Monday, August 8, 2011

Nepal-born student who spotted ‘water’ also plays guitar

Mixing music with Mars
- Nepal-born student who spotted ‘water’ also plays guitar
Lujendra Ojha, the lead guitarist in a heavy metal band named Gorkha
New Delhi, Aug. 6: Eight years ago, Lujendra Ojha was a schoolboy in his native Nepal trying to sharpen his skills on the guitar, but also dreaming about pursuing research on parallel universes, designing time machines and exploring space.
Drawing inspiration from comic books, science fiction films, and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which he recalls reading while he was in the 9th grade at Kathmandu’s Galaxy Public School, Ojha wanted to do “something fascinating” in science.
If he couldn’t travel around the world as a star guitar player, that is.
Ojha is now an undergraduate geophysics student at the University of Arizona, Tucson, where he moved with his parents in 2005 when he was 15. And he is lead guitarist of a student band named Gorkha that specialises in heavy metal.
But this week, Ojha appeared to leap towards a career in planetary science with his first research paper — a publication in the US journal Science — describing intriguing features on the planet Mars that scientists are interpreting as the flow of liquid water.
Ojha, a co-author in the paper, was the first to spot dark finger-like features on images of the surfaces of steep slopes in the southern hemisphere of Mars, captured by a camera orbiting Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
“They appear only in the summer, grow during the summer season and fade away in the winter,” said Ojha, an undergraduate member of a research team led by principal investigator Alfred McEwen that examined the features over three Martian summers.
These dark, finger-like features that appear and extend down some Martian slopes during the warmest months of the Mars year may show activity of salty water on Mars. They fade in winter, then recur the next spring.
“These features appear only when the temperatures rise during summers, only on steep slopes, and only in the mid-latitudes — the best explanation we think is the flow of liquid water with salts,” Ojha told The Telegraph in a telephone interview.
Although geological features observed on Mars earlier have indicated that liquid water once flowed on the planet, scientists believe that the possibility of liquid salt-laden water could have implications for future studies in the decades-old search for life on Mars.
For his discovery, Ojha was among only two undergraduate students from Arizona invited to share their research findings with the government and representatives of science agencies during a special event in Washington DC in April this year.
He believes the opportunity for research that his university offered him as well as the invitation to present his research are both tremendous honours.
“I’m from halfway around the world, came here, and got involved in some awesome research. For me to move from Nepal to Capitol Hill in such a short (time) feels like a great accomplishment,” he told his university newsletter earlier this year.
Ojha is determined to continue with his studies in geophysics and hopes he can become a planetary scientist. He still plays the lead guitarist in Gorkha, but says music is now only a hobby.
“I still sometimes dream of travelling the world playing the guitar — but science is fascinating.”

Signs of Flowing Water on Mars: New Discovery

Scientists Find Signs Water Is Flowing on Mars

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Shifting dark streaks on the surface of Mars are signs that water is flowing there today, scientists said Thursday.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
An image combining orbital imagery with 3-D modeling shows flows of what scientists believe to be water that appear in spring and summer on a slope inside the Newton crater on Mars.
The possible presence of liquid water is certain to revive speculation that Mars is teeming with microbial organisms. The recipe for life, at least as we know it, calls for liquid water, carbon-based molecules and a source for energy.
There is plenty of ice on Mars, but the chemical reactions for life come to a halt when water freezes. 
High-resolution photographs taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which arrived at Mars in 2006, show fingerlike streaks up to five yards wide that appear on some steep slopes in the planet’s late spring. These streaks grow and shift through summer, reaching hundreds of yards in length before they fade in winter. One crater had about 1,000 streaks.
But finding streaks is not the same as finding water. An instrument on the Mars orbiter capable of detecting water has not found any, but that might just mean that the amount of water in the flows is too little to be seen.
“We have this circumstantial evidence for water flowing on Mars,” Alfred S. McEwen of the University of Arizona, who is the principal investigator for the camera, said Thursday during a news conference. “We have no direct detection of water.”
Dr. McEwen and his colleagues report their findings in an article published in Friday’s issue of the journal Science. The scientists said the best explanation they could offer for the streaks was that they were caused by a flow of extremely salty water down the slopes. The salts, which have been detected all around Mars, would allow the water to remain liquid at much colder temperatures than pure water.
However, the scientists said, they have yet to fill all the holes in their story. They cannot, for example, explain how the water darkened the soil. They are also at a loss to explain why the streaks vanish each winter.
But, Dr. McEwen said, “We haven’t been able to come up with an alternative that we believe.”
The streaks have been definitively seen in seven locations and tentatively identified in 20 others. “The sites where these occur are rare,” Dr. McEwen said.
Scientists have known for years of vast swaths of frozen ice on Mars. Many geological features like canyons, dried-up lakes and river channels point to the flow of liquid water in the distant past when Mars may have been warmer. In 2000, images taken by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft showed fresh-looking gullies, which some scientists hypothesized had been carved by water. More recent looks indicate that they were more likely cut by carbon dioxide frost.
However, the areas where the dark streaks occur, located in the southern midlatitudes, are too warm for carbon dioxide frost.
“I think this is the best evidence to date of liquid water occurring today on Mars,” said Philip R. Christensen, a geophysicist at Arizona State University.
Scientists are not likely to be able to confirm their suspicions anytime soon. The Mars Science Laboratory rover, scheduled to launch late this year, will not be able to help. Its landing site is far from any of the streaks, and it would not be able to navigate the steep slopes. Dr. McEwen said that experiments on Earth mimicking Martian conditions provided the best hope for understanding what is going on.
At the news conference, Lisa M. Pratt, a biogeochemist at Indiana University, said that the best analog on Earth might be the Siberian permafrost. “This is very speculative, because we really have no idea whether or not there are extant organisms on Mars or whether there ever was life on Mars,” Dr. Pratt said.
But on Earth, microbes can live in pockets of salty water that never freeze, or even if the water froze solid, organisms could go dormant and “patiently hang out near the surface until spring comes around again,” she said.
“If there were to be evolving organisms on Mars,” she said, “I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t adapt to that kind of seasonally available, very brief access to resources. You bloom quickly, you do what you need to do, and you go dormant.”