Water on Mars: ESA’s ExoMars Discovers Hidden Reservoir on the Planet’s Grand Canyon


Mars’ huge canyon system, Valles Marineris, may hold hidden water beneath the surface, according to a new study. The European Space Agency (ESA) and Roscosmos’ collbaorative ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) discovered large volumes of water in the canyon’s heart. By monitoring the hydrogen concentration in the uppermost metre of the Red Planet’s soil, TGO’s FREND (Fine Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector) has been probing these discoveries. This is due to the fact that hydrogen is a key indicator of water concentration. Water is known to exist on Mars but mostly in the polar regions in a frozen form and in traces at lower latitudes of the planet as near-surface water.

The ESA quoted Igor Mitrofanov, the lead author of the study as saying, “With TGO we can look down to one metre below this dusty layer and see what’s really going on below Mars’ surface — and, crucially, locate water-rich ‘oases’ that couldn’t be detected with previous instruments.”

Based on FREND’s observations, researchers believe the enormous amounts of hydrogen in the canyon are bonded into water molecules. This means that water makes up approximately 40 percent of the region’s near-surface material.

Co-author Alexey Malakhov explained why FREND’s neutron telescope has been used for detection. He said that when “highly energetic particles known as galactic cosmic rays” come in contact with Mars, neutrons are formed. He went on to add that drier soils emit more neutrons than wetter ones, making it possible for researchers to estimate how much water is in a soil by looking at the neutrons it emits.

Researchers studied the FREND observations from May 2018 to February 2021 to come to a conclusion. According to them, the suspected water in Mars’ canyon may be compared to Earth’s permafrost region, where water ice permanently persists under dry soil.

Water ice is unusual on Mars’ lower latitudes. This is because the temperatures are so high that water molecules evaporate in this region. Co-author Hakan Svedhem said, “This finding is an amazing first step, but we need more observations to know for sure what form of water we’re dealing with.”

Discovering a reservoir of water at the Valles Marineris is important as several future missions to Mars are scheduled to land at lower latitudes for future exploration.

The Valles Marineris is often compared to Earth’s Grand Canyon, which is ten times shorter and five times shallower. Mars’ canyon is the largest canyon in the Solar System and also the planet’s most majestic landscape.

Colin Wilson, ESA’s ExoMars TGO project scientist, said, that knowing Mars’ present-day water content would enable researchers to understand what happened to the planet’s once-abundant water. The discovery will also help to detect signs of past life, organic materials, and habitable environments.


NASA’s Perseverance May Have Discovered a Long-Dormant Volcano on Mars


NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover has been feeding us with several discoveries from the Red Planet ever since it landed on it in February this year. After nearly 10 months of driving around the Jezero Crater, researchers are beginning to understand that the region had been formed from red-hot magma, possibly from a long-dormant Martian volcano. NASA scientists believe that this discovery will lead to a better understanding of the planet’s history. In a report, NASA revealed that the crater rocks seem to have interacted with water several times since inception. Some organic molecules are also present in these rocks.

NASA’s research team had wondered about the origin of these rocks even before Perseverance had landed on Mars. Scientists speculate whether the rocks were sedimentary or igneous in nature. Now, they seem to be closer to their answers.

The US space agency made the announcement through a tweet. The post read, “The bedrock of Mars’s Jezero Crater, across which NASA Persevere has rolled for nearly 10 months, appears to have been formed from red-hot magma — possibly from a long-dormant Martian volcano.”

Perseverance project scientist Ken Farley of Caltech in Pasadena said, “I was beginning to despair we would never find the answer.” He added, “But then our PIXL instrument got a good look at the abraded patch of a rock from the area nicknamed ‘South Séítah,’ and it all became clear: The crystals within the rock provided the smoking gun.”

The Perseverance rover’s robotic arm is equipped with a drill which can abrade a few inches into rock surfaces in order to test their composition. Then, the robot’s Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) uses X-ray fluorescence to map the elemental composition of the drilled rocks.

