Imagine if NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover—now on its way to the red planet—discovered microbial life there.It would change everything we know about life in the Solar System and far beyond.Or would it? What if we accidentally transported life to Mars on a spacecraft? And what if that is how life moves around the Universe?
A new paper published this week in Frontiers in Microbiology explores the possibility that microbes and extremophiles may migrate between planets and distribute life around the Universe—and that includes on spacecraft sent from Earth to Mars.This is the controversial theory of “panspermia.”
What is ‘panspermia?’
It’s an untested, unproven and rather wild theory regarding the interplanetary transfer of life. It theorizes that microscopic life-forms, such as bacteria, can be transported through space and land on another planet. Thus sparking life elsewhere. It could happen by accident—such as on spacecraft—via comets and asteroids in the Solar System, and perhaps even between star systems on interstellar objects like ʻOumuamua.
However, for “panspermia” to have any credence requires proof that bacteria could survive a long journey through the vacuum, temperature fluctuations, and intense UV radiation in outer space.Cue the “Tanpopo” project.
What is the ‘Tanpopo’ mission?
Tanpopo—dandelion in English—is a scientific experiment to see if bacteria can survive in the extremes of outer space. The researchers from Tokyo University—in conjunction with Japanese national space agency JAXA—wanted to see if the bacteria deinococcus could survive in space, so had it placed in exposure panels on the outside of the International Space Station (ISS). It’s known as being resistant to radiation.
Dried samples of different thicknesses were exposed to space environment for one, two, or three years and then tested to see if any survived. They did, largely by a layer of dead bacteria protecting a colony beneath it. The researchers estimate that a colony of 1 mm of diameter could potentially survive up to 8 years in outer space conditions.
What does this mean for ‘panspermia?’
“The results suggest that deinococcus could survive during the travel from Earth to Mars and vice versa, which is several months or years in the shortest orbit,” said Akihiko Yamagishi, a Professor at Tokyo University of Pharmacy and Life Sciences and principal investigator of Tanpopo.
That means spacecraft visiting Mars could theoretically carry microorganisms and potentially contaminate its surface. However, this isn’t just about Earth and Mars—the ramifications of panspermia, if proven, are far-reaching. “The origin of life on Earth is the biggest mystery of human beings (and) scientists can have totally different points of view on the matter,” said Dr. Yamagishi.
“Some think that life is very rare and happened only once in the Universe, while others think that life can happen on every suitable planet.” “If panspermia is possible, life must exist much more often than we previously thought.”
What is ‘lithopanspermia?’
This is bacteria surviving in space for a long period when shielded by rock—typically an asteroid or a comet—which could travel between planets, potentially spreading bacteria and biologically-rich matter around the Solar System. However, the theory of panspermia goes even further than that.
What is ‘interstellar panspermia’ and ‘galactic panspermia?’
This is the hypothesis—and it’s one with zero evidence—that life exists throughout the galaxy and/or Universe specifically because bacteria and microorganisms are spread around by asteroids, comets, space dust and possibly even interstellar spacecraft from alien civilizations.
In 2018 a paper concluded that the likelihood of Galactic panspermia is strongly dependent upon the survival lifetime of the organisms as well as the velocity of the comet or asteroid—positing that the entire Milky Way could potentially be exchanging biotic components across vast distances.
Such theories have gained credence in the last few years with the discovery of two extrasolar objects Oumuamua and Borisov passing through our Solar System.However, while the ramifications are mind-boggling, panspermia is definitely not a proven scientific process. There are still many unanswered questions about how the space-surviving microbes could physically transfer from one celestial body to another.
How will Perseverance look for life on Mars?
NASA’s Perseverance rover is due to land on the red planet on February 18, 2021. It will land in a nearly four billion-year-old river delta in Mars’ 28 miles/45 kilometers-wide Jezero Crater.
It’s thought likely that Jezero Crater was home to a lake as large as Lake Tahoe more than 3.5 billion years ago. Ancient rivers there could have carried organic molecules and possibly even microorganisms.
