Origin of ‘six-inch mummy’ confirmed

Tests on a six-inch-long mummified skeleton from Chile confirm that it represents the remains of a newborn with multiple mutations in key genes.

Despite being the size of a foetus, initial tests had suggested the bones were of a child aged six to eight.

These highly unusual features prompted wild speculation about its origin.

Now, DNA testing indicates that the estimated age of the bones and other anomalies may have been a result of the genetic mutations.

Details of the work have been published in the journal Genome Research.

In addition to its exceptionally small height, the skeleton had several unusual physical features, such as fewer than expected ribs and a cone-shaped head.

The remains were initially discovered in a pouch in the abandoned nitrate mining town of La Noria. From there, they found their way into a private collection in Spain.

Some wondered whether the remains, dubbed Ata after the Atacama region where they were discovered, could in fact be the remains of a non-human primate. A documentary, called Sirius, even suggested it could be evidence of alien visitations.

Genetic investigation

The new research puts those ideas to rest.

A scientific team analysed the individual’s genome – the genetic blueprint for a human, contained in the nucleus of cells.

They had already used this to confirm that the individual was human. Now, the team has presented evidence that Ata was a female newborn with multiple mutations in genes associated with dwarfism, scoliosis and abnormalities in the muscles and skeleton.

“What was striking and caused us to speculate early on that there was something strange about the bones was the apparent maturity of the bones (density and shape),” said Garry Nolan, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California.

He told BBC News: “There was proportionate maturation of the bones, making the body look more mature despite the fact that the specimen was itself small. This discrepancy drove much of the research. So, we believe that one or more of the mutated genes was responsible for this.”

The results revealed four new single nucleotide variants (SNVs) – a type of genetic mutation – in genes that were known to cause bone diseases, like scoliosis or dislocations, as well as two more SNVs in genes involved in producing collagen.

Ata also had 10 pairs of ribs, rather than 12 – a feature that has never been seen in humans before.

“We actually believe the girl was stillborn or died immediately after birth,” said Prof Nolan.

“She was so badly malformed as to be unable to feed. In her condition, she would have ended up in the neonatal ICU.”

However, access to advanced medical care was probably unavailable in the remote Chilean region where she was found. The skeleton’s intact condition suggests it may be no more than 40 years old.

Future benefit

Prof Nolan began the scientific investigation of Ata in 2012, when a friend called saying he might have found an “alien”.

He explained: “While this started as a story about aliens, and went international – it’s really a story of a human tragedy. A woman had a malformed baby, it was preserved in a manner and then “hocked”, or sold.”

The scientists said that future studies of Ata had the potential to improve our understanding of the underlying basis of genetic skeletal disorders – with the potential to help others.

“Analysing a puzzling sample like the Ata genome can teach us how to handle current medical samples, which may be driven by multiple mutations,” said Atul Butte, director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco.

“When we study the genomes of patients with unusual syndromes, there may be more than one gene or pathway involved genetically, which is not always considered.”

Prof Nolan says further research into Ata’s precocious bone aging could one day benefit patients. “Maybe there’s a way to accelerate bone growth in people who need it, people who have bad breaks,” he said. “Nothing like this had been seen before. Certainly, nobody had looked into the genetics of it.”

He added: “I think it should be returned to the country of origin and buried according to the customs of the local people.”

Origin of ‘six-inch mummy’ confirmed

Tests on a six-inch-long mummified skeleton from Chile confirm that it represents the remains of a newborn with multiple mutations in key genes.

Despite being the size of a foetus, initial tests had suggested the bones were of a child aged six to eight.

These highly unusual features prompted wild speculation about its origin.

Now, DNA testing indicates that the estimated age of the bones and other anomalies may have been a result of the genetic mutations.

Details of the work have been published in the journal Genome Research.

In addition to its exceptionally small height, the skeleton had several unusual physical features, such as fewer than expected ribs and a cone-shaped head.

The remains were initially discovered in a pouch in the abandoned nitrate mining town of La Noria. From there, they found their way into a private collection in Spain.

Some wondered whether the remains, dubbed Ata after the Atacama region where they were discovered, could in fact be the remains of a non-human primate. A documentary, called Sirius, even suggested it could be evidence of alien visitations.

Genetic investigation

The new research puts those ideas to rest.

A scientific team analysed the individual’s genome – the genetic blueprint for a human, contained in the nucleus of cells.

They had already used this to confirm that the individual was human. Now, the team has presented evidence that Ata was a female newborn with multiple mutations in genes associated with dwarfism, scoliosis and abnormalities in the muscles and skeleton.

“What was striking and caused us to speculate early on that there was something strange about the bones was the apparent maturity of the bones (density and shape),” said Garry Nolan, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California.

He told BBC News: “There was proportionate maturation of the bones, making the body look more mature despite the fact that the specimen was itself small. This discrepancy drove much of the research. So, we believe that one or more of the mutated genes was responsible for this.”

The results revealed four new single nucleotide variants (SNVs) – a type of genetic mutation – in genes that were known to cause bone diseases, like scoliosis or dislocations, as well as two more SNVs in genes involved in producing collagen.

Ata also had 10 pairs of ribs, rather than 12 – a feature that has never been seen in humans before.

“We actually believe the girl was stillborn or died immediately after birth,” said Prof Nolan.

“She was so badly malformed as to be unable to feed. In her condition, she would have ended up in the neonatal ICU.”

However, access to advanced medical care was probably unavailable in the remote Chilean region where she was found. The skeleton’s intact condition suggests it may be no more than 40 years old.

Future benefit

Prof Nolan began the scientific investigation of Ata in 2012, when a friend called saying he might have found an “alien”.

