Science & Technology: Building an AIRCRAFT to fly on Mars! – Future Mars plane could help solve Red Planet methane mystery (exclusive)

[The idea of flying aircraft on Mars is awesome. And having a solar powered plane is awesome. I think this is awesome in the light of the amazing success of the little helicopter. Click on the source link to see a picture of what they are thinking of. Jan]

MAGGIE, an early-stage concept at the moment, could search for elusive traces of life in the Martian atmosphere.

Mars methane is hard to trace, but a solution might be on the way.

An early-stage airplane concept called MAGGIE will soon kick off a nine-month NASA-funded study to explore its feasibility for soaring over Mars. It won’t go to the Red Planet any time soon, if ever, but there’s a clear science need for more flying vehicles on Mars.

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, the first heavier-than-air vehicle to soar on Mars, finished 72 flights after arriving with the Perseverance rover in February 2021. While Ingenuity had a hard landing in January 2024 that grounded it for good, there’s plenty of room for more flying vehicles in the future.

MAGGIE — short for "Mars Aerial and Ground Intelligent Explorer" — is designed to operate for a Martian year (nearly two Earth years) anywhere around the Red Planet. Flying 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) above the surface, one of its prime missions could be finding methane. That elusive molecule could be a sign of life, but scientists have had little luck figuring out its presence in the Martian atmosphere after decades of searching.

Methane, a possible biosignature gas, has been hard to find on Mars. It pops up now and again in the atmosphere, detectable by spacecraft on or orbiting the Red Planet or by powerful telescopes here on Earth. NASA’s long-running Curiosity rover mission (ancestor to Perseverance), for example, has repeatedly detected methane since 2012, but the levels go up and down — a background level of less than 0.5 parts per billion (ppb) molecules of air, sometimes spiking up to 20 ppb.

The next logical step could be a flying vehicle like MAGGIE, principal investigator Gecheng Zha told Zha is CEO of Coflow Jet and a professor at the University of Miami who received nine months of funding under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program to explore this concept further.

MAGGIE could stay in the air for a distance of 111 miles (179 km), its design suggests, on a single charge of its solar panels. Zha says high-resolution instruments on board could pick out trace amounts of methane in the atmosphere, or other potential transient phenomena like liquid water on Mars. Better yet, "we can also land in any place we’d like to get samples," he told

An image of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars composed of 57 separate photographs the rover took on May 12, 2019. Curiosity has found transient signals of methane on Mars. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
MAGGIE’s presumed range comes courtesy of patented technology that would use air compressors to keep the aircraft aloft. The air compressors move small amounts of atmosphere from the back of the wings toward the front, both increasing lift and reducing drag.

This process would allow MAGGIE to be flexible for different temperatures and pressures of atmosphere, allowing it to navigate the thin air of Mars during different seasons and at different latitudes, particularly during challenging seasons like winter. Normally, the Martian atmosphere’s pressure is between 6 and 10 millibars, just one one-hundredth of Earth’s surface pressure, according to NASA. And during the cold season, roughly 25% of the atmosphere condenses on the polar caps, causing a further plunge in Red Planet pressure.

Before reaching Mars, MAGGIE must meet the major goal of its NIAC phase 1 study, which is to determine if the airplane could indeed work in the thin atmosphere of Mars. "We’ll do more vehicle design and a feasibility study, and we will also do the science mission," Zha said, emphasizing that partners such as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California will also be involved on the science side.

Next up, if the initial MAGGIE study goes well, will be inclusion in the two-year phase 2 of NIAC to deepen the engineering and science work. A range of investigations could fly on the mission, such as examining the strange magnetic field of Mars, or photographing surface features in high definition, depending on the priority.

Zha has been working on the idea behind MAGGIE for more than 20 years, mostly on the engineering side. He received several grants before this one, too, including NASA funding for a type of jet flow control, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Award for Aviation Transports.

