Flash Physics: Salty life on Mars, predicting molecular properties and a new head for NASA science

Salt mine could help shed light on Martian life

Photograph of Peter Edwards and colleagues using a Raman spectrometer in Boulby mine
Salty shapes: Peter Edwards and colleagues use a Raman spectrometer in Boulby mine

In a bid to determine if there is – or has ever been – life on Mars, researchers in the UK are using Raman spectrometers to study environments on Earth that resemble the planet – including the Boulby salt mine in North Yorkshire. The team hopes to inform the European Space Agency’s 2020 ExoMars mission, which will land a rover on the Red Planet. The rover will be equipped with a host of instruments capable of analysing the composition and structure of material recovered from the near sub-surface of Mars. The researchers at the University of Leicester are part of a larger team that is developing a camera system for the rover’s one Raman spectrometer. Leicester’s Peter Edwards is looking into optimizing its performance by studying various types of samples recovered from extreme environments on Earth. “Parts of Mars are quite similar to the salty environment deep underground at Boulby,” he says, adding: “In these areas we see polygons marked out in the ground similar in some ways to those seen on Mars.”

A better way of predicting molecular properties

A new way of calculating the energy needed to break a molecule into its constituent atoms has been created by Jannis Erhard, Patrick Bleiziffer and Andreas Görling at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany. Building on an established computational technique called density functional theory (DFT), the new “power series approximation” (PSA) method improves on how quantum-mechanical interactions between electrons are modelled. PSA models these interactions in terms of three parameters that are derived by fitting them to a set of known binding energies for small molecules. The team was then able to use these parameters to make accurate calculations of several properties of other molecules. While PSA is more accurate than other DFT-based techniques, it is not as good as an alternative method called “coupled cluster single double (triple)” CCSD(T). However, PSA uses just 10% of the computational resources required by CCSD(T). If PSA is able to calculate the properties of technological materials such as semiconductors, it could be used to predict how to make better solar cells, batteries and other devices. The technique is described in Physical Review Letters.

New head for NASA science

Solar physicist Thomas Zurbuchen
Taking the reins: solar physicist Thomas Zurbuchen

Solar physicist Thomas Zurbuchen has been named the new associate administrator for NASA’s science-mission directorate. Zurbuchen, who is based at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, will begin the role on 3 October. Although he has never worked at NASA, Zurbuchen has been involved with a number of NASA science missions such as Ulysses, the MESSENGER spacecraft to Mercury and the Advanced Composition Explorer. Zurbuchen earned his PhD in physics at the University of Bern in 1996, after which he joined the University of Michigan. He succeeds John Grunsfeld, who retired from NASA in April.

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