He explained: “While this started as a story about aliens, and went international – it’s really a story of a human tragedy. A woman had a malformed baby, it was preserved in a manner and then “hocked”, or sold.”

The scientists said that future studies of Ata had the potential to improve our understanding of the underlying basis of genetic skeletal disorders – with the potential to help others.

“Analysing a puzzling sample like the Ata genome can teach us how to handle current medical samples, which may be driven by multiple mutations,” said Atul Butte, director of the Institute for Computational Health Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco.

“When we study the genomes of patients with unusual syndromes, there may be more than one gene or pathway involved genetically, which is not always considered.”

Prof Nolan says further research into Ata’s precocious bone aging could one day benefit patients. “Maybe there’s a way to accelerate bone growth in people who need it, people who have bad breaks,” he said. “Nothing like this had been seen before. Certainly, nobody had looked into the genetics of it.”

He added: “I think it should be returned to the country of origin and buried according to the customs of the local people.”

Plastic patch in Pacific Ocean growing rapidly, study shows

A collection of plastic afloat in the Pacific Ocean is growing rapidly, according to a new scientific estimate.

Predictions suggest a build-up of about 80,000 tonnes of plastic in the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” between California and Hawaii.

This figure is up to sixteen times higher than previously reported, say international researchers.

One trawl in the centre of the patch had the highest concentration of plastic ever recorded.

“Plastic concentration is increasing – I think the situation is getting worse,” said Laurent Lebreton of The Ocean Cleanup Foundation in Delft, Netherlands, which led the study.

“This really highlights the urgency to take action in stopping the in-flow of plastic into the ocean and also taking measures to clean up the existing mess.”

Waste accumulates in five ocean areas, the largest being the patch located between Hawaii and California.

  • Plastic particles found in bottled water
  • ‘Shame and anger’ at plastic pollution
  • Earth is becoming ‘Planet Plastic’

    The researchers used boats and planes to map this area of the North Pacific, where rotating currents and winds cause marine debris, including plastic, seaweed and plankton, to converge.

    The three-year mapping effort showed that plastic pollution is “increasing exponentially and at a faster rate than in the surrounding water”, said the international team.

    Microplastics accounted for 8% of the total mass of plastic afloat within an area of 1.6 million square km.

    Of the estimated 1.8 trillions bits of plastic, some were larger than microplastics, including fishing nets, toys, and even a toilet seat.

    Erik van Sebille of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who is not connected with the study, said the amount of plastic discovered was “staggering”.

    “While their estimates come with large uncertainty ranges, they do report a staggering amount of plastic,” he said.

    “And they also discovered that the Garbage Patch is moving around much more than anyone expected.”

    The use of aerial surveys as well as boats could partly explain why the new estimates are higher than in the past.

    However, the differences could also be down to increasing levels of plastic pollution in the time since the previous studies were carried out.

    Plastic washed out to sea following the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami could account for as much as 20% of plastic accumulating in recent years, the research, published in Scientific Reports, suggests.

    What the study found

    • Plastics made up 99.9% of all debris in this part of the ocean
      • At least 46% of plastic consisted of fishing nets, and over three quarters of the plastic was debris larger than 5cm, including hard plastics, plastic sheets and film
        • Although most large items had broken down into fragments, the researchers were able to identify a small number of objects, including containers, bottles, lids, packaging straps, ropes, and fishing nets
          • Fifty items in the sample had a readable production date: one from 1977, seven from the 1980s, 17 from the 1990s, 24 from the 2000s and one from 2010
            • Only certain types of debris that were thick enough to float stayed and accumulated in this zone, such as the common plastics polyethylene and polypropylene, which are used in packaging.

              Source: Scientific Reports

              Every year, millions of tonnes of plastic enter the ocean. Some drifts into large systems of circulating ocean currents, known as gyres. Once trapped in a gyre, the plastic will break down into microplastics, which may be ingested by sea life.

              The message of the study is clear, said Laurent Lebreton.

              “It goes back to how we use plastic,” he said.

              “We’re not going to get away from plastic – in my opinion it’s very useful, in medicine, transportation and construction, but I think we must divert the way we use plastic, particularly in terms of single-use plastic and those objects that have a very short service lifespan.”

              Follow Helen on Twitter.

              View comments

Plastic patch in Pacific Ocean growing rapidly, study shows

A collection of plastic afloat in the Pacific Ocean is growing rapidly, according to a new scientific estimate.

Predictions suggest a build-up of about 80,000 tonnes of plastic in the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” between California and Hawaii.

This figure is up to sixteen times higher than previously reported, say international researchers.

One trawl in the centre of the patch had the highest concentration of plastic ever recorded.

“Plastic concentration is increasing – I think the situation is getting worse,” said Laurent Lebreton of The Ocean Cleanup Foundation in Delft, Netherlands, which led the study.

“This really highlights the urgency to take action in stopping the in-flow of plastic into the ocean and also taking measures to clean up the existing mess.”

Waste accumulates in five ocean areas, the largest being the patch located between Hawaii and California.

  • Plastic particles found in bottled water
  • ‘Shame and anger’ at plastic pollution
  • Earth is becoming ‘Planet Plastic’

    The researchers used boats and planes to map this area of the North Pacific, where rotating currents and winds cause marine debris, including plastic, seaweed and plankton, to converge.

    The three-year mapping effort showed that plastic pollution is “increasing exponentially and at a faster rate than in the surrounding water”, said the international team.

    Microplastics accounted for 8% of the total mass of plastic afloat within an area of 1.6 million square km.

