Mars’ surface is covered in UV-activated chemicals that inhibit the development of living organisms -Exomars rover will target subsoil in search for extraterrestrial life

Terraforming Mars may have to wait yet a while longer.

The Martian surface is covered in UV-activated chemicals that inhibit the development of any lifeforms, as recent tests of the topsoil have shown.

ESA’s Exomars rover will now begin digging under Mars’ toxic surface, searching for any proof of current or past life on the planet.

Recent tests conducted on Martial soil have confirmed that oxidant compounds known as perchlorates permeate the the Red Planet’s surface.

Perchlorates are highly oxidized forms of chlorine, a chemical commonly used in household cleaning products and also as a disinfectant in swimming pools. The downside of it is that at high concentrations, chlorine is extremely toxic. It was weaponised and used as a chemical warfare agent during the First World War, for example.

Perchlorates were first thought to be present on the Martian soil as far back as 1976, when the Viking probes landed there. The compounds were detected again by the Curiosity rover, which is still marauding around Mars today.

The bad news is that when perchlorates are hit by UV radiation, which occurs on Mars pretty much all the time, the compounds become activated and turn into a particularly effective bactericide, killing off most microbial life.

This effect is a double edge sword. While the chemicals present on the Martial soil will destroy any microbe brought from Earth, thus preventing the contamination of Mars with exogenous bacteria, it also means that life on the surface is all but impossible at this point in time.

Scientists will now have to dig deep into the Martian subsoil to try and find any trace of life, past or present.

Cassini probe captures spectacular images of methane clouds rising over Saturn’s largest moon


The Cassini spacecraft has captured spectacular footage of gigantic methane clouds swirling over Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

Cassini is on the final stage of its 20-year long spacefaring mission to the farther reaches of the Solar System. The probe captured the footage during its final orbit of Saturn and Titan.

Saturn’s largest moon is an inhospitable world, about 50% larger than Earth’s own satellite, and the second largest in the Solar System. It orbits Saturn once every 15 days and 22 hours. Scientists believe that Titan holds massive amounts of liquid hydrocarbons, amounting to more than the known oil and natural gas reserves here on Earth. During an earlier fly-by in 2013, Cassini beamed data back to Earth that enabled astronomers to elucidate that Titan’s deep canyons were carved by liquid methane.

Titan and Earth are similar in many ways, in fact. Both worlds have seas and rivers, and a rain-producing atmosphere. The major difference is that while liquid water flows through our planet’s river systems, Titan’s are filled with a dark fluid that scientists believe to be liquid methane.

Cassini’s final journey will take place on September 15 this year. The craft will fly straight into Saturn’s atmosphere, where it will burn up in a blaze of glory. By then, Cassini will have completed an epic voyage of some 2.2bn miles across known space.

Cassini probe zooms between Saturn’s rings and its outer atmosphere


The Cassini probe has accomplished an historic feat in space exploration today, after becoming the first man-made object to successfully fly between Saturn’s rings and the planet itself.

Cassini executed a perfect dive through the 1,500 miles-wide gap earlier today, causing great excitement inside Mission Control back on Earth.

The manouever was not without its risks, as controllers feared the probe may collide with unseen debris orbiting the planet. However, their daring gamble paid off, and Cassini flew through the gap unscathed. Today’s was the first of a further 22 planned gap-runs at speeds of nearly 80,000 mph.

Today’s flyover took Cassini to within 2,000 miles of Saturn’s upper cloudy surface. The next runs will take about 7 days to complete, and the craft is expected to gather invaluable scientific data during this period.

Cassini is nearing the end of its 20-year long mission to Saturn. After orbiting the planet for 13 years, controllers have set the probe on a ballistic course, which will end on September 15 at 9:45 a.m. GMT (6:45 a.m. ET), when it burns up in Saturn’s atmosphere.

Little was known about Saturn before Cassini began its mission. Back in 2004, the probe beamed data that proved key to charting the planet and its moons.

Deep-space scan reveals Earth-like world that could host alien life


Deep-space researchers have located a world which they say has the potential to harbor alien life.

Named LHS1140b, the exoplanet is in the Cetus constellation, 40 light-years away from Earth. It has its own sun in the form of a red dwarf (LHS1140), which the planet circles once every 25 days. Researchers calculate the planet’s age at around 5bn years, and believe that its mass and density and much larger than Earth’s, suggesting a rocky composition with a super-dense iron core.

The most striking feature is that LHS1140b’s orbit places it right in the middle of the planetary system. In other words, the world would receive just the right amount of heat and light to sustain life, just like Earth.

