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 Published by the American Geological Institute
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences

September 2000

News Notes
 Field Notes

Mission to Mars: 2003
Following the success of the 1997 Mars Pathfinder Mission, NASA announced plans in late July to construct another Mars rover that will be ready for launch in June 2003. The Mars 2003 mission will be closely related to Pathfinder — parachuting down, encased in an airbag, for a drop, bounce and roll landing — but technologically more advanced. While Pathfinder required a lander from which the Sojourner rover was deployed, the 2003 designs include the two-in-one capability of a lander and rover. The future rover will cover 100 meters per martian day (24 hours and 37 minutes) — more than Sojourner covered in its entire life traveling at a rate of 3 meters per day. Once on the surface, the rover will take a 360-degree panoramic photograph of its landing site that scientists on Earth will use to direct it toward points of interest. The mobile lander will also scratch weathered rock surfaces to reveal fresh surfaces for compositional analyses. A miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer included in the plans will allow the robotic wanderer to view its surroundings in infrared and identify minerals formed or altered in the presence of water.
    The 2003 rovers are scheduled to enter Mars'
    atmosphere in January, 2004.

Calamitous greenhouse gas discovered

A new greenhouse gas has been discovered that might play a major role in atmospheric warming, despite the miniscule amount present in the atmosphere. The gas is called trifluoromethylsulphur pentafluoride (SF5CF3) and has the highest infrared absorption known for any gas. Infrared absorption is a measure of the amount of radiative energy that is absorbed by a molecule, and a gas with a high infrared absorption value is a potent greenhouse gas. Measurements of SF5CF3 from antarctic snow corings reveal that the gas’ concentration has increased 6 percent each year from zero in 1960 to 0.12 parts per trillion in 1999. SF5CF3 is chemically related to SF6, a manufactured gas that was targeted by the Kyoto Protocol. The collaboration of European scientists who discovered the gas published their findings in the July 28 issue of Science.
Tallying exoplanets

In early August, three different groups of astronomers announced the discovery of new planets orbiting other stars at the assembly of the International Astronomical Union in Manchester, England. Reports on the actual number of new planets discovered has varied between eight and 10, leaving the amateur astronomer quite confused. The final count appears to be nine. Scientists from Geneva, Switzerland, working at the La Silla Observatory in Chile discovered six new planets, one of which was also spotted by scientists from the University of California at Berkeley. The Berkeley astronomers discovered two other planets in addition to the one overlapping find. Planet-hunters at the McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas at Austin discovered the ninth new planet, bringing the total number of planets discovered outside our solar system to 50. 

The Leonard Euler Telescope dome at La Silla.
Courtesy of ESO Educational & Public Relations

Plants vs. petroleum

Petroleum is a worldwide soil-contaminant problem. Most biological methods implemented in petroleum clean up involve disturbing the soil structure. Purdue University professors Katherine Banks and Paul Schwab were among the first to develop alternative remediation techniques using plants. Plants offer a cheaper, though slower, option that treats contamination on site, leaving the soil structure intact. Plants provide nutrients and increase the soil’s oxygen content, thus stimulating soil microbes to break down contaminants. The plant introduced to the contamination site must have a large root surface area and be able to survive the site’s climate. The plant strategies already have helped to clean up contamination, including oil and diesel spills. Multiple sites, each using a different remediation method, are being monitored for future cost and speed comparisons.

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