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NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover digs up clues in the hunt for life

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On the floor of a shallow crater on Mars, the NASA rover Perseverance has hit what scientists are hoping is pay dirt. Martian rocks excavated by the rover show signs of a watery past and are loaded with the kind of organic molecules that are the foundation for life as we know it.

Scientists collaborating on the mission also say the rock samples, which the rover has cached in tubes for a future return to Earth, have the right chemical recipe to preserve evidence of ancient Martian life, if it ever existed.

The new Perseverance research is detailed in three extensive studies published Wednesday, one in the journal Science and two in the journal Science Advances. The journal reports are highly technical and devoid of hype — daring to be dull as dirt — but the scientists involved translate them into a more exciting tale.

“It’s amazing. In pretty much every rock we’re finding organics,” said Abigail Allwood, a geologist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which operates the rover and the broader Mars Sample Return mission.

One of the studies concluded that the rocks in the crater experienced three different events in which they were exposed to water.

“Crucially, conditions in the rock during each time that water migrated through it could have supported small communities of microorganisms,” lead author Michael Tice, a geologist at Texas A&M University, said in an email. In a subsequent interview, he added, “We’re not going to know until we get the samples back to Earth.”

On Feb. 18, 2021, NASA successfully landed the Perseverance rover on Mars. Here is a live video of the landing. (Video: NASA, Photo: NASA/NASA)

Perseverance made a bulls-eye landing in Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021, and has been roaming it since, caching rock samples along the way for later scrutiny back on Earth. This is an ambitious, multiphase mission that will require NASA and its partner, the European Space Agency, to send another vehicle to the surface of Mars with the capability of launching samples into orbit. A spacecraft would then carry those samples back to Earth for laboratory research. The precise timetable is still to be determined, but NASA is hoping to have the samples on home turf in the early 2030s.

This study of Mars is part of the efflorescence of the young field of astrobiology, which includes the search for potentially habitable worlds and the first example of extraterrestrial life. Despite the efforts of generations of scientists, and notwithstanding the claims of UFO buffs, the discovery of life beyond Earth remains aspirational.

Even finding organics — life-friendly molecules with combinations of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen — is a far cry from discovering life or even proof of its presence in the past. Such molecules can be either biological or nonbiological in origin.

Still, Mars is front and center in NASA’s search because it has many favorable traits. Mars probably was far more Earthlike about 3 billion years ago, with warmer and wetter conditions. Life may have once existed on Earth and Mars simultaneously, and it is possible that it originated on Mars and spread to Earth via meteorites. And though the surface now is an arid wasteland, the planet could have liquid water in significant quantities beneath the surface, and possibly “cryptic” life.

Although the Perseverance rover does not have instruments to chemically detect living organisms if they exist today, its instruments give scientists the ability to study the Martian surface at a level of detail never before possible.

One of the new papers more closely examining Mars’s chemistry has delivered a surprise for geologists. They had assumed that they were going to dig up a bunch of sedimentary rocks. Instead the rocks are volcanic.

Jezero Crater formed in an impact event — a rock slamming into Mars — at least 3.5 billion years ago. The shallow crater clearly had water in it long ago. This could be determined from orbital images showing the remnants of a delta where a river flowed into the lake. Planetary geologists had assumed the floor of the crater was covered in sedimentary rock, formed from dirt and debris that slowly accumulated at the bottom of the lake.

If such sedimentary rock was ever there, it’s gone now. It may have eroded away, Tice said. The lack of sedimentary rock could mean that the lake didn’t last very long, which would be disappointing for the astrobiologists. Life as we know it needs water, and it takes time for more-complex life-forms to evolve. If the lake didn’t linger, life might have struggled to take root.

The volcanic rocks are not a disappointment, though, because they preserve loads of information about the Martian past, including the presence of organic molecules, scientists said. The presence of organic material on Mars had been confirmed in previous missions, but their precise nature and chemistry can’t be discerned through this kind of long-distance research and will require laboratory scrutiny on Earth, according to Bethany Ehlmann, a planetary scientist at Caltech and co-author of two of the new papers.

“Are they merely organics that kind of washed into the system — maybe from meteoritic material that was just part of the water? That would be the least exciting. Or are they little niches of microbial life living in the cavities of these rocks? That would be the most exciting,” Ehlmann said.

She added that the rover “is collecting an awesome set of samples to reveal Mars’s environmental history in all of its forms — the volcanic history, the history of water, the relationship of organics to those water-rich environments.”

All of this is an attempt to solve the fundamental mystery of Mars: What went wrong? How and when and why did this planet that apparently was congenial to life turn into such a harsh place? The Red Planet may not be a dead planet — the coroner’s report is incomplete — but it certainly resembles one.

Scientists point to something Mars lacks today: a global magnetic field like Earth’s. Such a field protects our atmosphere from the corrosive effects of the solar wind — high-energy particles steadily streaming from the sun that can strip away lighter molecules. Mars also lacks plate tectonics, the geological process that on Earth recycles the crust and continues to spew water and nutrient-rich lavas through active volcanoes.

Somewhere along the way, Mars’s magnetic field died, and then it became a different kind of planet. It lost almost all of its atmosphere. It became a frigid desert world. How quickly that happened is unknown, but that’s something that might be revealed by the volcanic rocks in the crater.

Magma contains some amount of iron, which is sensitive to a planet’s magnetism. As lava cools, it crystallizes into igneous rock, freezing electrons within iron-bearing minerals into patterns that could reveal a magnetic field’s traits, such as its orientation.