He was glad to see Ingenuity take flight in the interim: "When we saw the Ingenuity helicopter flying, it was very, very exciting and inspiring." And he’s looking forward to other Martian explorers taking to the skies as soon as feasible.

That could happen relatively quickly, pending ongoing troubles with funding for NASA’s Mars Sample Return program. The current concept suggests two helicopter fetchers could ride along with the return mission in the 2030s that would bring caches back from the surface, which were collected by Perseverance.


Mysterious ‘painted people’ of Scotland are long gone, but their DNA lives on

Ancient DNA reveals that the Picts, the "painted people" of Scotland who fought off the Romans, weren’t an enigmatic group that migrated from faraway lands. Instead, the Picts had local roots and were related to other Iron Age people in Britain, a new study finds.

An analysis of eight skeletons from two Pictish cemeteries, published Thursday (April 27) in the journal PLOS Genetics, also suggests that the Picts did not organize their society around the female bloodline, contrary to what historians have long suggested.

The Picts, named from the Latin word "picti" for their reported use of body paint or tattoos, were a people who, in the third century A.D., resisted Roman rule and formed their own kingdom in northern Britain that lasted until around A.D. 900. There is very little written information about the Picts — much of what they wrote is in a unique and hard-to-translate script called ogham — and only a few of their settlements and cemeteries have been found.

The general lack of sources about the Picts and their way of life has led to numerous assumptions over the centuries. In the eighth century, during the early medieval period, for example, historians such as the Venerable Bede thought that the Picts emigrated from areas around the Aegean Sea or Eastern Europe and that they traced descent matrilineally, through the mother’s side.

Archaeologists and historians have begun to tackle the "Pictish problem" in recent years, however, to develop a better understanding of this culture.

In the newly published study, an international team of researchers extracted genetic information from eight human skeletons buried in two Pictish cemeteries — seven from Lundin Links and one from Balintore in modern-day Scotland.

"Lundin Links is one of the few excavated and well-dated monumental cemeteries from the Early Medieval (Pictish) period in Scotland," study co-author Linus Girdland Flink, an archaeogeneticist at the University of Aberdeen, told Live Science in an email. According to past research, the cemetery dates to A.D. 450 to 650 and holds the remains of a couple dozen people.

Human remains from the Pictish period are scarce, but the sandy soils at Lundin Links are more conducive to long-term preservation because they are less acidic than soil in other areas of Scotland. "This suggested to us that DNA may also be preserved and prompted further investigation," Girdland Flink said.

The team was able to extract a nearly complete genome, or set of a person’s genes, from one skeleton from each of the two cemeteries. Both genomes, when compared with those of other ancient and modern groups from the British Isles, "reveal a close genetic affinity to Iron Age populations from Britain," the researchers wrote in the study, but show differences as well that are likely related to migration events and intermarriage with other groups.

From all seven Lundin Links skeletons, researchers were able to isolate mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) information, which is passed from mother to child, allowing them to look into the assumption about matrilineal Picts. But none of the people whose mtDNA they analyzed shared immediate maternal ancestors, which means they "were unlikely to have been practicing matrilocality," according to the study.

The team also found that the Picts’ genes persist in modern-day people who live in western Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Northumbria (a medieval kingdom that now includes parts of northern England and southeastern Scotland), indicating that, even though their culture disappeared, their genes didn’t.

"This paper is a welcome and overdue addition of Scottish samples to the growing literature on the paleogenetic study of the early medieval period," Adrián Maldonado, a research fellow at National Museums Scotland who was not involved in the study, told Live Science in an email. "It is more evidence that the inhabitants of north-eastern Scotland were not some shadowy relic population, untouched by time."

It’s a limitation that the study presents just two genomes from individuals in cemeteries 100 miles (160 kilometers) apart, Maldonado noted, but it’s still a helpful step forward. "I eagerly await a larger dataset, including not just ‘Picts’ but their neighbors and descendants in later centuries, preferably joined with other proxies for mobility from stable isotope analysis," he said. "Only then will we have a clearer picture of the transformation of society in these critical post-Roman centuries."

