In the dead of a Martian winter, clouds of snow blanket the Red Planet's poles -- but unlike our water-based snow, the particles on Mars are frozen crystals of carbon dioxide. Most of the Martian atmosphere is composed of carbon dioxide, and in the winter, the poles get so cold -- cold enough to freeze alcohol -- that the gas condenses, forming tiny particles of snow. Now researchers at MIT have calculated the size of snow particles in clouds at both Martian poles from data gathered by orbiting spacecraft. From their calculations, the group found snow particles in the south are slightly smaller than snow in the north -- but particles at both poles are about the size of a red blood cell. "These are very fine particles, not big flakes," says Kerri Cahoy, the Boeing Career Development Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. If the carbon dioxide particles were eventually to fall and settle on the Martian surface, "you would probably see it as a fog, because they're so small." Cahoy and graduate student Renyu Hu worked with Maria Zuber, the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics at MIT, to analyze vast libraries of data gathered from instruments onboard the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). From the data, they determined the size of carbon dioxide snow particles in clouds, using measurements of the maximum buildup of surface snow at both poles. The buildup is about 50 percent larger at Mars' south pole than its north pole. Over the course of a Martian year (a protracted 687 days, versus Earth's 365), the researchers observed that as it gets colder and darker from fall to winter, snow clouds expand from the planet's poles toward its equator. The snow reaches halfway to the equator before shrinking back toward the poles as winter turns to spring, much like on Earth. "For the first time, using only spacecraft data, we really revealed this phenomenon on Mars," says Hu, lead author of a paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, which details the group's results. Diving through data To get an accurate picture of carbon dioxide condensation on Mars, Hu analyzed an immense amount of data, including temperature and pressure profiles taken by the MRO every 30 seconds over the course of five Martian years (more than nine years on Earth). The researchers looked through the data to see where and when conditions would allow carbon dioxide cloud particles to form. The team also sifted through measurements from the MGS' laser altimeter, which measured the topography of the planet by sending laser pulses to the surface, then timing how long it took for the beams to bounce back. Every once in a while, the instrument picked up a strange signal when the beam bounced back faster than anticipated, reflecting off an anomalously high point above the planet's surface. Scientists figured these laser beams had encountered clouds in the atmosphere. Hu analyzed these cloud returns, looking for additional evidence to confirm carbon dioxide condensation. He looked at every case where a cloud was detected, then tried to match the laser altimeter data with concurrent data on local temperature and pressure. In 11 instances, the laser altimeter detected clouds when temperature and pressure conditions were ripe for carbon dioxide to condense. Hu then analyzed the opacity of each cloud -- the amount of light reflected -- and through calculations, determined the density of carbon dioxide in each cloud. To estimate the total mass of carbon dioxide snow deposited at both poles, Hu used earlier measurements of seasonal variations in the Martian gravitational field done by Zuber's group: As snow piles up at Mars' poles each winter, the planet's gravitational field changes by a tiny amount. By analyzing the gravitational difference through the seasons, the researchers determined the total mass of snow at the north and south poles. Using the total mass, Hu figured out the number of snow particles in a given volume of snow cover, and from that, determined the size of the particles. In the north, molecules of condensed carbon dioxide ranged from 8 to 22 microns, while particles in the south were a smaller 4 to 13 microns. "It's neat to think that we've had spacecraft on or around Mars for over 10 years, and we have all these great datasets," Cahoy says. "If you put different pieces of them together, you can learn something new just from the data." What can the size of snow tell us? Hu says knowing the size of carbon dioxide snow cloud particles on Mars may help researchers understand the properties and behavior of dust in the planet's atmosphere. For snow to form, carbon dioxide requires something around which to condense -- for instance, a small silicate or dust particle. "What kinds of dust do you need to have this kind of condensation?" Hu asks. "Do you need tiny dust particles? Do you need a water coating around that dust to facilitate cloud formation?" Just as snow on Earth affects the way heat is distributed around the planet, Hu says snow particles on Mars may have a similar effect, reflecting sunlight in various ways, depending on the size of each particle. "They could be completely different in their contribution to the energy budget of the planet," Hu says. "These datasets could be used to study many problems." This research was funded by the Radio Science Gravity investigation of the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission.