    Of the estimated 1.8 trillions bits of plastic, some were larger than microplastics, including fishing nets, toys, and even a toilet seat.

    Erik van Sebille of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who is not connected with the study, said the amount of plastic discovered was “staggering”.

    “While their estimates come with large uncertainty ranges, they do report a staggering amount of plastic,” he said.

    “And they also discovered that the Garbage Patch is moving around much more than anyone expected.”

    The use of aerial surveys as well as boats could partly explain why the new estimates are higher than in the past.

    However, the differences could also be down to increasing levels of plastic pollution in the time since the previous studies were carried out.

    Plastic washed out to sea following the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami could account for as much as 20% of plastic accumulating in recent years, the research, published in Scientific Reports, suggests.

    What the study found

    • Plastics made up 99.9% of all debris in this part of the ocean
      • At least 46% of plastic consisted of fishing nets, and over three quarters of the plastic was debris larger than 5cm, including hard plastics, plastic sheets and film
        • Although most large items had broken down into fragments, the researchers were able to identify a small number of objects, including containers, bottles, lids, packaging straps, ropes, and fishing nets
          • Fifty items in the sample had a readable production date: one from 1977, seven from the 1980s, 17 from the 1990s, 24 from the 2000s and one from 2010
            • Only certain types of debris that were thick enough to float stayed and accumulated in this zone, such as the common plastics polyethylene and polypropylene, which are used in packaging.

              Source: Scientific Reports

              Every year, millions of tonnes of plastic enter the ocean. Some drifts into large systems of circulating ocean currents, known as gyres. Once trapped in a gyre, the plastic will break down into microplastics, which may be ingested by sea life.

              The message of the study is clear, said Laurent Lebreton.

              “It goes back to how we use plastic,” he said.

              “We’re not going to get away from plastic – in my opinion it’s very useful, in medicine, transportation and construction, but I think we must divert the way we use plastic, particularly in terms of single-use plastic and those objects that have a very short service lifespan.”

              Follow Helen on Twitter.

              View comments

‘Radical change’ needed on countryside

The UK government is failing rural communities and the natural environment, a report says.

The Lords Select Committee document says there should be radical change in how the countryside is looked after.

It recommends stripping the environment department Defra of its power to regulate on rural affairs, and reforming the Countryside Code.

The Lords said Defra had focused too much on farming and agriculture, rather than other aspects of rural life.

The report describes a “consistent failure, over a number of years, to prioritise the ‘rural affairs’ element” of the remit of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

All this, it says, has had a “profound negative impact … to the cost of us all”.

The Select Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2006 recommends that responsibility for rural affairs should transfer to the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government.

According to the report, the body responsible for conserving the natural environment and promoting public access to the land, Natural England (NE), has been “hollowed out” and is now largely ineffective.

The report’s chairman, Lord Cameron of Dillington, said: “The last major research was done by the Commission for Social Mobility last year, and it said some of the worst spots for deprivation and intergenerational poverty exists in rural England.

“That it’s as bad as if not worse than our inner cities. We feel they have been neglected by government, that Defra is not doing a good job and that changes need to be made.”

Budgets slashed

Severe budget cuts and the abolition of the Rural Communities Policy Unit means that NE no longer has the budget or power to effectively and independently regulate government policy. It also means that not enough is being done to promote responsible access to the countryside.

Taking advice from the National Farmers Union, it says that the Countryside Code should be re-launched, so more people are aware of how to properly enjoy rural areas.

This code was designed as a standard set of guidelines for members of the public, to ensure respect and enjoyment in the countryside.

A Defra spokesperson said: “Whether it is developing a new agricultural system outside the EU or safeguarding our countryside, the needs of our rural communities sit at the heart of everything we do.”

“We are continuing to champion rural affairs across government – driving forward high-speed broadband in the most hard to reach areas, increasing housing availability and supporting the creation of more than 6,000 jobs through our dedicated fund for rural businesses.”

Some people living in rural areas see a role for the community too. Justin Dyson, a resident of Croyde in Devon, volunteers at a local centre for the elderly.

“Life isn’t great here for old people because public transport is terrible and they’re alone a lot. But I think it’s up to us to help – it’s not all down to the government. We need to take responsibility,” he told BBC News.

Improving access

The Lords committee also considered concerns over the long-term funding and sustainability of the National Trails Network.

In a measure also proposed by the Environment Secretary Michael Gove, the committee recommends that a post-Brexit subsidy system should give public money to landowners who maintain footpaths and allow more access to their land.

It also suggests that National Trails could be sponsored, calling for Defra to work with the ramblers and other organisations to develop proposals for long-term management and maintenance funding.

Stephen Russell from the Ramblers Association said that Natural England had been being “hamstrung” by budget cuts: “The path network, the trails themselves, they benefit so many people: people’s health, their well-being, the local economies. It’s too important to not address, because of all the different benefits that they bring.”

“We ran a survey in 2015 that pointed to a path network that was generally in good condition but with maybe 10% of the network classed as impassable, and an additional 40% that was in need of improvement.”

The committee also highlights concerns over the provision of rural housing, saying Natural England has “insufficient regard for landscapes”, when offering planning guidance.

Lauren Kielb, a resident in Bradford on Avon told the BBC there wasn’t enough attention paid to planning in rural towns:

“We’ve got lots of new housing coming here in Bradford on Avon and I’m worried about what the impact will be,” she said. “The school here is getting larger so it will alienate the local villages from having access to that secondary school. They will become cut off from it.”

In addition, the Lords committee report says the requirement for public authorities to “have regard” to biodiversity when exercising their functions is ineffective.

The report recommends the NERC Act should be amended in order to add a reporting requirement to the duty and the government should also consider strengthening the wording.

