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NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover provides front-row seat to landing, first audio recording of Red Planet

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NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover provides front-row seat to landing, first audio recording of Red Planet

New video from NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover chronicles major milestones during the final minutes of its entry, descent, and landing (EDL) on the Red Planet on Feb. 18 as the spacecraft plummeted, parachuted, and rocketed toward the surface of Mars. A microphone on the rover also has provided the first audio recording of sounds from Mars.

From the moment of parachute inflation, the camera system covers the entirety of the descent process, showing some of the rover’s intense ride to Mars’ Jezero Crater. The footage from high-definition cameras aboard the spacecraft starts 7 miles (11 kilometers) above the surface, showing the supersonic deployment of the most massive parachute ever sent to another world, and ends with the rover’s touchdown in the crater.

A microphone attached to the rover did not collect usable data during the descent, but the commercial off-the-shelf device survived the highly dynamic descent to the surface and obtained sounds from Jezero Crater on Feb. 20. About 10 seconds into the 60-second recording, a Martian breeze is audible for a few seconds, as are mechanical sounds of the rover operating on the surface.

“”For those who wonder how you land on Mars — or why it is so difficult — or how cool it would be to do so — you need look no further,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. “”Perseverance is just getting started, and already has provided some of the most iconic visuals in space exploration history. It reinforces the remarkable level of engineering and precision that is required to build and fly a vehicle to the Red Planet.”

Also released Monday was the mission’s first panorama of the rover’s landing location, taken by the two Navigation Cameras located on its mast. The six-wheeled robotic astrobiologist, the fifth rover the agency has landed on Mars, currently is undergoing an extensive checkout of all its systems and instruments.

“This video of Perseverance’s descent is the closest you can get to landing on Mars without putting on a pressure suit,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science. “It should become mandatory viewing for young women and men who not only want to explore other worlds and build the spacecraft that will take them there, but also want to be part of the diverse teams achieving all the audacious goals in our future.”

The world’s most intimate view of a Mars landing begins about 230 seconds after the spacecraft entered the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere at 12,500 mph (20,100 kph). The video opens in black, with the camera lens still covered within the parachute compartment. Within less than a second, the spacecraft’s parachute deploys and transforms from a compressed 18-by-26 inch (46-by-66 centimeter) cylinder of nylon, Technora, and Kevlar into a fully inflated 70.5-foot-wide (21.5-meter-wide) canopy — the largest ever sent to Mars. The tens of thousands of pounds of force that the parachute generates in such a short period stresses both the parachute and the vehicle.


“Now we finally have a front-row view to what we call ‘the seven minutes of terror’ while landing on Mars,” said Michael Watkins, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, which manages the mission for the agency. “From the explosive opening of the parachute to the landing rockets’ plume sending dust and debris flying at touchdown, it’s absolutely awe-inspiring.”

The video also captures the heat shield dropping away after protecting Perseverance from scorching temperatures during its entry into the Martian atmosphere. The downward view from the rover sways gently like a pendulum as the descent stage, with Perseverance attached, hangs from the back shell and parachute. The Martian landscape quickly pitches as the descent stage — the rover’s free-flying “jetpack,” which decelerates using rocket engines and then lowers the rover on cables to the surface — breaks free, its eight thrusters engaging to put distance between it and the now-discarded back shell and the parachute.

Then, 80 seconds and 7,000 feet (2,130 meters) later, the cameras capture the descent stage performing the sky crane maneuver over the landing site — the plume of its rocket engines kicking up dust and small rocks that have likely been in place for billions of years.

“”We put the EDL camera system onto the spacecraft not only for the opportunity to gain a better understanding of our spacecraft’s performance during entry, descent, and landing, but also because we wanted to take the public along for the ride of a lifetime — landing on the surface of Mars,” said Dave Gruel, lead engineer for Mars 2020 Perseverance’s EDL camera and microphone subsystem at JPL. “We know the public is fascinated with Mars exploration, so we added the EDL Cam microphone to the vehicle because we hoped it could enhance the experience, especially for visually-impaired space fans, and engage and inspire people around the world.”

The footage ends with Perseverance’s aluminum wheels making contact with the surface at 1.61 mph (2.6 kph), and then pyrotechnically fired blades sever the cables connecting it to the still-hovering descent stage. The descent stage then climbs and accelerates away in the preplanned flyaway maneuver.


“If this were an old Western movie, I’d say the descent stage was our hero riding slowly into the setting Sun, but the heroes are actually back here on Earth,” said Matt Wallace, Mars 2020 Perseverance deputy project manager at JPL. “I’ve been waiting 25 years for the opportunity to see a spacecraft land on Mars. It was worth the wait. Being able to share this with the world is a great moment for our team.”

Five commercial off-the-shelf cameras located on three different spacecraft components collected the imagery. Two cameras on the back shell, which encapsulated the rover on its journey, took pictures of the parachute inflating. A camera on the descent stage provided a downward view — including the top of the rover — while two on the rover chassis offered both upward and downward perspectives.