Additional research on Pictish Scotland is already underway, according to a statement by study first author Adeline Morez, who completed the work while at Liverpool John Moores University and is now a postdoctoral researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), including excavation of new sites, chemical analysis of dietary habits and migration, and further DNA work.


Astronomy: Exoplanet: This hellish exoplanet’s skies rain iron and create a rainbow-like effect

There are many words that could be used to describe WASP-76b — hellish, scorching, turbulent, chaotic, and even violent. This is a planet outside the solar system that sits so close to its star it gets hot enough to vaporize lead. So, as you can imagine, until now, "glorious" wasn’t one of those words.

This more positive descriptor was added to the list quite recently, as astronomers have detected hints of something called "glory" in the atmosphere of the ultra-hot Jupiter exoplanet. The glory effect, hinted at in data from the European Space Agency’s exoplanet-hunting mission Characterizing Exoplanet Satellite (CHEOPS), is a rainbow-like arrangement of colorful, concentric rings of light that occur only under peculiar conditions.

This effect is often seen over our own planet, as well as in the atmosphere of our violent neighbor Venus, but this is the first time scientists have seen it happening outside our cosmic neighborhood; WASP-76b is located 637 light-years away from us.

If the effect is confirmed to be happening over WASP-76b, it could reveal a great deal about this strange and extreme exoplanet — a world unlike anything seen in our stellar domain.

"There’s a reason no glory has been seen before outside our Solar System – it requires very peculiar conditions," Olivier Demangeon, team leader and an astronomer at the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences in Portugal, said in a statement. "First, you need atmospheric particles that are close-to-perfectly spherical, completely uniform and stable enough to be observed over a long time. The planet’s nearby star needs to shine directly at it, with the observer — here CHEOPS — at just the right orientation."

There’s more to WASP-76b than molten iron rain
Discovered in 2013, WASP-76b is located just 30 million miles from its parent yellow star, which is around 1.5 times the mass and 1.75 times the width of the sun. This distance is just a 12th of the distance between the sun and Mercury, which is the closest planet to our star.

As a result, the planet, which is around 1.8 times the size of Jupiter despite only possessing 92% of the gas giant’s mass, whips around its star in just 1.8 Earth days. This proximity also causes one side of WASP-76b, the "dayside," to be tidally locked to face its star, WASP-76. The other side of the planet, the "night side," perpetually faces out into space.

As the dayside of WASP-76b is blasted by radiation from its host star, temperatures there soar in excess of 4,350 degrees Fahrenheit (2,400 degrees Celsius). That’s hot enough to vaporize iron. Strong and fast winds on WASP-76b then carry this iron vapor to the cooler, night side of the planet, where it condenses into droplets and falls as iron rain.

The hint of the glory effect over this blistering exoplanet is a remarkable achievement for CHEOPS, which launched in December 2019. It exemplifies the mission’s capability to detect subtle, never-seen-before phenomena in faraway worlds.

CHEOPS observed WASP-76b nearly two dozen times over the course of three years as scientists attempted to understand a strange light-asymmetry found in the planet’s outer limbs, seen when it crosses, or "transits," the face of its parent star.

These observations revealed an increase in the light coming from WASP-76b’s eastern "terminator line," the divide where the exoplanet’s nightside becomes its dayside. The team concluded that this sharp change in light output is caused by a strong, localized, and directionally dependent reflection. They call it the glory effect.

"What’s important to keep in mind is the incredible scale of what we’re witnessing," Matthew Standing, an ESA Research Fellow studying exoplanets, said in the statement. "WASP-76b is several hundred light-years away — an intensely hot gas giant planet where it likely rains molten iron.

"Despite the chaos, it looks like we’ve detected the potential signs of a glory. It’s an incredibly faint signal."

What does glory mean for WASP-76b?
The glory effect may have a rainbow-like appearance and colorful striped pattern, but it’s actually quite distinct from a literal rainbow.