Follow Claire on Twitter.

‘Radical change’ needed on countryside

The UK government is failing rural communities and the natural environment, a report says.

The Lords Select Committee document says there should be radical change in how the countryside is looked after.

It recommends stripping the environment department Defra of its power to regulate on rural affairs, and reforming the Countryside Code.

The Lords said Defra had focused too much on farming and agriculture, rather than other aspects of rural life.

The report describes a “consistent failure, over a number of years, to prioritise the ‘rural affairs’ element” of the remit of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

All this, it says, has had a “profound negative impact … to the cost of us all”.

The Select Committee on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2006 recommends that responsibility for rural affairs should transfer to the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government.

According to the report, the body responsible for conserving the natural environment and promoting public access to the land, Natural England (NE), has been “hollowed out” and is now largely ineffective.

The report’s chairman, Lord Cameron of Dillington, said: “The last major research was done by the Commission for Social Mobility last year, and it said some of the worst spots for deprivation and intergenerational poverty exists in rural England.

“That it’s as bad as if not worse than our inner cities. We feel they have been neglected by government, that Defra is not doing a good job and that changes need to be made.”

Budgets slashed

Severe budget cuts and the abolition of the Rural Communities Policy Unit means that NE no longer has the budget or power to effectively and independently regulate government policy. It also means that not enough is being done to promote responsible access to the countryside.

Taking advice from the National Farmers Union, it says that the Countryside Code should be re-launched, so more people are aware of how to properly enjoy rural areas.

This code was designed as a standard set of guidelines for members of the public, to ensure respect and enjoyment in the countryside.

A Defra spokesperson said: “Whether it is developing a new agricultural system outside the EU or safeguarding our countryside, the needs of our rural communities sit at the heart of everything we do.”

“We are continuing to champion rural affairs across government – driving forward high-speed broadband in the most hard to reach areas, increasing housing availability and supporting the creation of more than 6,000 jobs through our dedicated fund for rural businesses.”

Some people living in rural areas see a role for the community too. Justin Dyson, a resident of Croyde in Devon, volunteers at a local centre for the elderly.

“Life isn’t great here for old people because public transport is terrible and they’re alone a lot. But I think it’s up to us to help – it’s not all down to the government. We need to take responsibility,” he told BBC News.

Improving access

The Lords committee also considered concerns over the long-term funding and sustainability of the National Trails Network.

In a measure also proposed by the Environment Secretary Michael Gove, the committee recommends that a post-Brexit subsidy system should give public money to landowners who maintain footpaths and allow more access to their land.

It also suggests that National Trails could be sponsored, calling for Defra to work with the ramblers and other organisations to develop proposals for long-term management and maintenance funding.

Stephen Russell from the Ramblers Association said that Natural England had been being “hamstrung” by budget cuts: “The path network, the trails themselves, they benefit so many people: people’s health, their well-being, the local economies. It’s too important to not address, because of all the different benefits that they bring.”

“We ran a survey in 2015 that pointed to a path network that was generally in good condition but with maybe 10% of the network classed as impassable, and an additional 40% that was in need of improvement.”

The committee also highlights concerns over the provision of rural housing, saying Natural England has “insufficient regard for landscapes”, when offering planning guidance.

Lauren Kielb, a resident in Bradford on Avon told the BBC there wasn’t enough attention paid to planning in rural towns:

“We’ve got lots of new housing coming here in Bradford on Avon and I’m worried about what the impact will be,” she said. “The school here is getting larger so it will alienate the local villages from having access to that secondary school. They will become cut off from it.”

In addition, the Lords committee report says the requirement for public authorities to “have regard” to biodiversity when exercising their functions is ineffective.

The report recommends the NERC Act should be amended in order to add a reporting requirement to the duty and the government should also consider strengthening the wording.

Follow Claire on Twitter.

Curiosity rover: 2,000 days on Mars

Nasa’s Curiosity rover, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), is celebrating 2,000 martian days (sols) investigating Gale Crater on the Red Planet. In that time, the robot has made some remarkable observations. Here are just a few of them, chosen by the Curiosity science team.

Looking back: In the history of the space age, some of the most dramatic planetary images ever taken have been of Earth, but photographed looking back from deep space. This image by Mastcam on the Curiosity Rover shows our planet as a faint pinpoint of light in the martian night sky. Every day scientists from across the world drive the Curiosity rover and study the Red Planet about 100 million miles from Earth.

The beginning: The first image that Curiosity took came back just 15 minutes after landing on 5 August 2012. Getting our imagery and other data relies on the timing of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) overpasses, a pattern which determines the structure of the martian working day, or sol. It shows a grainy Front Hazard Camera image – the team normally use these to help avoid obstacles – of our ultimate goal Mount Sharp. When this image came back we knew it was going to be a successful mission.

River pebbles: Once we had started driving (16 sols after landing), we soon came across these pebble beds. The rounded shape of the clasts shows that they formed in an ancient, shallow river, flowing from the surrounding four-billion-year-old highlands into Gale Crater. The inset Mastcam image shows one of the pebbles in close-up. Contrary to our expectations before MSL, the crust being eroded by the rivers was not all dark, primitive basalt but a more evolved composition and mineralogy. Pebbles caught up in this ancient martian river are causing us to rethink our view of how the underlying igneous crust and mantle of Mars formed.