The rover team continues its initial inspection of Perseverance’s systems and its immediate surroundings. Monday, the team will check out five of the rover’s seven instruments and take the first weather observations with the Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer instrument. In the coming days, a 360-degree panorama of Jezero by the Mastcam-Z should be transmitted down, providing the highest resolution look at the road ahead.

More About the Mission

A key objective of Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith.

Subsequent NASA missions, in cooperation with ESA (European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these sealed samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

The Mars 2020 Perseverance mission is part of NASA’s Moon to Mars exploration approach, which includes Artemis missions to the Moon that will help prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet.

JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and manages operations of the Perseverance rover.

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New snake discovery rewrites history, points to North America’s role in snake evolution

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NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover provides front-row seat to landing, first audio recording of Red Planet


A new species of fossil snake unearthed in Wyoming is rewriting our understanding of snake evolution. The discovery, based on four remarkably well-preserved specimens found curled together in a burrow, reveals a new species named Hibernophis breithaupti. This snake lived in North America 34 million years ago and sheds light on the origin and diversification of boas and pythons.

Hibernophis breithaupti has unique anatomical features, in part because the specimens are articulated — meaning they were found all in one piece with the bones still arranged in the proper order — which is unusual for fossil snakes. Researchers believe it may be an early member of Booidea, a group that includes modern boas and pythons. Modern boas are widespread in the Americas, but their early evolution is not well understood.These new and very complete fossils add important new information, in particular, on the evolution of small, burrowing boas known as rubber boas.

Traditionally, there has been much debate on the evolution of small burrowing boas. Hibernophis breithaupti shows that northern and more central parts of North America might have been a key hub for their development. The discovery of these snakes curled together also hints at the oldest potential evidence for a behavior familiar to us today — hibernation in groups.

“Modern garter snakes are famous for gathering by the thousands to hibernate together in dens and burrows,” says Michael Caldwell, a U of A paleontologist who co-led the research along with his former graduate student Jasmine Croghan, and collaborators from Australia and Brazil. “They do this to conserve heat through the effect created by the ball of hibernating animals. It’s fascinating to see possible evidence of such social behavior or hibernation dating back 34 million years.”



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Good timing: Study unravels how our brains track time

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NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover provides front-row seat to landing, first audio recording of Red Planet


Ever hear the old adage that time flies when you’re having fun? A new study by a team of UNLV researchers suggests that there’s a lot of truth to the trope.

Many people think of their brains as being intrinsically synced to the human-made clocks on their electronic devices, counting time in very specific, minute-by-minute increments. But the study, published this month in the latest issue of the peer-reviewed Cell Press journal Current Biology, showed that our brains don’t work that way.

By analyzing changes in brain activity patterns, the research team found that we perceive the passage of time based on the number of experiences we have — not some kind of internal clock. What’s more, increasing speed or output during an activity appears to affect how our brains perceive time.

“We tell time in our own experience by things we do, things that happen to us,” said James Hyman, a UNLV associate professor of psychology and the study’s senior author. “When we’re still and we’re bored, time goes very slowly because we’re not doing anything or nothing is happening. On the contrary, when a lot of events happen, each one of those activities is advancing our brains forward. And if this is how our brains objectively tell time, then the more that we do and the more that happens to us, the faster time goes.”

Methodology and Findings

The findings are based on analysis of activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a portion of the brain important for monitoring activity and tracking experiences. To do this, rodents were tasked with using their noses to respond to a prompt 200 times.

Scientists already knew that brain patterns are similar, but slightly different, each time you do a repetitive motion, so they set out to answer: Is it possible to detect whether these slight differences in brain pattern changes correspond with doing the first versus 200th motion in series? And does the amount of time it takes to complete a series of motions impact brain wave activity?

By comparing pattern changes throughout the course of the task, researchers observed that there are indeed detectable changes in brain activity that occur as one moves from the beginning to middle to end of carrying out a task. And regardless of how slowly or quickly the animals moved, the brain patterns followed the same path. The patterns were consistent when researchers applied a machine learning-based mathematical model to predict the flow of brain activity, bolstering evidence that it’s experiences — not time, or a prescribed number of minutes, as you would measure it on a clock — that produce changes in our neurons’ activity patterns.

Hyman drove home the crux of the findings by sharing an anecdote of two factory workers tasked with making 100 widgets during their shift, with one worker completing the task in 30 minutes and the other in 90 minutes.

“The length of time it took to complete the task didn’t impact the brain patterns. The brain is not a clock; it acts like a counter,” Hyman explained. “Our brains register a vibe, a feeling about time. …And what that means for our workers making widgets is that you can tell the difference between making widget No. 85 and widget No. 60, but not necessarily between No. 85 and No. 88.”

But exactly “how” does the brain count? Researchers discovered that as the brain progresses through a task involving a series of motions, various small groups of firing cells begin to collaborate — essentially passing off the task to a different group of neurons every few repetitions, similar to runners passing the baton in a relay race.

