BOSTON — Long before anyone opened a bank account or rented a safe deposit box, wealth protection demanded a bit of guile and a broken beer jug. A 3,100-year-old jewelry stash was discovered in just such a vessel, unearthed from an ancient settlement in Israel called Megiddo in 2010. Now the find is providing clues to how affluent folk hoarded their valuables at a time when fortunes rested on fancy metalwork, not money.
At the fortress city of Megiddo, a high-ranking Canaanite family stashed jewelry in a beer jug and hid it in a courtyard’s corner under a bowl, possibly under a veil of cloth, Eran Arie of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, said November 17 at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research. The hoard’s owners removed the jug’s neck and inserted a bundle of 35 silver items, including earrings and a bracelet, which were wrapped in two linen cloths. Other valuables were then added to the jug, including around 1,300 beads of silver and electrum — an alloy of gold and silver — that had probably been threaded into an elaborate necklace. There were 10 additional pieces of electrum jewelry, including a pair of basket-shaped earrings, each displaying a carved, long-legged bird. A Canaanite city palace stood only about 30 meters from the Iron Age building that housed the courtyard, Arie said. Due to the lesser building’s strategic location, its inhabitants must have held key government positions, he proposed. “For the family that lived there, the hoard represented the lion’s share of their wealth.” Those family members presumably fled around the time the structure that held the jewelry hoard was destroyed in a catastrophic event, possibly a battle. The Megiddo hoard was hidden but not buried, giving its owners quick access to their valuables. But no one ever retrieved the treasure. “We will never know why no one returned to claim this hoard,” Arie said.
Artificial intelligence algorithms may soon bring the diagnostic know-how of an eye doctor to primary care offices and walk-in clinics, speeding up the detection of health problems and the start of treatment, especially in areas where specialized doctors are scarce. The first such program — trained to spot symptoms of diabetes-related vision loss in eye images — is pending approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
While other already approved AI programs help doctors examine medical images, there’s “not a specialist looking over the shoulder of [this] algorithm,” says Michael Abràmoff, who founded and heads a company that developed the system under FDA review, dubbed IDx-DR. “It makes the clinical decision on its own.” IDx-DR and similar AI programs, which are learning to predict everything from age-related sight loss to heart problems just by looking at eye images, don’t follow preprogrammed guidelines for how to diagnose a disease. They’re machine-learning algorithms that researchers teach to recognize symptoms of a particular condition, using example images labeled with whether or not that patient had that condition. IDx-DR studied over 1 million eye images to learn how to recognize symptoms of diabetic retinopathy, a condition that develops when high blood sugar damages retinal blood vessels (SN Online: 6/29/10). Between 12,000 and 24,000 people in the United States lose their vision to diabetic retinopathy each year, but the condition can be treated if caught early. Researchers compared how well IDx-DR detected diabetic retinopathy in more than 800 U.S. patients with diagnoses made by three human specialists. Of the patients identified by IDx-DR as having at least moderate diabetic retinopathy, more than 85 percent actually did. And of the patients IDx-DR ruled as having mild or no diabetic retinopathy, more than 82.5 percent actually did, researchers reported February 22 at the annual meeting of the Macula Society in Beverly Hills, Calif.
IDx-DR is on the fast-track to FDA clearance, and a decision is expected within a few months, says Abràmoff, a retinal specialist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. If approved, it would become the first autonomous AI to be used in primary care offices and clinics.
AI algorithms to diagnose other eye diseases are in the works, too. An AI described February 22 in Cell studied over 100,000 eye images to learn the signs of several eye conditions. These included age-related macular degeneration, or AMD — a leading cause of vision loss in adults over 50 — and diabetic macular edema, a condition that develops from diabetic retinopathy.
This AI was designed to flag advanced AMD or diabetic macular edema for urgent treatment, and to refer less severe cases for routine checkups. In tests, the algorithm was 96.6 percent accurate in diagnosing eye conditions from 1,000 pictures. Six ophthalmologists made similar referrals based on the same eye images.
