Phase one of the ExoMars (live), sequencing DNA in space and Pluto’s mountains capped by methane ice

1200x630_326504_exomars-set-for-imminent-launch-to-rePhase one of the ExoMars mission launches today to find life on the Red Planet


Two robotic spacecraft are set to launch to space on a Russian Proton rocket today, the beginning of a seven-month journey to Mars. This is the first phase of the ExoMars mission, a partnership between the European Space Agency and the Russian Federal Space Agency, or Roscosmos. The goal of the collaboration is to send probes to Mars to determine if the planet is — or has ever been — home to alien life. The launch is scheduled for 5:31AM ET today, March 14th.

The ExoMars program consists of two launches to the Red Planet: today’s and one in 2018. This upcoming rocket launch will carry the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli EDM Lander into space, which will both arrive at Mars in October of this year, according to the ESA. Once there, the Trace Gas Orbiter will put itself into orbit around the planet and measure the types of gases in the atmosphere. Specifically, the orbiter is looking for traces of methane — a potential indicator of biological life on the planetary surface below.

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Sequencing DNA in space

A tiny new device called the MinION, developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies, promises to help scientists sequence DNA in space. NASA’s Biomolecule Sequencer investigation is a technology demonstration of the device. The investigation’s objectives include providing proof-of-concept for the device’s functionality and evaluation of crew operability of a DNA sequencer in the International Space Station’s microgravity environment. While the petite device is already being used to sequence DNA on Earth, it has never been used to do so in space.

Determining the sequence of DNA is a powerful way to characterize organisms and determine how they are responding to changes in the environment. The goal of this technology demonstration is to provide evidence that DNA sequencing in space is possible, which holds the potential to enable the identification of microorganisms, monitor changes in microbes and humans in response to spaceflight, and possibly aid in the detection of DNA-based life elsewhere in the universe.

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Pluto’s mountains capped by methane ice

pluto-methane-snow-new-horizons (1)Some of Pluto’s frigid peaks are capped by ice, but it’s more exotic than the frozen stuff we’re used to here on Earth. A newly released image captured by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft during its historic Pluto flyby in July 2015 shows bright material atop the tallest mountains in a 260-mile-long (420 kilometers) chain in the southeastern part of Cthulhu, a dark-red region that’s bigger than the state of Alaska.

Compositional measurements made by New Horizons’ Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera suggest that the stuff is methane ice, researchers said. “That this material coats only the upper slopes of the peaks suggests methane ice may act like water in Earth’s atmosphere, condensing as frost at high altitude,” New Horizons science team member John Stansberry, of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said in a statement.

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