Rainbows are created when light from the sun passes from a medium with one density to another medium with a different density, usually from air to water. This causes the path of light to bend, or "refract," and different wavelengths are refracted to different degrees. Thus, white light from the sun is split into its consistent colors, giving rise to the familiar ordered and colorful arc of a rainbow.

On the other hand, the glory effect happens when light passes through a narrow gap. On Earth, this gap could be the space between water droplets in clouds, for instance. This causes a different form of refraction, called "diffraction," which happens when light passes an obstacle or through an aperture.

As the light waves split and then reunite, where peaks meet troughs, there is destructive interference. But, where a peak meets a peak, there is constructive interference. This results in dark and light bands, respectively, and concentric rings of color.

So what does glory mean for WASP-76b?

The presence of this phenomenon in the atmosphere of the ultra-hot Jupiter indicates the presence of clouds composed of perfectly spherical water droplets that have either lasted for at least the three years or clouds that are constantly being replenished.

If the clouds are persistent, this indicates that the temperature of WASP-76b’s atmosphere, while intimidating, must be stable over time. This is a fascinating insight hinting at stability around what had long been considered an endlessly turbulent world.

The results also indicate that exoplanet experts could investigate distant worlds for similar light phenomena, including starlight reflecting off liquid lakes and oceans. This is something that could be vital in humanity’s ongoing search for life beyond the solar system.

"Further proof is needed to say conclusively that this intriguing ‘extra light’ is a rare glory," Project Scientist for ESA’s upcoming Ariel mission, Theresa Lüftinger, said. "Follow-up observations from the NIRSPEC instrument onboard the James Webb Space Telescope could do just the job. Or ESA’s upcoming Ariel mission could prove its presence. We could even find more gloriously revealing colors shining from other exoplanets."

For Demangeon, this potential observation validates this continued interest in investigating the hellish world of Wasp-76b.

"I was involved in the first detection of asymmetrical light coming from this weird planet—and ever since, I have been so curious about the cause," the ESA scientist concluded. "It has taken some time to get here, with moments when I asked myself, ‘Why are you insisting on this? It might be better to do something else with your time.’

"But when this feature appeared out of the data, it was such a special feeling – a particular satisfaction that doesn’t happen every day."

The team’s research is published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.


Video: Evolution and Christians: A bizarre fact about Fossils I’ve always known…

[I used to be against evolution and it had to do with many things that came to the fore. One of those issues is the one raised in this video. It has to do with the line of thinking that evolution is slow and steady and takes millions of years or more. Due to my appetite for facts and the strange, I read lots of stuff which shows that fossils can be created INSTANTLY! In fact there are fossils of jellyfish and a jellyfish is literally pure water, so how does it become a piece of ROCK? If you watch this short video, you'll see that there are fossils that are like a snapshot in time – a creature is giving birth and it is instantly fossilised. Or one creature is eating another and both become fossils. All of this points to fossilisation can, in some cases, be INSTANT – faster than the blink of an eye. This actually suggests a massive CATASTROPHE – e.g. massive quake or a meteor hitting the Earth, etc. So in reality this merely shows that the process of fossilisation has another aspect – instead of it being slow and gradual, which it is most of the time, it can also be INSTANT – and so something else happened. More and more scientists have discovered MASS EXTINCTIONS where much of the life on Earth just dies off. This has happened many times and it's pretty freaky. So it can happen again. I find this stuff very interesting. Jan]

Here’s the video:

Video: Weird Physics: Very Bizarre recurring Nuclear Explosions in space: We’re About to Witness a Once in a Lifetime Space Explosion Visible From Everywhere

[The science behind this is very amazing. I've never heard of this concept before. What's also fascinating, is that really OLD astronomical observations from 300 and 600 years ago, helped scientists to get their estimates right. If they are right there's going to be something that everyone in the northern hemisphere can see. Whether it will be bright enough in the sky for us to see in SA I don't know. This guy thinks almost everyone will be able to see it. Jan]

Here’s the video: