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NASA’s Perseverance rover is about to start searching for life on Mars

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jezero crater


The landing

The technical terms for the seven minutes of terror is “entry, descent, and landing,” or EDL. It starts when the spacecraft enters the Martian upper atmosphere at around 20,000 kilometers per hour (12,500 miles per hour) and faces rapidly increasing temperatures. Perseverance is protected by a heat shield and shell, as well as a suite of 28 sensors that monitor hot gases and winds. Temperatures peak at a punishing 13,00 °C (2,400 °F).

About four minutes into EDL—roughly 11 kilometers (seven miles) above the surface and still hurtling to the ground at about 1,500 km/h (940 mph)—the rover deploys a 21-meter parachute The spacecraft will get rid of its heat shield soon. Underneath are a slew of other radar instruments and cameras that will be used to set the spacecraft down in a safe spot. Software called Terrain-Relative Navigation processes images taken by the cameras and compares them with an onboard topographical map to figure out where the spacecraft is and which potential safe spots it should head for. 

At a little less than six minutes into EDL and around two kilometers in the air, the outer shell and parachute separate from the rover, and Perseverance heads directly for the ground. The descent stage (attached on top of the rover) uses its thrusters to find a safe spot within 10 to 100 meters of its current drop location, and slows down to around 2.7 km/h (1.7 mph). Nylon cords on the descent stage lower the rover to the ground from 20 meters (66 feet) in the air. Once the rover touches the ground, the cords are severed and the descent stage flies away to crash into the ground from a safe distance. Perseverance is now at its new home.

A view of Jezero crater. On the left is a spectral map of mineral deposits shaped by water activity in the past. On the right is a hazard map created to illustrate high rough terrain that Perservance will seek to avoid when landing.

NASA

The science

Spirit and Opportunity helped us better understand the history of water on Mars, and Curiosity found evidence of complex organics—carbon-rich molecules that are the raw ingredients for life. Combined, this evidence told us Mars may have been habitable in the past. Perseverance is going to take the next big step:looking for signs of ancient extraterrestrial life. 

Why Jezero crater? It’s a former lake bed that’s 3.8 billion years old. A river used to carry water into it, and it is at the river delta where sediments could have deposited preserved organic compounds and minerals associated with biological life. 

Twenty-three cameras on Perseverance will study Mars for evidence of life. The most important of these are the Mastcam-Z camera, which can take stereoscopic and panoramic images and has an extraordinarily high zoom capability to highlight targets (such as soil patterns and old sediment formations) that deserve closer study; SuperCam, which can investigate chemical and mineral composition in the rock and has a microphone that will be used to listen to the Martian weather; and the PIXL and SHERLOC spectrometers, which will look for complex molecules that indicate biology. SHERLOC’s Watson camera will also do some microscopic imaging down to a resolution of 100 microns (hardly bigger than the width of a human hair). 

Briony Horgan, a planetary scientist at Purdue University who’s part of the Mastcam-Z team, says scientists are most interested in finding organic matter that’s either heavily concentrated or could only be the result of biological activity, such as stromatolites (fossilized remains created by layers of bacteria). “If we find particular patterns, it could qualify as a biosignature that’s evidence of life,” she says. “Even if it’s not concentrated, if we see it in the right context, it could be a really powerful sign of a real biosignature.”

After Perseverance lands, engineers will spend several weeks testing and calibrating all instruments and functions before the science investigation begins in earnest. Once that’s over, Perseverance will spend a couple more months driving out to the first exploration sites at Jezero crater. We could find evidence of life on Mars as soon as this summer—if it was ever there. 

New world, new tech

Like any new NASA mission, Perseverance is also a platform for demonstrating some of the most state-of-the-art technology in the solar system. 

One is MOXIE, a small device that seeks to turn the carbon-dioxide-heavy Martian atmosphere into usable oxygen through electrolysis (using an electric current to separate elements). This has been done before on Earth, but it’s important to prove that it works on Mars if we hope humans can live there one day. Oxygen production could not only provide a Martian colony with breathable air; it could also be used to generate liquid oxygen for rocket fuel. MOXIE should have about 10 opportunities to make oxygen during Perseverance’s first two years, during different seasons and times of the day. It will run for about an hour each time, producing 6 to 10 grams of oxygen per session. 

There’s also Ingenuity, a 1.8-kilogram helicopter that could take the first powered controlled flight ever made on another planet. Deploying Ingenuity (which is stowed underneath the rover) will take about 10 days. Its first flight will be about three meters into the air, where it will hover for about 20 seconds. If it successfully flies in Mars’s ultra-thin atmosphere (1% as dense as Earth’s), Ingenuity will have many more chances to fly elsewhere. Two cameras on the helicopter will help us see exactly what it sees. On its own, Ingenuity won’t be critical for exploring Mars, but its success could pave the way for engineers to think about new ways to explore other planets when a rover or lander will not suffice.

Neither of those demonstrations will be the marquee moment for Perseverance. The highlight of the mission, which may take 10 years to realize, will be the return of Martian soil samples to Earth. Perseverance will drill into the ground and collect more than 40 samples, most of which will be returned to Earth as part of a joint NASA-ESA mission. NASA officials suggest that this mission could come in either 2026 or 2028, which means the earliest they may be returned to Earth is 2031. 

Collecting such samples is no small feat. Robotics company Maxar built the sample handling arm (SHA) that controls the drilling mechanism to collect cores of Martian soil from the ground. The company had to build something that worked autonomously, with hardware and electronics that could withstand temperature swings from -73 °C (100 °F) at night to more than 20 °C (70 °F) during the day. And most important, it had to build something that could contend with the Martian dust. 

“When you’re talking about a moving mechanism that has to apply force and go exactly where you need it to go, you can’t have a tiny little dust particle stopping the whole show,” says Lucy Condakchian, the general manager of robotics at Maxar. SHA, located underneath the rover itself, is exposed to a ton of dust kicked up by the rover’s wheels or by drilling. Various innovations should help it withstand this problem, including new lubricants and a metallic accordion design for its lateral (front-to-back) movement.

Before any of those things are proved to work, however, the rover needs to make it to Mars in one piece. 

“It never gets old,” says Condakchian. “I’m just as nervous as I’ve been on the previous missions. But it’s a good nervous—an excitement to be doing this again.”

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VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence

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VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence


As we inched nearer, I worried about infringing upon the other participants’ personal space. Then I remembered that oceans and thousands of miles separated me from them—and wasn’t ditching the notion of personal space the whole point? So I tried to settle into the intimacy.

“What happens in VR is that sense of completely forgetting about the existence of the external world,” says Agnieszka Sekula, a PhD candidate at the Centre for Human Psychopharmacology in Australia and a cofounder of a company that uses VR to enhance psychedelic therapy. “So there is definitely similarity there to this sense of experiencing an alternate reality under psychedelics that feels more real than what’s actually out there.” 

But, she adds, “there’s definitely differences between what a psychedelic experience feels like and what virtual reality feels like.” Because of this, she appreciates that Isness-D charts a new path to transcendence instead of just mimicking one that existed already.

More research is needed on the enduring effects of an Isness-D experience and whether virtual reality, in general, can induce benefits similar to psychedelics. The dominant theory on how psychedelics improve clinical outcomes (a debate far from settled) is that their effect is driven by both the subjective experience of a trip and the drug’s neurochemical effect on the brain. Since VR only mirrors the subjective experience, its clinical benefit, which has yet to be rigorously tested, may not be as strong.

We moved closer still, until we met in the center of the circle—four clumps of smoke billowing together.

Jacob Aday, a psychiatry researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, says he wishes the study had measured participants’ mental wellness. He thinks VR likely can downregulate the default mode network—a brain network that’s active when our thoughts aren’t directed at a specific task, and which psychedelics can suppress (scientists theorize that this is what causes ego death). People shown awe-inspiring videos have diminished activity in this network. VR is better at inducing awe than regular video, so Isness-D might similarly dial it down.

Already, a startup called aNUma that spun out of Glowacki’s lab allows anyone with a VR headset to sign up for Isness sessions weekly. The startup sells a shortened version of Isness-D to companies for virtual wellness retreats, and provides a similar experience called Ripple to help patients, their families, and their caregivers cope with terminal illness. A coauthor of the paper describing Isness-D is even piloting it in couples and family therapy.

“What we’ve found is that representing people as pure luminosity really releases them from a lot of judgments and projections,” Glowacki says. That includes negative thoughts about their body and prejudices. He has personally facilitated aNUma sessions for cancer patients and their loved ones. One, a woman with pancreatic cancer, died days later. The last time she and her friends gathered was as mingling balls of light.

For one phase of my Isness-D experience, moving created a brief electric trail that marked where I’d just been. After a few moments of this, the narration prodded: “What does it feel like to see the past?” I started to think of people from my past who I missed or had hurt. In sloppy cursive, I used my finger to write their names in the air. Just as quickly as I scribbled them, I watched them vanish.

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Corruption is sending shock waves through China’s chipmaking industry

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Corruption is sending shock waves through China’s chipmaking industry


It remains unclear whether the failure of Unigroup directly triggered the anticorruption earthquake within Big Fund. However, the strategy that the latter has taken—throwing massive investments against the wall and seeing what sticks—can fail miserably. According to longtime observers, that strategy is also the perfect breeding ground for corruption.

“This is the least surprising corruption investigation I’ve heard of for a while,” says Matt Sheehan, a fellow at the US think tank the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Not because I know Ding Wenwu is personally corrupt, but when you have that amount of money sloshing around in an industry, it’d be way more surprising if there isn’t a major corruption scandal.”

A significant part of the problem was a lack of precision, says Sheehan. China knew it needed to invest in semiconductors but didn’t know what exact sub-industry or company to prioritize. The country has been forced to learn by trial and error, feeling its way through issues like the bankruptcy of Unigroup and the expanding technology blockade by the US. The next step should be more targeted investments into specific companies, Sheehan says.

That might mean a new boss for the Big Fund—someone who’s better versed in getting financial returns, says Paul Triolo, a senior VP at the business strategy firm Albright Stonebridge, which advises companies operating in China. Many of the Big Fund’s managers came from government backgrounds and may simply have lacked the relevant experience. Ding, who’s under investigation now, used to be a department director at China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

“You need competent people to run this [Big Fund] that understand the industry, finance, and are not going to fund projects that don’t have a sound commercial basis,” Triolo says.

Ultimately, these investigations may end up being positive for China’s semiconductor industry because they highlight the limitation of politically driven funding and may push the Big Fund to be managed on a more market-based basis. Beijing’s appetite for experiments is waning as its worries about self-sufficiency intensify. “They can’t afford to squander $5 billion on fabs that aren’t going to be viable,” says Triolo.

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The Download: experimental embryos and the US monkeypox emergency

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The Download: experimental embryos and the US monkeypox emergency


In a search for novel forms of longevity medicine, a biotech company based in Israel says it intends to create embryo-stage versions of people in order to harvest tissues for use in transplant treatments.

The company, Renewal Bio, is pursuing recent advances in stem-cell technology and artificial wombs, demonstrated by Jacob Hanna, a biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. Earlier this week, Hanna showed that starting with mouse stem cells, his lab could form highly realistic-looking mouse embryos and keep them growing in a mechanical womb for several days until they developed beating hearts, flowing blood, and cranial folds. 

It’s the first time such an advanced embryo has been mimicked without sperm, eggs, or even a uterus. Now Hanna has set his sights on extending the technology to humans—he’s already experimenting with human cells and hopes to eventually produce artificial models of human embryos. “We view the embryo as the best 3D bio printer,” he says. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

Automated techniques could make it easier to develop AI

Machine-learning researchers have to make many decisions when designing new models, meaning that complex models end up being designed by human intuition, rather than systematically. A growing field called automated machine learning, or autoML, aims to eliminate that guesswork, allowing algorithms to take over the decision making, which could both simplify the process and make machine learning more accessible.

Big Tech is paying attention. Companies like Amazon and Google already offer low-code machine-learning tools that take advantage of autoML techniques, and computer scientists are excited by the notion of being able to simply specify a problem, before tasking the computer with figuring it out. But researchers have a lot of work to do before autoML can be deployed more widely. Read the full story.

Tammy Xu

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The US has declared monkeypox a public health emergency
It has surpassed 7,100 cases, more than any other country. (WSJ $)
+ Many queer men have been unable to get vaccinated. (Vox)
+ Some people will be at risk of contracting both monkeypox and covid. (The Atlantic $)
+ There’s still no evidence to suggest that monkeypox has become more virulent. (Slate)
+ Everything you need to know about the monkeypox vaccines. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Alex Jones must pay $4 million to the parents of a Sandy Hook victim
The conspiracy theorist is finally facing consequences for calling the massacre a hoax. (BBC)
+ The jury could choose to award further damages, too. (Buzzfeed News

3 Elon Musk has accused Twitter of fraud 
He also claims he was “hoodwinked” into signing the purchase agreement. (Bloomberg $)
+ A tool used to assess Twitter bots reportedly flagged Musk’s own account as one. (FT $)
+ Twitter’s lawyers aren’t holding back. (The Verge)
+ Meanwhile, Musk predicts the US will weather a “mild recession” for 18 months. (Insider)

4 The UK’s cost of living crisis has birthed a wave of scams
Which feels particularly cruel, if sadly inevitable. (FT $)

5 Your brain appears to unlock new realities when you die 🧠
The new dimensions of reality some dying people experience are not the same as hallucinating. (Neo.Life)

6 We’re buying fewer video games than we used to
With less disposable income, shoppers are cutting down on non-essentials. (WP $)

7 The animals we know least about are most at risk of extinction
Many are already believed to have died out before we could discover them. (Motherboard)
+ Machine learning could help identify the species most at risk. (The Verge)
+ Understanding how species mate is crucial to ensuring their future safety. (Knowable Magazine)

8 The internet is obsessed with tracking the celebrities’ flights
Aviation enthusiasts are revealing the data that the rich and famous would rather keep secret. (The Guardian)

9 Hollywood is getting better at portraying young, online lives  
Being Extremely Online is no longer the preserve of the loner. (The Atlantic $)
+ How the next generation is reshaping political discourse. (MIT Technology Review)

10 TikTok can’t get enough of young farmers 🐄🐏
Their rural lives are striking a chord. (FT $)
+ Elsewhere on TikTok, users are paying money to wake people up. (Wired $)

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