Hardy Terran Microbes on Mars and The Lunar X Prize Winner

Can microscopic Earth-life survive on Mars?

A recent experiment certainly shows that it’s possible:

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Multiple missions have been sent to Mars with the hopes of testing the surface of the planet for life – or the conditions that could create life – on the Red Planet. The question of whether life in the form of bacteria (or something even more exotic!) exists on Mars is hotly debated, and still requires a resolute yes or no. Experiments done right here on Earth that simulate the conditions on Mars and their effects on terrestrial bacteria show that it is entirely possible for certain strains of bacteria to weather the harsh environment of Mars.

A team led by Giuseppe Galletta of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Padova simulated the conditions present on Mars, and then introduced several strains of bacteria into the simulator to record their survival rate. The simulator – named LISA (Laboratorio Italiano Simulazione Ambienti) – reproduced surface conditions on Mars, with temperatures ranging from +23 to -80 degrees Celsius (73 to -112 Fahrenheit), a 95% CO2 atmosphere at low pressures of 6 to 9 millibars, and very strong ultraviolet radiation. The results – some of the strains of bacteria were shown to survive up to 28 hours under these conditions, an amazing feat given that there is nowhere on the surface of the Earth where the temperatures get this low or the ultraviolet radiation is as strong as on Mars.

Two of the strains of bacteria tested – Bacillus pumilus and Bacillus Nealsonii – are both commonly used in laboratory tests of extreme environmental factors and their effects on bacteria because of their ability to produce endospores when stressed. Endospores are internal structures of the bacteria that encapsulate the DNA and part of the cytoplasm in a thick wall, to prevent the DNA from being damaged.

Galletta’s team found that the vegetative cells of the bacteria died after only a few minutes, due to the low water content and high UV radiation. The endospores, however, were able to survive between 4 and 28 hours, even when exposed directly to the UV light. The researchers simulated the dusty surface of Mars by blowing volcanic ash or dust of red iron oxide on the samples. When covered with the dust, the samples showed an even higher percentage of survival, meaning that it’s possible for a hardy bacterial strain to survive underneath the surface of the soil for very long periods of time. The deeper underneath the soil an organism is, the more hospitable the conditions become; water content increases, and the UV radiation is absorbed from the soil above.

Given these findings, and all of the rich data that came in last year from the Phoenix lander – especially the discovery of perchlorates –  continuing the search for life on Mars still seems a plausible endeavor.

Well, if we depend on NASA confirming life on Mars or not, we’ll be waiting for another 100 years. It just ain’t gonna happen.

It’ll be a consortium of nations, private industry or world governments coming clean that someone has advanced technology and humans are already there that decides the issue!

Bacteria Could Survive in Martian Soil

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The Lunar X Prize Goes To Masten!

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Caption: Masten Space Systems rocket, Xoie preparing to launch from the Mojave Air and Space Port in the 2009 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X PRIZE Challenge

The race for the $2 million Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X PRIZE Challenge (NGLLXPC) incentivized prize purse, funded by NASA and presented by the X PRIZE Foundation, has come to an exciting finish. Masten Space Systems, led by David Masten, will be awarded the top $1 million prize on Nov. 5 in Washington D.C. at the Rayburn House Office Building. This is the largest incentivized prize awarded by the X PRIZE Foundation since the 2004 Ansari X PRIZE competition.

The NGLLXPC rocket race literally came down to the wire. Masten Space Systems, along with other competing teams descended upon the Mojave Desert last week in a head-to-head showdown. The Masten team set out to chase down Armadillo Aerospace for the Level 2, first-place prize of $1 million. On Oct. 30, in their final attempt, Masten Space Systems successfully launched their ‘Xoie’ vehicle and achieved an average landing accuracy of 19 cm to beat Armadillo Aerospace’s previous accuracy mark of 87 cm. According to competition officials the Masten team achieved accurate landings and won the first-place prize for Level 2 of the NGLLXPC. Armadillo Aerospace, led by id Software founder John Carmack will take home the second place prize of $500,000.

“We are all very excited to have David Masten and John Carmack take the top prizes in the 2009 Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X PRIZE Challenge. It is an honor to award these teams $2 million in prize money,” said Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation. “This space race was exciting to watch and experience, as these dedicated teams raced to advance space technology. It is clear that the emerging space industry will continue to benefit from the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X PRIZE Challenge.”

The criterion for the Level 2 NGLLXPC requires the rocket to simulate a full lunar lander mission. The flight profile must closely simulate the task of descending from lunar orbit to the lunar surface, refueling and returning to lunar orbit. To match the performance of such a mission here on Earth, the vehicle must fly along a proscribed mission profiled designed to show both control and power, ascending to a height of 50 meters, translating horizontally to a landing pad 50 meters away, landing safely on a rocky lunar-replica surface after at least 180 seconds of flight time. The flight profile must be repeated, with the rocket demonstrating repeat-use capability by returning to the original launch site.

Since the NGLLXPC competition launched in 2006, one dozen teams have worked to design rockets capable of being used as part of Moon 2.0, a new era of international and sustainable lunar exploration that draws on both government and private involvement. These rocket designs have already found additional missions, with competing teams already carrying out important development work for NASA, the US Department of Defense, and a variety of private and academic customers. Throughout the competition NASA put up $2 million in prize money as part of their Centennial Challenges program. The NGLLXPC was comprised of two levels; each level included both first and second place prizes. The $350,000 first-place prize for Level 1 went to Armadillo Aerospace at last year’s competition. Masten Space Systems will take home the second-place prize of $150,000 in the Level 1 portion of the challenge.

The NGLLXPC was operated by the X PRIZE Foundation at no cost to NASA. This was made possible by the generous support of Northrop Grumman Corporation, which built the original Apollo Lunar Modules used to safely carry crew down to the lunar surface in the 1960s and 1970s. Northrop Grumman supported the competition throughout the four years in which it was offered.

The ultimate goal of the NGLLXPC is to inspire entrepreneurs who can enable a new era of commercial exploration. These milestone events within the privately funded space sector continue to demonstrate the value of prizes and how they stimulate innovation. The successful flights from all of the private space companies continue to underscore the report to President Obama by the Augustine Commission, which called for increased commercial sector participation both in orbital operations and NASA’s efforts to reach the Moon by 2020. Now, more than ever, the time is right for private industry to supply NASA with hardware and services to enable suborbital, orbital, and lunar exploration.

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Caption: The Armadillo rocket, Scorpius launches from the pad in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X PRIZE Challenge

I kept track of this challenge the whole time and the vids were great!

Both teams were quick on the turn-around-time and I couldn’t believe how close these people got to those vehicles before they even cooled off!

Quite a lot of folks look down on the ‘nuspace’ enterprises because they have an unproven track record yet and, of course, the lack of billions of dollars to do their research and development on.

But the technology is 65 years old, so it doesn’t necessarily require all that big money to build something reliable, reusable.

And profitable.

Just a little intelligence, time and elbow grease as Masten, Armadillo and even though they didn’t win anything, Unreasonable Rocket has proven, is required.

Okay, sure, a couple million bucks as incentive didn’t hurt either!

Lunar Lander Competition Awards $2 Million in Prizes

*It should be noted that there are several parts to the Lunar X Prize, the lander competition is just one part.

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