LHS1140b is the latest in a series of newly discovered worlds that could possibly host alien life. In summer 2016, scientists spotted Proxima b, a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the star that is closest to Earth (4.2 light years away). Proxima b also lies in that optimal zone where it would be neither too hot nor too cold for life to exist.

In the future, researchers hope to avail of better equipment to analyze these planets’ atmosphere and surface to determine whether or not life as we know is possible.

Cassini spacecraft detects conditions favorable to life in one of Saturn’s moons


The Cassini spacecraft has revealed some interesting data about Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons.

Enceladus, which takes its name from a Giant in Greek mythology, features an icy surface beneath which a vast ocean of liquid water is thought to exist.

More interestingly, gigantic plumes of gas rise out of the moon. These plumes contain hydrogen, which indicates the presence of chemical reactions similar to those that happen at the bottom of the oceans here on Earth.

On our planet, these vents teem with microbial life, which raises the possibility that similar lifeforms may exist elsewhere in the Universe.

Earthside, microbes feed on hydrogen venting out from the planet’s crust, so the same process may be taking place in Saturn.

Cassini has been performing flybys around Saturn for 13 years. The probe will soon enter its final cycle of 22 more orbits before crashing into the planet’s atmosphere around September next.

Cosmic phenomenon, or alien craft? Astronomers ponder the origin of powerful radio signals


Our Universe is full of weird and wonderful things.

A number of incredibly strong radio signals detected by Earth’s telescopes have baffled astronomers and researchers for some time.

Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) are powerful radio blasts lasting for a few milliseconds only, first noticed when reviewing long-range telemetry data from 2001. Since then, twelve more such signals have been picked up.

The peculiarity of FRBs is that they appear to be one-off events, originating in a single location. The vast energy of these events equals to roughly that of five hundred million suns.

One thing that astronomers do know is that the signals come from outer space, as far as 5.5 billion light years out. Local interference has been categorically ruled out. This is significant, as previously thought ‘alien messages’ turned out to be interference caused by a site’s microwave oven, for instance.

But so far, researchers have been unable to agree on the source of such signals. An existing theory is that they are emitted when super-dense objects like black holes or neutron stars collide.

Another, far more interesting theory, is that the signals are artificial and the energy released is being used to power gigantic alien space craft. This theory gains traction given the fact that FRBs are arranged in a very peculiar pattern that does not conform to current understandings of astrophysics.

Telescope equipment is now been fine-tuned to look further into the FRB phenomenon, as astronomers are keen to pinpoint its origin.

Expanding Earth’s horizons: NASA scientists propose the launch of a planet-wide magnetic field to restore Mars’ atmosphere and make the Red Planet habitable


The colonization of the Red Planet may be one step closer to reality today, after NASA scientists proposed the creation of a magnetic field around Mars that could potentially make the planet habitable for future human generations.

Today, Mars is a barren wasteland. No life has existed there for billions of years.

But it wasn’t always like that. Scientists believe that the planet once held vast and deep oceans teeming with living creatures.

All this paradise-like conditions ended when Mars lost its magnetic field, between 3.7 and 4.2 billions of years ago. This allowed high-energy particles to gradually strip away its protective atmosphere. Once the atmosphere became thin enough, all life on Mars’ surface became extinct.

But wayward NASA people now believe that Mars’ once thick atmosphere could be restored by ‘coating’ the planet with a gigantic magnetic field. This artificial magnetosphere would shield Mars from the damaging effects of solar winds and other high-energy particles, much like Earth’s own magnetosphere does.

Once protected, Mars’ natural processes would begin restoring the planet’s atmosphere over time. As the atmosphere thickened, surface temperatures would rise enough so that carbon dioxide ice from Mars’ northern polar cap would begin to melt. In turn, this would trigger a greenhouse effect and cause the planet’s now frozen water wastes to thaw. In just a few generations, Mars might just have flowing rivers and vast oceans once again.

Should all these things happen as predicted, the exploration and colonization of Mars may become a reality within a few hundred years.

The research team that postulated all this did admit that the concepts and ideas are purely hypothetical at this point in time, but that has not deterred them from following their vision of turning the Red Planet into an Earth-like Blue Planet.

Cosmic fury: Titanic struggles in deep space, as black holes consume stars more often than previously thought


New deep-space research has concluded that black holes are consuming stars at an alarming rate, way faster than astronomers previously thought.

A brand new study has found that supermassive black holes lurk in dark regions of space, always ready to trap nearby stars and slowly consume their matter, a la galactic Venus Flytrap.