Ancient lake: Before landing and in the early part of the mission, the team wasn’t sure what all of the terrains identified from MRO HiRISE orbital imagery were. They might have been lava flows or lake sediments, without close-up “ground truth” it was impossible to be certain. This image settled the debate and was a seminal stage in Martian exploration. Yellowknife Bay is made of layers of fine grained sand and muds, which were deposited as rivers flowed into an ancient Gale Crater lake. We made our first of 16 drill holes on sol 182 – we do this to get rock in to the spectrometers housed in the body of our rover – here at the John Klein site. The results – including identifying clays, organics and nitrogen-bearing compounds – showed us that this had been a habitable environment for microbial life. The next discovery step – Was There Life? – remains to be determined.

Deep water: The Pahrump Hills section Curiosity encountered around sol 753 was key for developing our understanding of Gale’s past environment. Here the rover observed thinly layered mudstones, which represented mud particles settling out from suspension within the deeper lake. The Gale Lake has been a long-standing, deep body of water.

An unconformity: At Mount Stimson, the rover identified from sol 980 a thick sandstone unit overlying the lake deposits, separated by a geological feature called an unconformity. This unconformity represents a time where erosive processes took over after millions of years when the lake had finally dried up – to form a new land surface. This shows evidence of events happening over “deep time”, similar to those that the pioneering geologist James Hutton described in his field work in the late 18th Century at Siccar Point on the Scottish Coast.

Desert sands: The Namib dunes encountered close up by Curiosity at sol 1192 is a small part of the great Bagnold dune field. Its the first active dunefield explored on the surface of another planet and Curiosity had to pick its way carefully along and through the field as moving sands are an obstacle for rovers. Although the Martian atmosphere is a fraction of the density of that of Earth’s, it is still capable of transporting sediment and is capable of creating such beautiful structures akin to those we see in the deserts of Earth.

Wind sculptures: The Murray Buttes, photographed by Mastcam on sol 1448, formed of the same sandstones observed at Mount Stimson and represent a lithified dune field created by dunes similar to those in the present day Bagnold dune field. These desert-formed sandstones sit above an unconformity, and this suggests that after a long period with a humid climate, the climate became drier and wind became the dominant agent shaping the environment at Gale Crater.

Dried muds: Curiosity is able to perform detailed analyses of the Gale rocks with the ChemCam laser and telescope mounted on its mast. Here on sol 1555 at Schooner Head we came across a set of ancient mudcracks and sulphate veins. On Earth, lakes typically dry up in places around their margins and here on Mars the Gale lake was no different. You can see the red crosses where we fired the laser at the rock, creating a small plasma spark, with the wavelength of light in the spark telling us the composition of the mudstone and veins.

Cloudy skies: This sequence of images was taken with Curiosity’s Navigational Cameras (NavCam) on sol 1971 as we pointed them towards the sky. Occasionally on the cloudiest of Martian days we are able to make out faint clouds in the sky. These images are processed to highlight differences, allowing us to see the clouds move across the sky. This sequence shows previously unseen cloud features with prominent zig-zag patterns visible. The three images, from start to finish, cover approximately 12 minutes on Mars.

Obligatory ‘selfie’: The Curiosity rover has gained a reputation over the years that rivals those of Instagram users for its many “selfies” taken along its traverse. These selfies are not all for show though as they help the team track the state of the rover throughout the course of the mission for changes such as wheel wear and dust accumulation. Curiosity’s self-portraits are taken using the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) situated on its robotic arm and are generated by merging a series of high-resolution images into a mosaic. This one taken on sol 1065 at the Buckskin locality shows the main mast of Curiosity with its ChemCam telescope used to determine rock compositions, and the Mastcam cameras. In the foreground you can see that Curiosity has just been drilling, leaving a small grey pile of tailings.

Long drive: This panorama taken with the rover’s Mastcam shows Curiosity’s 18.4km drive over the last 5 years from the Bradbury landing site to its current location on the Vera Rubin Ridge (VRR). VRR was formerly known as Hematite Ridge due to the high concentrations of the iron oxide mineral hematite detected here from orbit. As hematite largely forms in the presence of water, this location was a high-priority target for the Curiosity rover science team to investigate in order to assess how the conditions in Gale Crater changed over its geological history. This key location is the perfect spot for Curiosity to spend its 2000th sol, and for all of us to look back on the many discoveries made so far in the mission.

By John Bridges, Ashwin Vasavada, Susanne Schwenzer, Sanjeev Gupta, Steve Banham, Candice Bedford, Christina Smith, Brittney Cooper & the MSL Team

Curiosity rover: 2,000 days on Mars

Nasa’s Curiosity rover, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), is celebrating 2,000 martian days (sols) investigating Gale Crater on the Red Planet. In that time, the robot has made some remarkable observations. Here are just a few of them, chosen by the Curiosity science team.

Looking back: In the history of the space age, some of the most dramatic planetary images ever taken have been of Earth, but photographed looking back from deep space. This image by Mastcam on the Curiosity Rover shows our planet as a faint pinpoint of light in the martian night sky. Every day scientists from across the world drive the Curiosity rover and study the Red Planet about 100 million miles from Earth.

The beginning: The first image that Curiosity took came back just 15 minutes after landing on 5 August 2012. Getting our imagery and other data relies on the timing of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) overpasses, a pattern which determines the structure of the martian working day, or sol. It shows a grainy Front Hazard Camera image – the team normally use these to help avoid obstacles – of our ultimate goal Mount Sharp. When this image came back we knew it was going to be a successful mission.

River pebbles: Once we had started driving (16 sols after landing), we soon came across these pebble beds. The rounded shape of the clasts shows that they formed in an ancient, shallow river, flowing from the surrounding four-billion-year-old highlands into Gale Crater. The inset Mastcam image shows one of the pebbles in close-up. Contrary to our expectations before MSL, the crust being eroded by the rivers was not all dark, primitive basalt but a more evolved composition and mineralogy. Pebbles caught up in this ancient martian river are causing us to rethink our view of how the underlying igneous crust and mantle of Mars formed.