Perseverance’s mission will be to analyze rock and sediment samples to see if Mars may have had conditions for microorganisms to thrive. It will drill a few centimeters into Mars and take core samples, then put the most promising into containers. It will then leave them on the Martian surface to be later collected by a human mission in the early 2030s.
In astronomy, the study of fast radio bursts can sometimes feel like a game of Clue. Astronomy can be, in some ways, a bit like the classic board game Clue. Scientists explore a sprawling but ultimately contained world, collecting pieces of information and testing out theories about a big mystery. You can’t cover every corner, but with the right combination of strategy and luck, you can gather enough clues to make a reasonable guess at the tidy answer—who, where, and how—enclosed in a little yellow envelope at the center of it all.
Only, instead of a fictional killer, astronomers are trying to track down the source of strange flashes of radio signals that reach Earth from the depths of space. Scientists have discovered hundreds of such flashes, known as fast radio bursts (FRBs), over the past 15 years. The signals are intense and fleeting things. They come from all directions in the night sky and sneak up on our telescopes. Most are one-offs, never to be seen again. A few “repeating FRBs” have shown up more than once.
Astronomers have gathered as much evidence as they can and have traced the approximate origins of FRBs in the enormous mansion that is our universe. Nearly all of them spring from distant galaxies, while just one so far arose from somewhere in our own Milky Way. But astronomers still haven’t figured out whodunit, or how; they don’t know for sure what kind of astrophysical objects produce these powerful emissions of radio waves. But astronomers have found a new, tantalizing clue.
A team of researchers has detected a new FRB from a galaxy several billion light-years from Earth, and this one is weirder than all the rest. Most bursts last for just a few milliseconds, pulsing with such intensity that they shine as brightly as galaxies before vanishing. But this emission of radio waves lasted about 1,000 times longer: three whole seconds. And there was something unusual about the signal itself.
Astronomers detected little pulses, peaking about every 0.2 seconds, within the three-second burst. Researchers had previously detected an FRB source that followed a discernible pattern, producing millisecond-long flickers for several days before quieting down and then starting back up again. But the flashes themselves were random. This was the first time that the signal itself exhibited such a precise rhythm.
“In FRB world, this is certainly big news,” Sarah Burke-Spolaor, an astronomer at West Virginia University who studies FRBs and was not involved in the new detection, told me. “The main question we are still after with FRB is: What is making them? A strict periodicity like this would be major.” The existence of such a pattern supports the growing evidence that suggests the culprit behind FRBs is a neutron star, the leftover core of a once-giant star that has burned through its fuel.
Professor Plum could be a pulsar, a type of neutron star that rotates fast and spits beams of radiation from its poles. Or Miss Scarlet could be a magnetar, another kind of neutron star, known for its powerful magnetic fields. “It is very difficult to contrive a natural clock like that, but pulsars are the only known emitting objects with enough momentum to behave that way,” Burke-Spolaor said.
The researchers behind the detection didn’t have enough to definitively pin the FRB on a pulsar, Shami Chatterjee, an astrophysicist at Cornell University and a co-author on the new research, told me. Nor do they have a good explanation for why this signal was so intense. Perhaps invisible gravitational forces magnified a pulsar’s emissions as they headed our way, making them appear brighter to radio telescopes. Or maybe a magnetar is undergoing a giant flare.
The latest detection bears some similarities to the radio emissions of pulsars and magnetars found in our own Milky Way galaxy, but the weird new signal seems, well, weirder. “The whole thing is just very peculiar,” Chatterjee said. Around this time, you might be thinking, Okay, so astronomers have their suspicions about what’s responsible for FRBs, but they haven’t solved the case. Add in the discovery of a surprisingly clear-cut pattern, and you might wonder: Could it be aliens?
Sorry, no. “Periodic signals are very, very common from normal astronomical sources,” Sofia Sheikh, an astronomer at the SETI Institute who works on the search for signs of advanced technology beyond Earth, told me. Such sources include pulsars and magnetars. “If the source was pulsing out the digits of pi or the Fibonacci sequence or something, then it would be a SETI story,” Sheikh said. If pulsars can indeed produce FRBs, astronomers can study these flashes to help them solve other cosmic mysteries.