Researchers still need to test how this algorithm fares in the real world where the quality of images may vary from clinic to clinic, says Aaron Lee, an ophthalmologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. But this kind of AI could be especially useful in rural and developing regions where medical resources and specialists are scarce and people otherwise wouldn’t have easy access to in-person eye exams.
AI might also be able to use eye pictures to identify other kinds of health problems. One algorithm that studied retinal images from over 284,000 patients could predict cardiovascular health risk factors such as high blood pressure.
The algorithm was 71 percent accurate in distinguishing eye images between smoking and nonsmoking patients, according to a report February 19 in Nature Biomedical Engineering. And it predicted which patients would have a major cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack, within the next five years 70 percent of the time.
With AI getting more adept at screening for a growing list of conditions, “some people might be concerned that this is machines taking over” health care, says Caroline Baumal, an ophthalmologist at Tufts University in Boston. But diagnostic AI can’t replace the human touch. “Doctors will still need to be there to see patients and treat patients and talk to patients,” Baumal says. AI will just help people who need treatment get it faster.
The seeds for Martian clouds may come from the dusty tails of comets.
Charged particles, or ions, of magnesium from the cosmic dust can trigger the formation of tiny ice crystals that help form clouds, a new analysis of Mars’ atmosphere suggests.
For more than a decade, rovers and orbiters have captured images of Martian skies with wispy clouds made of carbon dioxide ice. But “it hasn’t been easy to explain where they come from,” says chemist John Plane of the University of Leeds in England. The cloud-bearing layer of the atmosphere is between –120° and –140° Celsius — too warm for carbon dioxide clouds to form on their own, which can happen at about –220° C. Then in 2017, NASA’s MAVEN orbiter detected a layer of magnesium ions hovering about 90 kilometers above the Martian surface (SN: 4/29/17, p. 20). Scientists think the magnesium, and possibly other metals not yet detected, comes from cosmic dust left by passing comets. The dust vaporizes as it hits the atmosphere, leaving a sprinkling of metals suspended in the air. Earth has a similar layer of atmospheric metals, but none had been observed elsewhere in the solar system before.
According to the new calculations, the bits of magnesium clump with carbon dioxide gas — which makes up about 95 percent of Mars’ atmosphere — to produce magnesium carbonate molecules. These larger, charged molecules could attract the atmosphere’s sparse water, creating what Plane calls “dirty” ice crystals.
At the temperatures seen in Mars’ cloud layer, pure carbon dioxide ice crystals are too small to gather clouds around them. But clouds could form around dirty ice at temperatures as high as –123° C, Plane and colleagues report online March 6 in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.
Earthquake warning systems face a tough trade-off: To give enough time to take cover or shut down emergency systems, alerts may need to go out before it’s clear how strong the quake will be. And that raises the risk of false alarms, undermining confidence in any warning system.
A new study aims to quantify the best-case scenario for warning time from a hypothetical earthquake early warning system. The result? There is no magic formula for deciding when to issue an alert, the researchers report online March 21 in Science Advances. “We have a choice when issuing earthquake warnings,” says study leader Sarah Minson, a seismologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, or USGS, in Menlo Park, Calif. “You have to think about your relative risk appetite: What is the cost of taking action versus the cost of the damage you’re trying to prevent?”
For locations far from a large quake’s origin, waiting for clear signs of risk before sending an alert may mean waiting too long for people to be able to take protective action. But for those tasked with managing critical infrastructure, such as airports, trains or nuclear power plants, an early warning even if false may be preferable to an alert coming too late (SN: 4/19/14, p. 16).
Alerts issued by earthquake early warning systems, called EEWs, are based on several parameters: the depth and location of the quake’s origin, its estimated magnitude and the ground properties, such as the types of soil and rock that seismic waves would travel through.