Ancient lake: Before landing and in the early part of the mission, the team wasn’t sure what all of the terrains identified from MRO HiRISE orbital imagery were. They might have been lava flows or lake sediments, without close-up “ground truth” it was impossible to be certain. This image settled the debate and was a seminal stage in Martian exploration. Yellowknife Bay is made of layers of fine grained sand and muds, which were deposited as rivers flowed into an ancient Gale Crater lake. We made our first of 16 drill holes on sol 182 – we do this to get rock in to the spectrometers housed in the body of our rover – here at the John Klein site. The results – including identifying clays, organics and nitrogen-bearing compounds – showed us that this had been a habitable environment for microbial life. The next discovery step – Was There Life? – remains to be determined.

Deep water: The Pahrump Hills section Curiosity encountered around sol 753 was key for developing our understanding of Gale’s past environment. Here the rover observed thinly layered mudstones, which represented mud particles settling out from suspension within the deeper lake. The Gale Lake has been a long-standing, deep body of water.

An unconformity: At Mount Stimson, the rover identified from sol 980 a thick sandstone unit overlying the lake deposits, separated by a geological feature called an unconformity. This unconformity represents a time where erosive processes took over after millions of years when the lake had finally dried up – to form a new land surface. This shows evidence of events happening over “deep time”, similar to those that the pioneering geologist James Hutton described in his field work in the late 18th Century at Siccar Point on the Scottish Coast.

Desert sands: The Namib dunes encountered close up by Curiosity at sol 1192 is a small part of the great Bagnold dune field. Its the first active dunefield explored on the surface of another planet and Curiosity had to pick its way carefully along and through the field as moving sands are an obstacle for rovers. Although the Martian atmosphere is a fraction of the density of that of Earth’s, it is still capable of transporting sediment and is capable of creating such beautiful structures akin to those we see in the deserts of Earth.

Wind sculptures: The Murray Buttes, photographed by Mastcam on sol 1448, formed of the same sandstones observed at Mount Stimson and represent a lithified dune field created by dunes similar to those in the present day Bagnold dune field. These desert-formed sandstones sit above an unconformity, and this suggests that after a long period with a humid climate, the climate became drier and wind became the dominant agent shaping the environment at Gale Crater.

Dried muds: Curiosity is able to perform detailed analyses of the Gale rocks with the ChemCam laser and telescope mounted on its mast. Here on sol 1555 at Schooner Head we came across a set of ancient mudcracks and sulphate veins. On Earth, lakes typically dry up in places around their margins and here on Mars the Gale lake was no different. You can see the red crosses where we fired the laser at the rock, creating a small plasma spark, with the wavelength of light in the spark telling us the composition of the mudstone and veins.

Cloudy skies: This sequence of images was taken with Curiosity’s Navigational Cameras (NavCam) on sol 1971 as we pointed them towards the sky. Occasionally on the cloudiest of Martian days we are able to make out faint clouds in the sky. These images are processed to highlight differences, allowing us to see the clouds move across the sky. This sequence shows previously unseen cloud features with prominent zig-zag patterns visible. The three images, from start to finish, cover approximately 12 minutes on Mars.

Obligatory ‘selfie’: The Curiosity rover has gained a reputation over the years that rivals those of Instagram users for its many “selfies” taken along its traverse. These selfies are not all for show though as they help the team track the state of the rover throughout the course of the mission for changes such as wheel wear and dust accumulation. Curiosity’s self-portraits are taken using the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) situated on its robotic arm and are generated by merging a series of high-resolution images into a mosaic. This one taken on sol 1065 at the Buckskin locality shows the main mast of Curiosity with its ChemCam telescope used to determine rock compositions, and the Mastcam cameras. In the foreground you can see that Curiosity has just been drilling, leaving a small grey pile of tailings.

Long drive: This panorama taken with the rover’s Mastcam shows Curiosity’s 18.4km drive over the last 5 years from the Bradbury landing site to its current location on the Vera Rubin Ridge (VRR). VRR was formerly known as Hematite Ridge due to the high concentrations of the iron oxide mineral hematite detected here from orbit. As hematite largely forms in the presence of water, this location was a high-priority target for the Curiosity rover science team to investigate in order to assess how the conditions in Gale Crater changed over its geological history. This key location is the perfect spot for Curiosity to spend its 2000th sol, and for all of us to look back on the many discoveries made so far in the mission.

By John Bridges, Ashwin Vasavada, Susanne Schwenzer, Sanjeev Gupta, Steve Banham, Candice Bedford, Christina Smith, Brittney Cooper & the MSL Team

Curiosity rover: 2,000 days on Mars

Nasa’s Curiosity rover, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), is celebrating 2,000 martian days (sols) investigating Gale Crater on the Red Planet. In that time, the robot has made some remarkable observations. Here are just a few of them, chosen by the Curiosity science team.

Looking back: In the history of the space age, some of the most dramatic planetary images ever taken have been of Earth, but photographed looking back from deep space. This image by Mastcam on the Curiosity Rover shows our planet as a faint pinpoint of light in the martian night sky. Every day scientists from across the world drive the Curiosity rover and study the Red Planet about 100 million miles from Earth.

The beginning: The first image that Curiosity took came back just 15 minutes after landing on 5 August 2012. Getting our imagery and other data relies on the timing of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) overpasses, a pattern which determines the structure of the martian working day, or sol. It shows a grainy Front Hazard Camera image – the team normally use these to help avoid obstacles – of our ultimate goal Mount Sharp. When this image came back we knew it was going to be a successful mission.

