We transport our visitors across the solar system and beyond through accessible, comprehensive coverage of the latest news and discoveries. For us, exploring space is as much about the journey as it is the destination. So from skywatching guides and stunning photos of the night sky to rocket launches and breaking news of robotic probes visiting other planets, at you’ll find something amazing every day.



Bizarre Blue 'Flashes and Glows' May Reveal Thunderstorm Secrets



Bright, blue flashes stretch from the tops of powerful thunderstorms toward the edge of space, providing a fascinating celestial show for astronauts on the International Space Station, and now, scientists are learning more about these showstopping displays. 

In 2015, European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen captured a video of the strange blue flashes dancing above the clouds as the space station passed over the Bay of Bengal. 

These features are called blue jets — a type of transient luminous event (TLE) resulting from activity in and below powerful thunderstorms on Earth. One of the photographs captured by Mogensen showed a pulsating blue jet that stretched 25 miles (40 kilometers) above sea level, according to a statement from NASA. [Earth From Space: Amazing Astronaut Photos]

Using these observations, researchers from Denmark’s National Space Institute studied the elusive features to learn more about how storms form and develop over time. Their findings showed that 245 pulsating blue discharges were observed during the 160 seconds of video footage, which is equal to roughly 90 blue-jet flashes per minute, the researchers said in a new study describing the findings. 

The study also revealed evidence of red sprites, which glow in the upper atmosphere following large lightning flashes on Earth. Red sprites are difficult to detect because they last only a few milliseconds. 

In fact, visual evidence of TLEs wasn’t available until 1989. Some of the first observations of these events were of red sprites photographed by cameras on board the space shuttle, as well as from images taken during a NASA and University of Alaska airborne campaign. 

Recently, however, astronauts aboard the space station have been able to capture various natural light shows on camera, including red sprites over two different storms within 3 minutes of each other — first over the American Midwest and then later near the coast of El Salvador. These red sprites, which were spotted in August 2015, stretched roughly 60 miles (100 km) above Earth, according to the statement

Observations of strange atmospheric features like red sprites and blue jets help improve researchers’ understanding of lightning and thunderstorms, which can lead to better storm models and weather forecasts. Furthermore, researchers also aim to learn more about why storms produce different TLEs in different circumstances. 

“TLE studies have been, to an extent, fortunate observation,” Tim Lang, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said in the statement. “We’ve gotten better at finding them, but it’s mostly case-based analysis.”

Researchers will soon have the opportunity to capture even better storm observations from space using NASA’s Lightning Imaging Sensor, which was installed on the orbiting lab in February 2017, and the Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor, which is slated to launch to the space station later this year. These instruments will allow researchers to analyze storms from both below and above, and closely examine thunderstorms’ impact on Earth’s atmosphere. 

Follow Samantha Mathewson @Sam_Ashley13. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on

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NASA Moon Probe Celebrates 100th Lunar Day



October means baseball playoffs, Halloween and, for NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, 100 lunar days on the moon. 

A lunar day is a lot longer than a day on Earth, according to a new NASA video. We measure days from noon to noon or sunset to sunset. On Earth, a day takes 24 hours, though it will vary by a up to 29 seconds because of the eccentricity of Earth’s orbit. On the moon, a day is 708.7 hours, or 29.53 Earth days. On Oct. 16, the probe hit the 100 lunar-day mark.

That day length is about the same amount of time it takes for the moon to make a complete revolution around the Earth, and that’s no accident. The moon is tidally locked to the Earth, and always presents the same face to us. So its rotation period and orbital period are the same.

The Earth’s orbital and rotation periods are of course very different, with our planet making one rotation in 24 hours, but completing one orbit in a year. Since the Earth moves around the sun in a roughly circular orbit, when one rotation is finished the sun will appear slightly west of its position in the sky at the same time the day before. The Earth also wobbles a bit, which alters the length of a day by a small amount. 

A similar thing happens to the moon. The 100 days LRO passed are mean solar days — an average. The length of a day on the moon can vary, being 6 hours shorter or up to 7 hours longer than the mean of 28.53 Earth days, for the same reasons that the Earth’s day can vary, plus one other: The moon’s orbit is not a perfect circle. The moon also wobbles a bit from side to side (a phenomenon called libration), so from Earth a sliver of the far side is periodically visible. 

Launched on June 18, 2009, LRO was originally planned to last about a year. It has been extended numerous times since then. The probe orbits between 12 miles (20 kilometers) and 103 miles (165 km) above the lunar surface, investigating the lunar topography and radiation environment, keeping an eye out for water. 