“The trick to earthquake early warning systems is that it’s a misnomer,” Minson says. Such systems don’t warn that a quake is imminent. Instead, they alert people that a quake has already happened, giving them precious seconds — perhaps a minute or two — to prepare for imminent ground shaking. Estimating magnitude turns out to be a sticking point. It is impossible to distinguish a powerful earthquake in its earliest stages from a small, weak quake, according to a 2016 study by a team of researchers that included Men-Andrin Meier, a seismologist at Caltech who also coauthors the new study. Estimating magnitude for larger quakes also takes more time, because the rupture of the fault lasts perhaps several seconds longer – a significant chunk of time when it comes to EEW. And there is a trade-off in terms of distance: For locations farther away, there is less certainty the shaking will reach that far. In the new study, Minson, Meier and colleagues used standard ground-motion prediction equations to calculate the minimum quake magnitude that would produce shaking at any distance. Then, they calculated how quickly an EEW could estimate whether the quake would exceed that minimum magnitude to qualify for an alert. Finally, the team estimated how long it would take for the shaking to strike a location. Ultimately, they determined, EEW holds the greatest benefit for users who are willing to take action early, even with the risk of false alarms. The team hopes its paper provides a framework to help emergency response managers make those decisions.
EEWs are already in operation around the world, from Mexico to Japan. USGS, in collaboration with researchers and universities, has been developing the ShakeAlert system for the earthquake-prone U.S. West Coast. It is expected be rolled out this year, although plans for future expansion may be in jeopardy: President Trump’s proposed 2019 budget cuts the USGS program’s $8.2 million in funding. It’s unclear whether Congress will spare those funds.
The value of any alert system will ultimately depend on whether it fulfills its objective — getting people to take cover swiftly in order to save lives. “More than half of injuries from past earthquakes are associated with things falling on people,” says Richard Allen, a seismologist at the University of California, Berkeley who was not involved in the new study. “A few seconds of warning can more than halve the number of injuries.”
But the researchers acknowledge there is a danger in issuing too many false alarms. People may become complacent and ignore future warnings. “We are playing a precautionary game,” Minson says. “It’s a warning system, not a guarantee.”
When you’re stressed and anxious, you might feel your heart race. Is your heart racing because you’re afraid? Or does your speeding heart itself contribute to your anxiety? Both could be true, a new study in mice suggests.
By artificially increasing the heart rates of mice, scientists were able to increase anxiety-like behaviors — ones that the team then calmed by turning off a particular part of the brain. The study, published in the March 9 Nature, shows that in high-risk contexts, a racing heart could go to your head and increase anxiety. The findings could offer a new angle for studying and, potentially, treating anxiety disorders. The idea that body sensations might contribute to emotions in the brain goes back at least to one of the founders of psychology, William James, says Karl Deisseroth, a neuroscientist at Stanford University. In James’ 1890 book The Principles of Psychology, he put forward the idea that emotion follows what the body experiences. “We feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble,” James wrote.
The brain certainly can sense internal body signals, a phenomenon called interoception. But whether those sensations — like a racing heart — can contribute to emotion is difficult to prove, says Anna Beyeler, a neuroscientist at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Bordeaux. She studies brain circuitry related to emotion and wrote a commentary on the new study but was not involved in the research. “I’m sure a lot of people have thought of doing these experiments, but no one really had the tools,” she says.
Deisseroth has spent his career developing those tools. He is one of the scientists who developed optogenetics — a technique that uses viruses to modify the genes of specific cells to respond to bursts of light (SN: 6/18/21; SN: 1/15/10). Scientists can use the flip of a light switch to activate or suppress the activity of those cells. In the new study, Deisseroth and his colleagues used a light attached to a tiny vest over a mouse’s genetically engineered heart to change the animal’s heart rate. When the light was off, a mouse’s heart pumped at about 600 beats per minute. But when the team turned on a light that flashed at 900 beats per minutes, the mouse’s heartbeat followed suit. “It’s a nice reasonable acceleration, [one a mouse] would encounter in a time of stress or fear,” Deisseroth explains.