Scientists have already used the rhythms of less mysterious pulsars in the Milky Way as a kind of astrophysical clock, allowing them to do such various tasks as measure the mass of Jupiter, study the properties of the space between stars, and even discover an exoplanet made of diamond, Burke-Spolaor said. In the case of the diamond planet, which also began with an unusual signal, the clues quickly added up:
When astronomers noticed some intriguing variation in the radio emissions of a pulsar 4,000 light-years away, they realized that the best explanation was the presence of a nearby planet. The planet, according to their analysis, was mostly made of carbon and oxygen, and dense enough to crystallize into a diamond world.
Astronomers hope they’ll stumble across more FRBs like this one in their search of our cosmic grounds. The Canadian telescope that detected this burst is constantly looking out for more, and future observatories may discover thousands of them every month. “Every step of the way with FRBs, every answer we have gotten comes with so many more questions,” Burke-Spolaor said. “This detection does the same.”
Astronomers have so far looked only for FRBs that last a few milliseconds because they didn’t think the flashes could last much longer, and it’s possible that “we could be missing a heap of FRBs that are seconds long,” Vikram Ravi, an astronomer at Caltech who wasn’t involved in the new research but who studies FRBs, told me. The story of FRBs is a long game, and scientists now know to expect sudden twists.
The secret envelope remains unopened, but astronomers still have plenty of cosmic rooms to search, and every turn promises to reveal a new clue.
The price of bitcoin fell to a three-month low Saturday, continuing a slide that began Wednesday when the Federal Reserve sparked a broad sell-off by cautioning it may move more quickly than previously expected to reverse policy meant to bolster the economy during the pandemic, and experts forecast the latest crypto market drawback is likely to go on for weeks.
Bitcoin fell as much as 3% to below $41,000 by 1:45 p.m. ET, according to crypto data website CoinMarketCap, bringing its losses to more than 12% since the Fed warned it may move more aggressively to remove pandemic-era stimulus as it looks to combat high levels of inflation.
In a weekend email, analyst Yuya Hasegawa of cryptocurrency broker Bitbank cautioned he expects the world’s largest cryptocurrency could continue falling until the broader market, which has similarly struggled since the Fed’s Wednesday announcement, digests the likelihood of the Fed hiking interest rates as soon as March.
Hasegawa said bitcoin could fall as low as $40,000 in the near term, but that the government’s consumer price index report due out next Wednesday could bring a rebound if it shows inflation spiked more than expected, stoking the inflationary fears that have lifted bitcoin to new highs as recently as November.
On Thursday, crypto billionaire Mike Novogratz, the CEO of financial services firm Galaxy Digital, told CNBC the selloff could push bitcoin down another 8% from current prices to as low as $38,000—a level unseen since early August.
“I’m not nervous in the medium term but we’re going to have a lot of volatility in the next few weeks,” the staunch bitcoin bull said told CNBC, before pointing to booming institutional adoption as a bullish indicator for the nascent space.
Novogratz wasn’t alone among billionaire crypto investors cheering bitcoin on during its latest sell-off: “So. much. money. patiently waiting to [buy the dip] in bitcoin,” Barry Silbert, the founder and CEO of crypto firm Digital Currency Group, wrote on Twitter Saturday afternoon.
Bitcoin was far from alone in falling Saturday afternoon. Over the past 24 hours, ether, binance coin and sol were down 5%, 6% and 3%, respectively—pushing losses to roughly 20% apiece over the last week.”Bitcoin remains vulnerable to a breach of the $40,000 level, and it could get bad for ether if it breaks the $3,000 level,” Oanda Senior Market Analyst Ed Moya wrote in a Friday email. Ether prices clocked in at about $3,034 on Saturday. “The long-term outlook is still bullish for both the top two cryptocurrencies, but the short-term is looking ugly.”
Despite bitcoin’s bouts of intense volatility, Goldman Sachs co-head of global foreign exchange Zach Pandl wrote in a note to clients this week that the cryptocurrency could top $100,000 in the next five years. Pandl said he expects bitcoin’s share of the crypto market, currently about 41%, “will most likely rise over time as a byproduct of broader adoption of digital assets” and that the cryptocurrency will increasingly compete with gold as a hedge against inflation.