Last month, the rover got a core sample from a rock in the South Séítah region. The PIXL data revealed that the rock was unusually rich in large olivine crystals that were engulfed in pyroxene crystals.

Farley explained, “Such a texture indicates the rock formed when crystals grew and settled in a slowly cooling magma — for example, a thick lava flow, lava lake, or magma chamber.” Scientists are yet to ascertain whether the rocks were formed with surface cooling of lava or in a subterranean chamber later exposed by erosion.


James Webb, the Largest-Ever Space Telescope, to Be Launched on Christmas Eve; Rocket Mounting Complete


James Webb Space Telescope, the largest space telescope ever and the most noteworthy after Hubble, has been placed atop the Ariane 5, the rocket which will launch it to space from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. The James Webb Space Telescope has been designed to find answers to outstanding questions about the universe and for other breakthrough discoveries in the field of astronomy. It is set to be launched on December 24, but not earlier than that, as per NASA.

On Thursday, December 16, the European Space Agency (ESA) posted on Instagram a series of photos showing how the James Webb telescope was placed on the top of the Ariane 5 rocket. Once the telescope was brought into the final assembly building, it was lifted slowly for about 40m before being manoeuvred on top of the rocket. The technicians then bolted the telescope’s launch vehicle adapter down to the rocket. 

The ESA said the entire process was performed following all the safety and cleanliness regulations, adding that it was one of the most delicate operations as far as the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope is concerned.

“A ‘shower curtain’ about 12m high and 8m in diameter was installed in between two platforms, to create a closed-off space around Webb to avoid any contamination,” the space agency explained.

The next step will now entail the encapsulation of the telescope inside Ariane 5’s specially adapted fairing. The telescope is set to launch no earlier than December 24 to allow teams to work on a communications issue between the observatory and the launch vehicle system.

The James Webb Space Telescope, an international partnership between NASA, ESA, and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), is not just the largest but also the most powerful telescope ever to be launched into space. The ESA is providing the launch service to the telescope as part of the international agreement.

Alongside its partners, the ESA was tasked with developing and preparing Ariane 5 adaptations for the mission. Apart from that, the space agency was also responsible for the procurement of the launch service by Arianespace.


Meat-Eating Dinosaurs May Have Sprinted as Fast as Cars on City Roads: New Study


An analysis of three-toed, meat-eating dinosaurs has revealed that they may have sprinted faster than a car being driven on the city roads. The footprints, left behind by these theropods over lakebed mud tens of millions of years ago, were studied by scientists. The researchers discovered two sets of fossilised footprints in Spain’s La Rioja region and carried out an extensive study. 

According to the findings, published in the journal Nature on December 9, the makers of the footprint may well have galloped at speeds of up to 44.6 km/hour. The study claimed that 44.6 km/h was “some of the top speeds” ever calculated for theropod tracks. 

The analysis of the two sets of footprints gives us a glimpse into the mobility and behaviour of the creature. The researchers believe that while one dinosaur sped up steadily and consistently as it ran, the other changed its speed quickly while it was still moving. 

Pablo Navarro‐Lorbes, lead author and a researcher at the University of La Rioja in Logrono, said that paleontologists use various methods or ways to calculate the speed based on whatever limited evidence there is. While the primary method is “the speed estimation from tracks,” Pablo said, adding, another way to calculate the speed entails building biomechanical models based on dinosaur bones and limb proportions. 

And while it’s nearly impossible to tell the genus of a theropod that left the footprints, the study reveals that the similarity between tracks indicates that the two dinosaurs belonged to the same taxonomic group. Shedding light on the type of theropod, the study claims that the creatures were “very agile” and may well have been non-avian — not one of the lineages directly related to modern birds. 

“Fast-running theropod tracks are scarce in the fossil record,” Pablo said. “Being able to study them and confirm some other studies made from different approaches are great news for us.”