“So, the cells are working together and over time randomly align to get the job done: one cell will take a few tasks and then another takes a few tasks,” Hyman said. “The cells are tracking motions and, thus, chunks of activities and time over the course of the task.”

And the study’s findings about our brains’ perception of time applies to activities-based actions other than physical motions too.

“This is the part of the brain we use for tracking something like a conversation through dinner,” Hyman said. “Think of the flow of conversation and you can recall things earlier and later in the dinner. But to pick apart one sentence from the next in your memory, it’s impossible. But you know you talked about one topic at the start, another topic during dessert, and another at the end.”

By observing the rodents who worked quickly, scientists also concluded that keeping up a good pace helps influence time perception: “The more we do, the faster time moves. They say that time flies when you’re having fun. As opposed to having fun, maybe it should be ‘time flies when you’re doing a lot’.”

Takeaways

While there’s already a wealth of information on brain processes over very short time scales of less than a second, Hyman said that the UNLV study is groundbreaking in its examination of brain patterns and perception of time over a span of just a few minutes to hours — “which is how we live much of our life: one hour at a time. ”

“This is among the first studies looking at behavioral time scales in this particular part of the brain called the ACC, which we know is so important for our behavior and our emotions,” Hyman said.

The ACC is implicated in most psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders, and is a concentration area for mood disorders, PTSD, addiction, and anxiety. ACC function is also central to various dementias including Alzheimer’s disease, which is characterized by distortions in time. The ACC has long been linked to helping humans with sequencing events or tasks such as following recipes, and the research team speculates that their findings about time perception might fall within this realm.

While the findings are a breakthrough, more research is needed. Still, Hyman said, the preliminary findings posit some potentially helpful tidbits about time perception and its likely connection to memory processes for everyday citizens’ daily lives. For example, researchers speculate that it could lend insights for navigating things like school assignments or even breakups.

“If we want to remember something, we may want to slow down by studying in short bouts and take time before engaging in the next activity. Give yourself quiet times to not move,” Hyman said. “Conversely, if you want to move on from something quickly, get involved in an activity right away.”

Hyman said there’s also a huge relationship between the ACC, emotion, and cognition. Thinking of the brain as a physical entity that one can take ownership over might help us control our subjective experiences.

“When things move faster, we tend to think it’s more fun — or sometimes overwhelming. But we don’t need to think of it as being a purely psychological experience, as fun or overwhelming; rather, if you view it as a physical process, it can be helpful,” he said. “If it’s overwhelming, slow down or if you’re bored, add activities. People already do this, but it’s empowering to know it’s a way to work your own mental health, since our brains are working like this already.”



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Another intermediate-mass black hole discovered at the center of our galaxy

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NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover provides front-row seat to landing, first audio recording of Red Planet


While researching a cluster of stars in the immediate vicinity of the supermassive black hole SgrA* (Sagittarius A*) at the centre of our galaxy, an international team of researchers led by PD Dr Florian Peißker has found signs of another, intermediate-mass black hole. Despite enormous research efforts, only about ten of these intermediate-mass black holes have been found in our entire universe so far. Scientists believe that they formed shortly after the Big Bang. By merging, they act as ‘seeds’ for supermassive black holes. The study ‘The Evaporating Massive Embedded Stellar Cluster IRS 13 Close to Sgr A*. II. Kinematic structure’ was published in The Astrophysical Journal.

The analysed star cluster IRS 13 is located 0.1 light years from the centre of our galaxy. This is very close in astronomical terms, but would still require travelling from one end of our solar system to the other twenty times to cover the distance. The researchers noticed that the stars in IRS 13 move in an unexpectedly orderly pattern. They had actually expected the stars to be arranged randomly. Two conclusions can be drawn from this regular pattern: On the one hand, IRS 13 appears to interact with SgrA*, which leads to the orderly motion of the stars. On the other hand, there must be something inside the cluster for it to be able to maintain its observed compact shape.

Multi-wavelength observations with the Very Large Telescope as well as the ALMA and Chandra telescopes now suggest that the reason for the compact shape of IRS 13 could be an intermediate-mass black hole located at the centre of the star cluster. This would be supported by the fact that the researchers were able to observe characteristic X-rays and ionized gas rotating at a speed of several 100 km/s in a ring around the suspected location of the intermediate-mass black hole.

Another indication of the presence of an intermediate-mass black hole is the unusually high density of the star cluster, which is higher than that of any other known density of a star cluster in our Milky Way. “IRS 13 appears to be an essential building block for the growth of our central black hole SgrA*,” said Florian Peißker, first author of the study. “This fascinating star cluster has continued to surprise the scientific community ever since it was discovered around twenty years ago. At first it was thought to be an unusually heavy star. With the high-resolution data, however, we can now confirm the building-block composition with an intermediate-mass black hole at the centre.” Planned observations with the James Webb Space Telescope and the Extremely Large Telescope, which is currently under construction, will provide further insights into the processes within the star cluster.



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