The formation of small worlds like Earth previously was thought to occur mostly around stars rich in heavy elements such as iron and silicon. However, new ground-based observations, combined with data collected by NASA's Kepler space telescope, show small planets form around stars with a wide range of heavy element content and suggest they may be widespread in our galaxy. A research team led by Lars A. Buchhave, an astrophysicist at the Niels Bohr Institute and the Centre for Star and Planet Formation at the University of Copenhagen, studied the elemental composition of more than 150 stars harboring 226 planet candidates smaller than Neptune. "I wanted to investigate whether small planets needed a special environment in order to form, like the giant gas planets, which we know preferentially develop in environments with a high content of heavy elements," said Buchhave. "This study shows that small planets do not discriminate and form around stars with a wide range of heavy metal content, including stars with only 25 percent of the sun's metallicity." Astronomers refer to all chemical elements heavier than hydrogen and helium as metals. They define metallicity as the metal content of heavier elements in a star. Stars with a higher fraction of heavy elements than the sun are considered metal-rich. Stars with a lower fraction of heavy elements are considered metal-poor. Planets are created in disks of gas and dust around new stars. Planets like Earth are composed almost entirely of elements such as iron, oxygen, silicon and magnesium. The metallicity of a star mirrors the metal content of the planet-forming disk. Astronomers have hypothesized that large quantities of heavy elements in the disk would lead to more efficient planet formation. It has long been noted that giant planets with short orbital periods tend to be associated with metal-rich stars. Unlike gas giants, the occurrence of smaller planets is not strongly dependent on the heavy element content of their host stars. Planets up to four times the size of Earth can form around stars with a wide range of heavy element content, including stars with a lower metallicity than the sun. The findings are described in a new study published in the journal Nature. "Kepler has identified thousands of planet candidates, making it possible to study big-picture questions like the one posed by Lars. Does nature require special environments to form Earth-size planets?" said Natalie Batalha, Kepler mission scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. "The data suggest that small planets may form around stars with a wide range of metallicities -- that nature is opportunistic and prolific, finding pathways we might otherwise have thought difficult." The ground-based spectroscopic observations for this study were made at the Nordic Optical Telescope on La Palma in the Canary Islands; Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory on Mt. Hopkins in Arizona; McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas at Austin; and W.M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Launched in March 2009, Kepler searches for planets by continuously monitoring more than 150,000 stars, looking for telltale dips in their brightness caused by passing, or transiting, planets. At least three transits are required to verify a signal as a planet. Follow-up observations from ground-based telescopes are also needed to confirm a candidate as a planet. Ames manages Kepler's ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed the Kepler mission development. JPL is managed by the California Institute of Technology, also in Pasadena, for NASA. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA's 10th Discovery Mission and is funded by NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington.
Human-derived stem cells can spontaneously form the tissue that develops into the part of the eye that allows us to see, according to a study published by Cell Press in the 5th anniversary issue of the journal Cell Stem Cell. Transplantation of this 3D tissue in the future could help patients with visual impairments see clearly. "This is an important milestone for a new generation of regenerative medicine," says senior study author Yoshiki Sasai of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology. "Our approach opens a new avenue to the use of human stem cell-derived complex tissues for therapy, as well as for other medical studies related to pathogenesis and drug discovery." During development, light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye, called the retina, forms from a structure known as the optic cup. In the new study, this structure spontaneously emerged from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) -- cells derived from human embryos that are capable of developing into a variety of tissues -- thanks to the cell culture methods optimized by Sasai and his team. The hESC-derived cells formed the correct 3D shape and the two layers of the optic cup, including a layer containing a large number of light-responsive cells called photoreceptors. Because retinal degeneration primarily results from damage to these cells, the hESC-derived tissue could be ideal transplantation material. Beyond the clinical implications, the study will likely accelerate the acquisition of knowledge in the field of developmental biology. For instance, the hESC-derived optic cup is much larger than the optic cup that Sasai and collaborators previously derived from mouse embryonic stem cells, suggesting that these cells contain innate species-specific instructions for building this eye structure. "This study opens the door to understanding human-specific aspects of eye development that researchers were not able to investigate before," Sasai says. The anniversary issue containing Sasai's study will be given to each delegate attending the 2012 ISSCR meeting in Yokohama, Japan. To highlight the ISSCR meeting and showcase the strong advances made by Japanese scientists in the stem cell field, the issue will also feature two other papers from Japanese authors, including the research groups of Akira Onishi and Jun Yamashita. In addition, the issue contains a series of reviews and perspectives from worldwide leaders in stem cell research.