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Supermoon 2017: When and How to See December’s 'Full Cold Moon'



A “supermoon” rises over the U.S. Capitol Building in this NASA photo captured on July 31, 2015. Another supermoon will rise on Sunday (Dec. 3, 2017).

When the “Full Cold Moon” rises on Dec. 3, it will also be the first and last “supermoon” of 2017. 

Supermoons happen when a full moon approximately coincides with the moon’s perigee, or a point in its orbit at which it is closest to Earth. This makes the moon appear up to 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter than usual. 

The moon becomes totally full at 10:46 a.m. EST (1546 GMT) on Sunday (Dec. 3). It will officially reach perigee the next day (Dec. 4) at 3:45 a.m. EST (0845 GMT), when it is 222,135 miles (357,492 kilometers) away from Earth. [Supermoon Secrets: 7 Surprising Big Moon Facts]

While the moon’s average distance is 238,000 miles (382,900 km) from Earth, its orbit isn’t perfectly circular, so that distance varies a small amount. When it reaches apogee, or its farthest distance from Earth, on Dec. 19, it will be 252,651 miles (406,603 km) away. That’s a difference of 30,516 miles (48,110 km) — but the moon’s distance from Earth can vary more than that. 

The perigee for December’s supermoon won’t even be the closest this year; that happened May 25, when the not-so-super new moon was 221,958 miles (357,208 km) away from Earth. That date didn’t coincide with a full moon, though, so it didn’t qualify as a supermoon. 

Credit: Karl Tate/

Supermoons don’t happen every month because the moon’s orbit changes orientation as the Earth goes around the sun. So, the long axis of the moon’s elliptical path around the Earth points in different directions, meaning that a full (or new) moon won’t always happen at apogee or perigee. 

In New York City, the full moon will rise the evening of Dec 3. at 4:59 p.m. local time. Moonset will be the morning of Dec. 4 at 7:50 a.m., according to The sun sets at 4:28 p.m. on Dec. 3, so the full moon and the sun will not be visible at the same time, at least in New York. 

If you want to see both in the sky at once, you need to go below the equator. In Wellington, New Zealand, the full moon happens at 4:46 a.m. local time on the morning of Dec. 4, and sets at 6:10 a.m., half an hour after the sun rises at 5:41 a.m. 

Look for the full moon in the constellation of Taurus. Though the moon is officially full on Dec. 3, it will still appear full to the casual observer the night before and after. 

As it did in November, the full moon will pass in front of, or “occult,” the bright star Aldebaran. This event will be visible from northern Canada, Alaska, eastern Russia, Kazakhstan, much of China and as far south as Bangladesh. 

In the continental U.S., residents of Washington state can catch the occultation; People in Seattle will see the predawn moon pass in front of Aldebaran at 6:09 a.m. local time, reappearing at 6:46 a.m. In Boise, Idaho, the occultation will start at 7:15 a.m., but skywatchers there won’t get to see Aldebaran reappear from behind the moon, as the occultation ends after the moon sets at 7:43 a.m. 

In Anchorage, Alaska, Aldebaran disappears behind the moon at 4:38 a.m. local time and reappears at 5:32 a.m. The moon becomes full soon after that at 6:46 a.m. local time, setting at 9:20 a.m. Canadian observers in Vancouver will see the occultation start at 6:06 a.m. and end at 6:46 a.m. (Full moon is at 7:46 a.m.)

Observers in Asia will see more of the occultation. In Beijing, the event starts at 7:54 p.m. local time and ends at 8:37 p.m. — better timed for those who’d rather not get up too early. 

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the name of the full moon in December is “Full Cold Moon,” and given the weather in December (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), that’s not a surprise. 

This is also reflected in the names from native peoples of North America. According to the Ontario Native Literacy Project, the Ojibwe called December’s full moon “Mnidoons Giizis,” the “Big Spirit Moon” or “Blue Moon.” For the Ojibwe, it marked the 12th calendar month, and was a time for healing. The Haida of the Pacific Northwest called it the “Snow Moon,” or “Ta’aaw Kungaay.” 

Among the Hopi, whose ceremonial life revolved around the lunar and solar cycles, the lunation just before the winter solstice was the “Sparrow-Hawk” moon, as noted by Janet Sharp of Washburn University in her study of Hopi mathematical concepts and teaching.  

In the Southern Hemisphere, December is summertime. The Māori of New Zealand described the lunar months in November to December as Hakihea, or “birds are now sitting in their nests,” according to the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. 

In China, the traditional lunar calendar calls the December lunation the 10th month. Called Yángyuè, or Yang month, it’s named for the yang ― the masculine, positive principle of Taoism familiar to Westerners as part of the yin and yang.  

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