This phenomenon was well known, but it is the frequency at which it happens that has stunned the research community at the University of Sheffield, the conductors of the study.

A black hole is an anomaly created when a celestial body, usually a star, runs out of fuel and collapses unto itself under the force of gravity. Eventually, gargantuan amounts of matter are compressed into a relatively small area of space, creating a super-dense region with such colossal gravitational pull that not even light can escape. It is because of this trait that black holes are only revealed through special equipment and by observing the surrounding space.

When a star wanders in the vicinity of one of these cosmic monsters, it becomes trapped in an inescapable gravitational pull, slowly dwindling away as the black hole swallows it whole.

In scientific terms, such predation is called a Tidal Disruption Event (TDE). Prior knowledge stated that one such event would happen once every 10,000 to 100,000 years per galaxy.

However, it has now transpired that TDEs occur about 100 times more often, particularly as galaxies collide with one another.

TDEs are exceptionally violent episodes of utter chaos at cosmic level, with devastating consequences. When galaxies collide, their structure warps, ripping stars out of their orbits, and often throwing them into the ravenous maws of lurking black holes. The outcome of such cataclysmic events is a single, enormous new galaxy risen from the remnants of the two colliding titans.

And the bad news is that our very own galactic home, the Milky Way, is on an inexorable collision course with Andromeda, the closest spiral galaxy. This end-of-days event will happen in about 5 billion years though, so don’t go making plans for your TDE blaze of glory just yet.

Come fly with me, to the Moon! SpaceX will fly two daring tourists around Earth’s satellite in 2018


While most Irish people are just happy to pop down to Lanzarote or Santa Ponsa for the summer, others have their sights set much higher than that in the holiday sweepstakes.

SpaceX, the company owned by entrepeneur Elon Musk, have confirmed that they will fly two tourists around the Moon in 2018.

The two pioneers -who have reportedly paid a handsome deposit for the privilege- will be flown around the Moon but will not actually land.

The week-long holiday is not without its risks, however. At least, the aforementioned Lanzarote and Santa Ponsa are tried and tested summer haunts. Outer space is another kettle of fish altogether.

SpaceX will use an as-of-yet untested Heavy Falcon-class rocket to propel an also untested craft, dubbed Crew Dragon. The company will test the rocket for the first time this summer.

SpaceX have achieved great accolades thus far, but have also suffered serious setbacks. A Falcon 9-class rocket exploded while being fueled last September, for instance, destroying over $200m worth of equipment and months of development in the process.

The tourists, whose deposits are presumably non-refundable, are said to have been briefed on the risks that the trip carries.

While no dates have yet been fixed for this historic event, SpaceX expects to kickstart the Moon tourism business next year.

Any volunteers?

Galactic maws: Two gigantic black holes discovered in neighboring galaxies


Two black holes, some of the most enigmatic space-time anomalies in existence in the Universe, have been discovered lurking behind enormous clouds of gas in nearby galaxies.

The objects were detected by NASA’s orbiting observatory NuSTAR, which picked up X-ray radiation emitted by light as it becomes trapped in the inescapable pull of the black hole.

These aberrations of time and space were concealed behind enormous clouds of gas, like monsters lurking behind a curtain.

A black hole is an anomaly created when a celestial body, usually a star, runs out of fuel and collapses unto itself under the force of gravity. Eventually, gargantuan amounts of matter are compressed into a relatively small area of space, which creates a super-dense region of space with such colossal gravitational pull that not even light can escape. It is because of this trait that black holes are only revealed through special equipment and by observing the surrounding space.

At the center of the black hole lies a singularity, a region of space where things become really weird.

The outermost area of a black hole is called the event horizon. A good analogy is those slip road signs that say ‘Wrong way: Turn back now.’ If you drive past that sign, you’re facing oncoming traffic. If you move past the event horizon, you will never leave.

To an outside observer, a person crossing the event horizon would appear to slowly elongate and become dimmer. If this person was transmitting, pauses between transmissions would beome longer and longer as time dilation occurs. Eventually, the person moving towards the center of the black hole -the singularity- would appear dimmer and redder, until it could no longer be seen.

However -and this is where things become really interesting-, the person inside the hole would see no difference. This interstellar pioneer would now be trapped in an area of space where the curvature of time becomes infinite. Here, space and time as we know it does no longer apply. What really happens there, though, nobody really knows.

Luckily however, the two newest black holes discovered are unlikely to ever bother us.

The first was discovered in galaxy NGC 1448, which is 38 million light years away from the Milky Way.

The other is in the farthest reaches of space, in galaxy IC 3639, which is 170 million light years away.