River pebbles: Once we had started driving (16 sols after landing), we soon came across these pebble beds. The rounded shape of the clasts shows that they formed in an ancient, shallow river, flowing from the surrounding four-billion-year-old highlands into Gale Crater. The inset Mastcam image shows one of the pebbles in close-up. Contrary to our expectations before MSL, the crust being eroded by the rivers was not all dark, primitive basalt but a more evolved composition and mineralogy. Pebbles caught up in this ancient martian river are causing us to rethink our view of how the underlying igneous crust and mantle of Mars formed.

Ancient lake: Before landing and in the early part of the mission, the team wasn’t sure what all of the terrains identified from MRO HiRISE orbital imagery were. They might have been lava flows or lake sediments, without close-up “ground truth” it was impossible to be certain. This image settled the debate and was a seminal stage in Martian exploration. Yellowknife Bay is made of layers of fine grained sand and muds, which were deposited as rivers flowed into an ancient Gale Crater lake. We made our first of 16 drill holes on sol 182 – we do this to get rock in to the spectrometers housed in the body of our rover – here at the John Klein site. The results – including identifying clays, organics and nitrogen-bearing compounds – showed us that this had been a habitable environment for microbial life. The next discovery step – Was There Life? – remains to be determined.

Deep water: The Pahrump Hills section Curiosity encountered around sol 753 was key for developing our understanding of Gale’s past environment. Here the rover observed thinly layered mudstones, which represented mud particles settling out from suspension within the deeper lake. The Gale Lake has been a long-standing, deep body of water.

An unconformity: At Mount Stimson, the rover identified from sol 980 a thick sandstone unit overlying the lake deposits, separated by a geological feature called an unconformity. This unconformity represents a time where erosive processes took over after millions of years when the lake had finally dried up – to form a new land surface. This shows evidence of events happening over “deep time”, similar to those that the pioneering geologist James Hutton described in his field work in the late 18th Century at Siccar Point on the Scottish Coast.

Desert sands: The Namib dunes encountered close up by Curiosity at sol 1192 is a small part of the great Bagnold dune field. Its the first active dunefield explored on the surface of another planet and Curiosity had to pick its way carefully along and through the field as moving sands are an obstacle for rovers. Although the Martian atmosphere is a fraction of the density of that of Earth’s, it is still capable of transporting sediment and is capable of creating such beautiful structures akin to those we see in the deserts of Earth.

Wind sculptures: The Murray Buttes, photographed by Mastcam on sol 1448, formed of the same sandstones observed at Mount Stimson and represent a lithified dune field created by dunes similar to those in the present day Bagnold dune field. These desert-formed sandstones sit above an unconformity, and this suggests that after a long period with a humid climate, the climate became drier and wind became the dominant agent shaping the environment at Gale Crater.

Dried muds: Curiosity is able to perform detailed analyses of the Gale rocks with the ChemCam laser and telescope mounted on its mast. Here on sol 1555 at Schooner Head we came across a set of ancient mudcracks and sulphate veins. On Earth, lakes typically dry up in places around their margins and here on Mars the Gale lake was no different. You can see the red crosses where we fired the laser at the rock, creating a small plasma spark, with the wavelength of light in the spark telling us the composition of the mudstone and veins.

Cloudy skies: This sequence of images was taken with Curiosity’s Navigational Cameras (NavCam) on sol 1971 as we pointed them towards the sky. Occasionally on the cloudiest of Martian days we are able to make out faint clouds in the sky. These images are processed to highlight differences, allowing us to see the clouds move across the sky. This sequence shows previously unseen cloud features with prominent zig-zag patterns visible. The three images, from start to finish, cover approximately 12 minutes on Mars.

Obligatory ‘selfie’: The Curiosity rover has gained a reputation over the years that rivals those of Instagram users for its many “selfies” taken along its traverse. These selfies are not all for show though as they help the team track the state of the rover throughout the course of the mission for changes such as wheel wear and dust accumulation. Curiosity’s self-portraits are taken using the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) situated on its robotic arm and are generated by merging a series of high-resolution images into a mosaic. This one taken on sol 1065 at the Buckskin locality shows the main mast of Curiosity with its ChemCam telescope used to determine rock compositions, and the Mastcam cameras. In the foreground you can see that Curiosity has just been drilling, leaving a small grey pile of tailings.

Long drive: This panorama taken with the rover’s Mastcam shows Curiosity’s 18.4km drive over the last 5 years from the Bradbury landing site to its current location on the Vera Rubin Ridge (VRR). VRR was formerly known as Hematite Ridge due to the high concentrations of the iron oxide mineral hematite detected here from orbit. As hematite largely forms in the presence of water, this location was a high-priority target for the Curiosity rover science team to investigate in order to assess how the conditions in Gale Crater changed over its geological history. This key location is the perfect spot for Curiosity to spend its 2000th sol, and for all of us to look back on the many discoveries made so far in the mission.

By John Bridges, Ashwin Vasavada, Susanne Schwenzer, Sanjeev Gupta, Steve Banham, Candice Bedford, Christina Smith, Brittney Cooper & the MSL Team

Curiosity rover: 2,000 days on Mars

Nasa’s Curiosity rover, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), is celebrating 2,000 martian days (sols) investigating Gale Crater on the Red Planet. In that time, the robot has made some remarkable observations. Here are just a few of them, chosen by the Curiosity science team.

Looking back: In the history of the space age, some of the most dramatic planetary images ever taken have been of Earth, but photographed looking back from deep space. This image by Mastcam on the Curiosity Rover shows our planet as a faint pinpoint of light in the martian night sky. Every day scientists from across the world drive the Curiosity rover and study the Red Planet about 100 million miles from Earth.