$1.9 trillion. That’s the value of all the world’s cryptocurrencies Saturday afternoon, down more than $300 billion, or 14%, since Wednesday and more than $1 trillion below an all-time high of $3 trillion in November. Over the last five years, bitcoin prices have skyrocketed about 4,300%.
I’m a senior reporter at Forbes focusing on markets and finance. I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I double-majored in business journalism and economics while working for UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School as a marketing and communications assistant. Before Forbes, I spent a summer reporting on the L.A. private sector for Los Angeles Business Journal and wrote about publicly traded North Carolina companies for NC Business News Wire. Reach out at email@example.com. And follow me on Twitter @Jon_Ponciano
Just weeks after hackers managed to breach iOS 15 security measures and hack an Apple iPhone 13 Pro, now it’s the turn of Samsung’s current flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S21, to feel the hacking heat.
Unfortunately, like the iPhone 13 Pro before it, the Galaxy S21 has been hacked not once but twice. Indeed, within just a few days, hackers were able to demonstrate a total of 61 unique zero-day security flaws across a range of products and make themselves a whopping $1,081,250 in the process. Here’s how it all went down.
Over the weekend of 16-17 October, Chinese hackers taking part in the annual Tianfu Cup hacking challenge were able to bypass Safari security protections and achieve remote code execution on an iPhone 13 Pro running the fully patched iOS 15.0.2 at the time. What’s more, a different team of hackers went on to jailbreak the same flagship device by way of a ‘one-click’ attack.
The Tianfu Cup came about after China’s elite ethical hackers were banned by the Chinese government from taking part in international competitive hacking events where zero-day exploits are demonstrated. Zero-day exploits target a vulnerability that is unknown to the vendor and, therefore, cannot be stopped immediately.
The most popular hacking event is Pwn2Own (pronounce the ‘pwn’ bit like the ‘own’ bit, you’re welcome), organized by Trend Micro’s Zero Day Initiative, ZDI, and held twice a year in North America.
Pwn2Own hackers use exploit chains to hack Samsung Galaxy S21
It would have been three times, but one of the hacking teams was unable to successfully execute their zero-day exploit in the allotted timeframe.
However, on Wednesday, 3 November, the STARLabs team used an exploit chain to successfully attack the Samsung Galaxy S21. Officially, this was categorized as a ‘collision’ rather than an outright success as that attack chain included a vulnerability that was already known to Samsung rather than being a full zero-day chain.
On Thursday, 4 November, Sam Thomas, director of research at Pentest Limited, was able to get code execution on the Samsung Galaxy S21 using a three-bug chain that earned a full success label. It also earned the Pentest Limited team a $50,000 cash prize. The STARLabs team were awarded $25,000 for their hacking efforts. The successful hackers also get to keep the devices concerned in what ZDI called ‘the shipping of everything pwned to those who owned.’
Considering that this is the second Pwn2Own hacking event this year, if you combine the two, more than $2 million has been awarded. As far as Pwn2Own Austin was concerned, there could be only one winner. Well, two if you count security in general. It was a close call between the top three hacking teams, with STARLabs third on 12 ‘Master of Pwn’ points and a cash haul of $112,500. However, the top two were neck and neck, with DEVCORE in second on 18 points and $180,000 earned, just behind the Synacktiv team with 20 points and $197,500.
Where were all the ‘wow factor’ hacking targets?
It’s true to say that Pwn2Own Austin lacked wow factor targets, if not wow factor money, at least when compared to the Tianfu Cup. Alongside the Samsung Galaxy S21 smartphone, Pwn2Own also saw a Sonos One Speaker fall (earning the Synacktiv team a cool $60,000 in the process), but otherwise, it was a bunch of routers and printers.
Not that these aren’t worthy products to target, and once the impacted vendors have patched the vulnerabilities exposed (they have 120 days before the methodologies are publicly disclosed), users will be that bit more secure. However, the Chinese event went full out for dramatic impact with Microsoft Windows 10 and Google Chrome getting pwned.