Benjamin Weiss, a planetary scientist at MIT and co-author of two of the papers, said in an email, “On balance, we are actually super lucky that there are igneous rocks in the crater, and that we happened to land right on them, since they are ideal for determining ages and studying the past history of Mars’ magnetic field.”

Once the mission can send its precious rock collection back to Earth, scientists may finally be able to tell if life ever found a foothold on Mars — which would raise new questions about whether, despite the dramatic transformation of the planet, life somehow managed to persevere.

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REPORT: Rep. Ro Khanna Was The Only Democrat To Raise Issue With Twitter Nuking Biden Laptop Story

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Rep. Ro Khanna of California was the only Democrat concerned that Twitter was violating the First Amendment when the social media platform suppressed the New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story, Matt Taibbi reported Friday.

Taibbi, a Rolling Stone contributing editor, released what Elon Musk called “The Twitter Files,” Friday afternoon. In the Twitter thread, Taibbi shared an email showing that Khanna reportedly contacted Vijaya Gadde, former general counsel and head of legal, policy, and trust at Twitter.

“Democratic congressman Ro Khanna reaches out to Gadde to gently suggest she hop on the phone to talk about the ‘backlash re speech,’” Taibbi tweeted. “Khanna was the only Democratic official I could find in the files who expressed concern.”

The documents Taibbi posted show that Gadde apparently replied to Khanna, explaining that Twitter released a clarifying thread of tweets previously that day that explained the policy around posting private information on “hacked materials.” The document further showed that Trump Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s account was not permanently suspended but she would need to delete “the tweet containing material that is in violation” of Twitter’s rules.

Khanna then explained that he is more concerned about First Amendment principles, even as a “Biden partisan,” according to the documents posted by Taibbi.

“If there is a hack of classified information or other information that could expose a serious war crime and the NYT was to publish it, I think the NYT should have that right,” he reportedly told Gadde, according to Taibbi’s tweet. (RELATED: ‘Absolutely Shocking’: Fox News Contributor Reacts To ‘Coordinated Effort’ By Former Twitter Execs)

Carl Szabo from NetChoice, a research company, reportedly let Twitter know a “blood bath” was awaiting them in upcoming Capitol Hill hearings, according to Taibbi’s Twitter thread. Szabo allegedly explained that Democrats agreed that “social media needs to moderate more.”

“Ro Khanna is great,” current CEO of Twitter Elon Musk replied to Taibbi.

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The era of constant innovation at Amazon could be over • TechCrunch

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There was a time when AWS re:Invent, the yearly customer extravaganza put on by Amazon’s cloud arm, was chock full of announcements. The innovation coming out of the company was so mind-boggling that it was hard to keep up with the onslaught of news.

But this year felt different. If last year was incremental, this year was downright slow when it came to meaningful news.

To give you a sense of our coverage here at TechCrunch, last year, we wrote 28 stories about the event. This year, it’s down to 18, including this one. It’s not that we wanted to write less — we just simply found there was less relevant news to write about.

The day two AI and machine learning keynote was all incremental improvements to existing products. There were so few meaningful announcements that my colleague Frederic Lardinois wrote a post in pictures mocking the lack of news.

It’s gotten to the point, it seems, where the ecosystem has grown so enormous, and there are so many products, that the company has decided to focus on making it easier to work with and between those products (or with external partner products) than creating stuff from scratch.

From a news perspective, that means that there’s really less to write about. Eight new SageMaker capabilities or five new database and analytics capabilities, which I’m sure are important to the folks who needed those features, feel like piling on to an already feature-rich set of products.

It’s not unlike Microsoft Word over the years: It’s a perfectly fine word processor, so the only way to really improve it was to lob on new feature after new feature to make it relevant to an ever wider or more granular audience.

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‘Absolutely Shocking’: Fox News Contributor Reacts To ‘Coordinated Effort’ By Former Twitter Execs

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A Fox News contributor called the released Twitter documents revealing the social media site’s censorship of a report on Hunter Biden’s laptop “absolutely shocking” Friday.

“It’s absolutely stunning. It’s absolutely shocking to – with what has come out so far with Matt Taibbi’s tweets showing just how much – just what a concerted effort it was behind the scenes in order to help one party over another party,” Charlie Hurt, the opinion editor at the Washington Times, told host Jesse Watters. “And it underscores the extraordinary danger of the kind of power that these people have and they have no reservation whatsoever about using it.” (RELATED: Elon Musk Says Releasing Internal Discussions On Hunter Biden Laptop Story Is ‘Necessary To Restore Public Trust’)

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Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi released details about the censorship of an Oct. 14, 2020 report on a laptop Hunter Biden left at a repair store Friday on his Twitter account. The laptop reportedly contained numerous emails and documents detailing the elder Biden’s involvement with his son’s business partners.

Social media companies censored the New York Post’s reports on the laptop, claiming the materials were hacked. The laptop was later confirmed as authentic by the Washington Post and New York Times.

“Let’s step back what we saw with the censoring of that ‘New York Post’ story was an effort by Twitter, companies to trick voters into voting for Joe Biden by suppressing this story,” Hurt said. “And it is absolutely shocking and they literally put this sequestered this story as if it were child pornography. That’s the way they treat it. That’s how desperately they wanted to help Joe Biden get elected.”

Twitter and President Joe Biden did not immediately respond to requests for comment from the Daily Caller News Foundation.

All content created by the Daily Caller News Foundation, an independent and nonpartisan newswire service, is available without charge to any legitimate news publisher that can provide a large audience. All republished articles must include our logo, our reporter’s byline and their DCNF affiliation. For any questions about our guidelines or partnering with us, please contact licensing@dailycallernewsfoundation.org.

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