The beginning: The first image that Curiosity took came back just 15 minutes after landing on 5 August 2012. Getting our imagery and other data relies on the timing of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) overpasses, a pattern which determines the structure of the martian working day, or sol. It shows a grainy Front Hazard Camera image – the team normally use these to help avoid obstacles – of our ultimate goal Mount Sharp. When this image came back we knew it was going to be a successful mission.

River pebbles: Once we had started driving (16 sols after landing), we soon came across these pebble beds. The rounded shape of the clasts shows that they formed in an ancient, shallow river, flowing from the surrounding four-billion-year-old highlands into Gale Crater. The inset Mastcam image shows one of the pebbles in close-up. Contrary to our expectations before MSL, the crust being eroded by the rivers was not all dark, primitive basalt but a more evolved composition and mineralogy. Pebbles caught up in this ancient martian river are causing us to rethink our view of how the underlying igneous crust and mantle of Mars formed.

Ancient lake: Before landing and in the early part of the mission, the team wasn’t sure what all of the terrains identified from MRO HiRISE orbital imagery were. They might have been lava flows or lake sediments, without close-up “ground truth” it was impossible to be certain. This image settled the debate and was a seminal stage in Martian exploration. Yellowknife Bay is made of layers of fine grained sand and muds, which were deposited as rivers flowed into an ancient Gale Crater lake. We made our first of 16 drill holes on sol 182 – we do this to get rock in to the spectrometers housed in the body of our rover – here at the John Klein site. The results – including identifying clays, organics and nitrogen-bearing compounds – showed us that this had been a habitable environment for microbial life. The next discovery step – Was There Life? – remains to be determined.

Deep water: The Pahrump Hills section Curiosity encountered around sol 753 was key for developing our understanding of Gale’s past environment. Here the rover observed thinly layered mudstones, which represented mud particles settling out from suspension within the deeper lake. The Gale Lake has been a long-standing, deep body of water.

An unconformity: At Mount Stimson, the rover identified from sol 980 a thick sandstone unit overlying the lake deposits, separated by a geological feature called an unconformity. This unconformity represents a time where erosive processes took over after millions of years when the lake had finally dried up – to form a new land surface. This shows evidence of events happening over “deep time”, similar to those that the pioneering geologist James Hutton described in his field work in the late 18th Century at Siccar Point on the Scottish Coast.

Desert sands: The Namib dunes encountered close up by Curiosity at sol 1192 is a small part of the great Bagnold dune field. Its the first active dunefield explored on the surface of another planet and Curiosity had to pick its way carefully along and through the field as moving sands are an obstacle for rovers. Although the Martian atmosphere is a fraction of the density of that of Earth’s, it is still capable of transporting sediment and is capable of creating such beautiful structures akin to those we see in the deserts of Earth.

Wind sculptures: The Murray Buttes, photographed by Mastcam on sol 1448, formed of the same sandstones observed at Mount Stimson and represent a lithified dune field created by dunes similar to those in the present day Bagnold dune field. These desert-formed sandstones sit above an unconformity, and this suggests that after a long period with a humid climate, the climate became drier and wind became the dominant agent shaping the environment at Gale Crater.

Dried muds: Curiosity is able to perform detailed analyses of the Gale rocks with the ChemCam laser and telescope mounted on its mast. Here on sol 1555 at Schooner Head we came across a set of ancient mudcracks and sulphate veins. On Earth, lakes typically dry up in places around their margins and here on Mars the Gale lake was no different. You can see the red crosses where we fired the laser at the rock, creating a small plasma spark, with the wavelength of light in the spark telling us the composition of the mudstone and veins.

Cloudy skies: This sequence of images was taken with Curiosity’s Navigational Cameras (NavCam) on sol 1971 as we pointed them towards the sky. Occasionally on the cloudiest of Martian days we are able to make out faint clouds in the sky. These images are processed to highlight differences, allowing us to see the clouds move across the sky. This sequence shows previously unseen cloud features with prominent zig-zag patterns visible. The three images, from start to finish, cover approximately 12 minutes on Mars.

Obligatory ‘selfie’: The Curiosity rover has gained a reputation over the years that rivals those of Instagram users for its many “selfies” taken along its traverse. These selfies are not all for show though as they help the team track the state of the rover throughout the course of the mission for changes such as wheel wear and dust accumulation. Curiosity’s self-portraits are taken using the rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) situated on its robotic arm and are generated by merging a series of high-resolution images into a mosaic. This one taken on sol 1065 at the Buckskin locality shows the main mast of Curiosity with its ChemCam telescope used to determine rock compositions, and the Mastcam cameras. In the foreground you can see that Curiosity has just been drilling, leaving a small grey pile of tailings.

Long drive: This panorama taken with the rover’s Mastcam shows Curiosity’s 18.4km drive over the last 5 years from the Bradbury landing site to its current location on the Vera Rubin Ridge (VRR). VRR was formerly known as Hematite Ridge due to the high concentrations of the iron oxide mineral hematite detected here from orbit. As hematite largely forms in the presence of water, this location was a high-priority target for the Curiosity rover science team to investigate in order to assess how the conditions in Gale Crater changed over its geological history. This key location is the perfect spot for Curiosity to spend its 2000th sol, and for all of us to look back on the many discoveries made so far in the mission.

By John Bridges, Ashwin Vasavada, Susanne Schwenzer, Sanjeev Gupta, Steve Banham, Candice Bedford, Christina Smith, Brittney Cooper & the MSL Team