Indeed, it was disappointing not to see any of the new iPhone 13 range running iOS 15.1, or the latest Google Pixel 6, up for hacker inspection. I asked Brian Gorenc, senior director of vulnerability research and head of the ZDI program at Trend Micro, why this was.
“When we announced the contest, we included the latest handsets available from each vendor,” Gorenc says. Since that time, although Apple and Google both released new smartphones, “these new models weren’t available to all of our researchers,” he explains, “so we continued with the hardware versions we initially announced.” It’s still something of a shame to see only the Samsung Galaxy S21 being put to the test, it has to be said.
While I had the opportunity, I also asked Gorenc about his view of the Tianfu Cup and how the withdrawal of the hugely successful Chinese hacking teams had impacted Pwn2Own?
“When Chinese teams withdrew from our competition, we did see an initial drop in participation,” Gorenc says, “however, their exclusion has actually opened the door for other researchers.” Indeed, he says that Pwn2Own Austin is the largest Pwn2Own event ever with “more than double the number of entries than we are used to seeing.”
If anything, he adds, “the lack of teams from China has allowed independent researchers and other teams to have their own success and grow the contest to heights we never expected.” Indeed, the discovery of no less than 61 unique zero-days would appear to be a testament to that.
Gorenc wouldn’t be drawn into the more political debate surrounding China and how it is putting a ringfence around the domestic hacking community when it comes to discovering and disclosing zero-days. “We can’t speak to other contests, but at Pwn2Own, vendors are provided full details of the exploit minutes after the bug was demonstrated on stage,” he says. “Pwn2Own seeks to harden platforms by revealing vulnerabilities and providing that research to the vendors,” Gorenc says, concluding, “the goal is always to get these bugs fixed before they’re actively exploited by attackers.”
I have reached out to Samsung to get an idea when Galaxy S21 users can expect to see these vulnerabilities patched and will update this article in due course.
Davey is a three-decade veteran technology journalist and has been a contributing editor at PC Pro magazine since the first issue in 1994. A co-founder of the Forbes Straight Talking Cyber video project, which has been named ‘Most Educational Content’ at the 2021 European Cybersecurity Blogger Awards, Davey also won the 2020 Security Serious ‘Cyber Writer of the Year’ title. A three-time winner of the BT Security Journalist of the Year award (2006, 2008, 2010) I was also fortunate enough to be named BT Technology Journalist of the Year in 1996 for a forward-looking feature in PC Pro called ‘Threats to the Internet.’ In 2011 I was honored with the Enigma Award for a lifetime contribution to IT security journalism. Contact me in confidence at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a story to reveal or research to share.
In September 2019, my colleague Anna Kapinska gave a presentation showing interesting objects she’d found while browsing our new radio astronomical data. She had started noticing very weird shapes she couldn’t fit easily to any known type of object.
Among them, labelled by Anna as WTF?, was a picture of a ghostly circle of radio emission, hanging out in space like a cosmic smoke-ring. None of us had ever seen anything like it before, and we had no idea what it was. A few days later, our colleague Emil Lenc found a second one, even more spooky than Anna’s.
EMU plans to boldly probe parts of the Universe where no telescope has gone before. It can do so because ASKAP can survey large swathes of the sky very quickly, probing to a depth previously only reached in tiny areas of sky, and being especially sensitive to faint, diffuse objects like these.
Join our readers who subscribe to free evidence-based news
I predicted a couple of years ago this exploration of the unknown would probably make unexpected discoveries, which I called WTFs. But none of us expected to discover something so unexpected, so quickly. Because of the enormous data volumes, I expected the discoveries would be made using machine learning. But these discoveries were made with good old-fashioned eyeballing.
Our team searched the rest of the data by eye, and we found a few more of the mysterious round blobs. We dubbed them ORCs, which stands for “odd radio circles”. But the big question, of course, is: “what are they?”
At first we suspected an imaging artefact, perhaps generated by a software error. But we soon confirmed they are real, using other radio telescopes. We still have no idea how big or far away they are. They could be objects in our galaxy, perhaps a few light-years across, or they could be far away in the Universe and maybe millions of light years across.