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Researchers Use Carbon-Air Battery in Breakthrough for Next-Generation Storage Systems


The power sector is undergoing a rapid change globally as the world shifts to renewable energy and cuts down on using fossil fuels. However, a big roadblock to generating electricity from wind and solar energy is their intermittent nature due to unfavourable environmental conditions. To address this problem, storage was found in hydrogen batteries. But these, too, suffered from poor efficiency and required massive space to build, which made them complex for thermal management. Now, researchers at a Japanese institute say they have found a way to make renewable energy more efficient.

The alternative system proposed by the researchers from Tokyo Tech uses carbon, instead of hydrogen, as an energy source. It is called “carbon/air secondary battery (CASB)” and comprises a solid-oxide fuel and electrolysis cell (SOFC/ECs) where carbon generated via electrolysis of carbon dioxide (CO2) is oxidised with air to produce energy. The SOFC/ECs can be supplied with compressed liquefied CO2 to make up the energy storage system.

In their research published in the Journal of Power Sources, the researchers said the CASB system combines CO2 electrolysis for C charging and power generation of carbon fuel cells.

They said they have demonstrated for the first time repetitive power generation (10 charge-discharge cycles) with Boudouard equilibrium without degradation. The CASB system was able to utilise most of the carbon deposited on the electrode for energy generation, achieving maximum Coulombic efficiency of 84 percent, charge-discharge efficiency of 38 percent, and power density of 80 mW cm−2 at 800 degrees Celcius and 100 mA cm−2.

This suggested that the test of CASB system suffered no degradation of the fuel electrode. The charge-discharge cycle is an indicator of battery performance.

“Similar to a battery, the CASB is charged using the energy generated by the renewable sources to reduce CO2 to C. During the subsequent discharge phase, the C is oxidised to generate energy,” Prof. Manabu Ihara from Tokyo Tech told in a statement.

The research holds great promise for accelerating the world towards renewable energy.


Spotting Scopes for Birdwatching: All You Need to Know


Arrival of winters is indeed a pleasant emotion for everyone and a bit more for birders, since with fall migration arrives the mesmerising flocks of migratory birds. And every birder emphasises on making the most of it, but for a new birder arises the question, “Do I need a spotting scope?” specifically for waterfowl and shorebirds!

This is a complete self-decisive question — you are the only one to decide if it’s worth the investment. There are various perks and detriments of buying and using a spotting scope, which I will be elaborating here. Also, the question arises here is that whether it is worth investing on a spotting scope at this point of time. Let’s first begin with understanding what exactly is a spotting scope and how it works.

What is a spotting scope? What can it do for me?

A spotting scope is a compact high-power optimised tool for detailed observation of distant objects. It looks like a small telescope with one eyepiece for observation, instead of two. Unlike handheld binoculars, it always requires a tripod to set it up and obtain maximum stability.

There are a multitude of uses for spotting scopes. It is most commonly used for birdwatching, wildlife viewing, hunting, and astronomy. Regardless of our hobby, the same criteria apply while choosing a spotting scope.

scope single abhishekakrishnagopal xx

A scope is also used for hunting and astronomy
Photo Credit: Abhisheka Krishnagopal

A binocular has 8×42 or 10×42 magnification, but a spotting scope takes magnification to another level usually starting from 15–20x range while zoomed out to 40–60x when zoomed in. This certainly help us obtain a much clear and better view of any far away subject that we are trying to observe. To begin with, a binocular is always handy, so first get comfortable using it and then should you head towards investing in a spotting scope.


Before going for a spotting scope, one must refine the goals. You must first decide what (birding, hunting) and where (like low light environments), you are going to use it. However, the low light performance can be improved by the use of bigger objective lens, but the size and durability of the scope should be primarily considered. Choosing waterproof units with durable shield is always a bonus.


The main specifications to consider are its magnification and lens diameter. Also, the field-of-view and eye relief should be well-thought-out, specially for glass wearers. A high magnification unit will always require a large objective lens. For example, a 60X magnification unit will need at least 80mm of aperture (60×80). Another aspect to be considered is the type of erecting system, i.e. whether a roof or Porro prism is used.