When we look in images taken with optical telescopes at the position of ORCs, we see nothing. The rings of radio emission are probably caused by clouds of electrons, but why don’t we see anything in visible wavelengths of light? We don’t know, but finding a puzzle like this is the dream of every astronomer.
We have ruled out several possibilities for what ORCs might be.
Could they be supernova remnants, the clouds of debris left behind when a star in our galaxy explodes? No. They are far from most of the stars in the Milky Way and there are too many of them.
Could they be the rings of radio emission sometimes seen in galaxies undergoing intense bursts of star formation? Again, no. We don’t see any underlying galaxy that would be hosting the star formation.
Could they be the giant lobes of radio emission we see in radio galaxies, caused by jets of electrons squirting out from the environs of a supermassive black hole? Not likely, because the ORCs are very distinctly circular, unlike the tangled clouds we see in radio galaxies.
Could they be Einstein rings, in which radio waves from a distant galaxy are being bent into a circle by the gravitational field of a cluster of galaxies? Still no. ORCs are too symmetrical, and we don’t see a cluster at their centre.
A genuine mystery
In our paper about ORCs, which is forthcoming in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, we run through all the possibilities and conclude these enigmatic blobs don’t look like anything we already know about.
So we need to explore things that might exist but haven’t yet been observed, such as a vast shockwave from some explosion in a distant galaxy. Such explosions may have something to do with fast radio bursts, or the neutron star and black hole collisions that generate gravitational waves.
Or perhaps they are something else entirely. Two Russian scientists have even suggested ORCs might be the “throats” of wormholes in spacetime.
From the handful we’ve found so far, we estimate there are about 1,000 ORCs in the sky. My colleague Bärbel Koribalski notes the search is now on, with telescopes around the world, to find more ORCs and understand their cause.
It’s a tricky job, because ORCS are very faint and difficult to find. Our team is brainstorming all these ideas and more, hoping for the eureka moment when one of us, or perhaps someone else, suddenly has the flash of inspiration that solves the puzzle.
It’s an exciting time for us. Most astronomical research is aimed at refining our knowledge of the Universe, or testing theories. Very rarely do we get the challenge of stumbling across a new type of object which nobody has seen before, and trying to figure out what it is.
Is it a completely new phenomenon, or something we already know about but viewed in a weird way? And if it really is completely new, how does that change our understanding of the Universe? Watch this space!
By: Ray Norris Professor, School of Science, Western Sydney University
A new study using observations from NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope reveals the first clear-cut evidence that the expanding debris of exploded stars produces some of the fastest-moving matter in the universe. This discovery is a major step toward meeting one of Fermi’s primary mission goals. Cosmic rays are subatomic particles that move through space at nearly the speed of light. About 90 percent of them are protons, with the remainder consisting of electrons and atomic nuclei.
In their journey across the galaxy, the electrically charged particles become deflected by magnetic fields. This scrambles their paths and makes it impossible to trace their origins directly. Through a variety of mechanisms, these speedy particles can lead to the emission of gamma rays, the most powerful form of light and a signal that travels to us directly from its sources. Two supernova remnants, known as IC 443 and W44, are expanding into cold, dense clouds of interstellar gas.
This material emits gamma rays when struck by high-speed particles escaping the remnants. Scientists have been unable to ascertain which particle is responsible for this emission because cosmic-ray protons and electrons give rise to gamma rays with similar energies. Now, after analyzing four years of data, Fermi scientists see a gamma-ray feature from both remnants that, like a fingerprint, proves the culprits are protons. When cosmic-ray protons smash into normal protons, they produce a short-lived particle called a neutral pion.
The pion quickly decays into a pair of gamma rays. This emission falls within a specific band of energies associated with the rest mass of the neutral pion, and it declines steeply toward lower energies. Detecting this low-end cutoff is clear proof that the gamma rays arise from decaying pions formed by protons accelerated within the supernova remnants. This video is public domain and can be downloaded at: http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/goto?11209 Like our videos? Subscribe to NASA’s Goddard Shorts HD podcast: http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/vis/iTunes/f… Or find NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/NASA.GSFC Or find us on Twitter: http://twitter.com/NASAGoddard