Considering the varied parameters, here’s a list of scopes convenient to begin your journey with:

  • Vanguard Vesta 460A Spotting Scope: Lightweight and high in performance with 15–50x magnification. The larger 60mm lens provides compact viewing in low light conditions.
  • Celestron 52320 Landscout 10–30×50 Spotting Scope: Affordable, easy-to-use, and perfect for any outdoor activity with 10–30x zoom.
  • Wellshot mk78070 25–75×70 Spotting Scope: Multi-coated optics equipped with BK7 prism provides you with bright and crystal-clear images. It is comfortable and practical.
  • Celestron Ultima 65 Angled Spotting Scope: Features a T-mount threading upon the eyepiece barrel, acts as an ultratelephoto lens, with 65–45x.
  • Belity Astronomical Telescope 90x HD Monocular Telescope Refractor Spotting Scope: Entry-level refractive astronomical telescope with 50mm aperture, 1.5x erecting eyepiece and 360mm focal length, perfect for stargazing.

Spotting scopes: Pros

The best part of using a scope is having a much better detailed and clear observation of whatever target subject you have. For birdwatching and stargazing, scopes are very helpful since these activities do not require much movement, hence a scope could be set up in a tripod and hands-free observation of our subject with minute details can be carried out for a prolonged duration.

Spotting scopes: Cons

To be honest spotting scopes are expensive, and if you are dedicated towards using it for a more crisp, clear and magnified observation, you got to pay the hefty price. Hence you should always remember to buy the absolute best one that you can afford.

Unlike a monocular, scopes always need a tripod along with it to function, hence you must include a good budget for it, because a tripod can make or break your experience of spotting scopes. Sometimes carrying this entire setup along with your binoculars and camera, might make it a bit rough, if you are to travel long distances for your destinations.

scope group abhishekakrishnagopal x

The best part of using a scope is having a much better detailed and clear observation
Photo Credit: Abhisheka Krishnagopal

Using spotting scopes: A few things to consider

  • Scopes are complex units, so proper maintenance is a must. Always remember to wipe the lenses from the center outward and avoid touching them.
  • Storing units is also crucial for reducing adverse effects. Protective lens and dust caps are a must.
  • Always consider the level of your commitment to the hobby. Not having a scope does not make you any less a birder or stargazer. Your gears are never a status symbol, nor does it reflect your skills.

Get the most out of it. Happy birding and happy scoping!

Somoyita Sur is a dynamic individual with Masters in Zoology and specialisation in Animal Ecology and Wildlife Biology from Gauhati University and is currently a doctoral research fellow in the Department of Zoology, Gauhati University, Guwahati, Assam. She is pursuing her research work in the field of road ecology, and currently working on the animal vehicle interaction in National Highway 715, that passes through Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India. Her field of interests include landscape planning and management in relation to linear infrastructure and their intrusions in critical areas. Also, she is highly attracted to herpetofauna and birds. She is keen towards the field of ornithology and is a regular birder and an e-Birder.

This series is an initiative by the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), under their programme ‘Nature Communications’ to encourage nature content in all Indian languages. To know more about birds and nature, Join The Flock.


Earth’s Surface Water May Have Come From Space, Scientists Believe


Earth looks incredible when seen from space, thanks to its blue cover of water bodies. Astronomers have captured the breathtaking beauty of our planet in countless photographs and videos. But has this planet always been like what it is today? How did 70 percent of Earth’s surface get covered with water? Scientists have long argued the possibilities. A group of British scientists have now backed a long-held theory that the origin of water on Earth’s surface is extraterrestrial.

The scientists supported the idea that the water on Earth is a result of comets and ice asteroids crashing down on the planet. The group’s findings are based on a study of materials obtained from the 25143 Itokawa asteroid. This asteroid was discovered in 1998 and was the first from which samples were brought to Earth for analysis in 2005. The Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa landed twice on the asteroid to collect a small amount of dust. It delivered the sample to Earth in 2010.

According to the study published in the Nature journal, scientists found a significant amount of water on the asteroid, raising the possibility of the presence of water in the form of ice on other planets. This also helped them conclude that the water on Earth’s surface could be because of solar winds. The group said the dust particles in solar winds must have interacted with oxygen atoms in clouds and poured water on Earth.

Luke Daly, who was a part of the research team, said in a statement that while their research offers remarkable insights into Earth’s past, it could also help future space missions as it may help in finding ways to make sufficient water available for astronauts, without them having to carry supplies. “Our research shows that the same space weathering process which created water on Itokawa likely occurred on other airless planets, meaning astronauts may be able to process fresh supplies of water straight from the dust on a planet’s surface, such as the Moon,” Daly said.


Japanese Billionaire Yusaku Maezawa Lands in Kazakhstan After 12-Day Space Flight


Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa returned to Earth on Monday after a 12-day journey into space, ending a practice run for his planned trip around the moon with Elon Musk’s SpaceX in 2023.

The 46-year-old fashion magnate and art collector, who launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on December 8 along with his assistant Yozo Hirano and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin, landed on the Kazakh steppe.

Maezawa, a space enthusiast, made the trip in a Soyuz spacecraft and became the first space tourist to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) in more than a decade.

One of Japan’s most flamboyant public figures, Maezawa entertained his social media followers from space by taking photos of his home prefecture of Chiba, showing how to make tea in zero gravity and discussing his shortage of fresh underwear.

The entrepreneur returned to snowy conditions on Earth, with precipitation and sub-zero temperatures at the landing site about 150 km south east of the town of Zhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan.

Maezawa will become the first private passenger on the SpaceX moon trip in 2023, as commercial firms including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin usher in a new age of space travel for wealthy clients.

The billionaire, who sold his online fashion business Zozo to SoftBank in 2019, is searching for eight people who will join him in his moon voyage in 2023, requiring applicants to pass medical tests and an interview.

© Thomson Reuters 2021


This Is What Jupiter’s Largest Moon Ganymede Sounds Like


From our Moon to Mars to Jupiter, researchers are baring all guns to find more about the world around us. While the current focus is on the Moon and Mars, there already is a probe orbiting Jupiter. Named Juno, the probe’s goal is to understand the origin and evolution of the solar system’s largest planet. Following a flyby of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede earlier this year, Juno managed to capture some rare insights and sounds of the planet and its largest moon.

The photographs of the gas giant’s “surface” are incredible, but the real holiday treat for space enthusiasts is the sound of Ganymede. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has released the 50-second audio track on YouTube.

The sound was captured by Juno’s Waves instrument. There is a sudden jump in the pitch around the 30-second mark. Researchers have explained that the abrupt change represents the spacecraft’s move from one region of Ganymede’s magnetosphere to another.

“This soundtrack is just wild enough to make you feel as if you were riding along as Juno sails past Ganymede for the first time in more than two decades,” said Juno Principal Investigator Scott Bolton in a statement.

Another investigator, William Kurth, said the sudden change in frequency of the sound could be due to passing from the nightside to the dayside of Ganymede.


SpaceX Launches 52 Starlink Satellites From California Base


A SpaceX rocket carried 52 Starlink internet satellites into orbit from California early Saturday.

The two-stage Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from coastal Vandenberg Space Force Base at 4:41am (6:11pm IST) and arced over the Pacific.

The Falcon’s first stage returned and landed on a SpaceX droneship in the ocean. It was the 11th launch and recovery of the stage.

The second stage continued into orbit and deployment of the satellites was confirmed, said launch commentator Youmei Zhou at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

Starlink is a satellite-based global internet system that SpaceX has been building for years to bring internet access to underserved areas of the world.

Saturday’s mission was the 34th launch for Starlink, a constellation of nearly 2,000 satellites in low Earth orbit.

SpaceX also was scheduled to launch a Turkish communications satellite from Florida at 10:58pm EST Saturday (9:28am IST, Sunday).