When the mice felt their hearts racing, they showed anxiety-like behavior. In risky scenarios — like open areas where a little mouse might be someone’s lunch — the rodents slunk along the walls and lurked in darker corners. When pressing a lever for water that could sometimes be coupled with a mild shock, mice with normal heart rates still pressed without hesitation. But mice with racing hearts decided they’d rather go thirsty.
“Everybody was expecting that, but it’s the first time that it has been clearly demonstrated,” Beyeler says. The researchers also scanned the animals’ brains to find areas that might be processing the increased heart rate. One of the biggest signals, Deisseroth says, came from the posterior insula (SN: 4/25/16). “The insula was interesting because it’s highly connected with interoceptive circuitry,” he explains. “When we saw that signal, [our] interest was definitely piqued.”
Using more optogenetics, the team reduced activity in the posterior insula, which decreased the mice’s anxiety-like behaviors. The animals’ hearts still raced, but they behaved more normally, spending some time in open areas of mazes and pressing levers for water without fear. A lot of people are very excited about the work, says Wen Chen, the branch chief of basic medicine research for complementary and integrative health at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health in Bethesda, Md. “No matter what kind of meetings I go into, in the last two days, everybody brought up this paper,” says Chen, who wasn’t involved in the research.
The next step, Deisseroth says, is to look at other parts of the body that might affect anxiety. “We can feel it in our gut sometimes, or we can feel it in our neck or shoulders,” he says. Using optogenetics to tense a mouse’s muscles, or give them tummy butterflies, might reveal other pathways that produce fearful or anxiety-like behaviors.
Understanding the link between heart and head could eventually factor into how doctors treat panic and anxiety, Beyeler says. But the path between the lab and the clinic, she notes, is much more convoluted than that of the heart to the head.
An experimental treatment for endometriosis, a painful gynecological disease that affects some 190 million people worldwide, may one day offer new hope for easing symptoms.
Monthly antibody injections reversed telltale signs of endometriosis in monkeys, researchers report February 22 in Science Translational Medicine. The antibody targets IL-8, a molecule that whips up inflammation inside the scattered, sometimes bleeding lesions that mark the disease. After neutralizing IL-8, those hallmark lesions shrink, the team found.
The new treatment is “pretty potent,” says Philippa Saunders, a reproductive scientist at the University of Edinburgh who was not involved with work. The study’s authors haven’t reported a cure, she points out, but their antibody does seem to have an impact. “I think it’s really very promising,” she says.
Many scientists think endometriosis occurs when bits of the uterine lining — the endometrium — slough off during menstruation. Instead of exiting via the vagina, they voyage in the other direction: up through the fallopian tubes. Those bits of tissue then trespass through the body, sprouting lesions where they land. They’ll glom onto the ovaries, fallopian tubes, bladder and other spots outside of the uterus and take on a life of their own, Saunders says. The lesions can grow nerve cells, form tough nubs of tissue and even bleed during menstrual cycles. They can also kick off chronic bouts of pelvic pain. If you have endometriosis, you can experience “pain when you urinate, pain when you defecate, pain when you have sex, pain when you move around,” Saunders says. People with the disease can also struggle with infertility and depression, she adds. “It’s really nasty.” Once diagnosed, patients face a dearth of treatment options — there’s no cure, only therapies to alleviate symptoms. Surgery to remove lesions can help, but symptoms often come back.
The disease affects at least 10 percent of girls, women and transgender men in their reproductive years, Saunders says. And people typically suffer for years — about eight on average — before a diagnosis. “Doctors consider menstrual pelvic pain a very common thing,” says Ayako Nishimoto-Kakiuchi, a pharmacologist at Chugai Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. in Tokyo. Endometriosis “is underestimated in the clinic,” she says. “I strongly believe that this disease has been understudied.”
Hormonal drugs that stop ovulation and menstruation can also offer relief, says Serdar Bulun, a reproductive endocrinologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago not involved with the new study. But those drugs come with side effects and aren’t ideal for people trying to become pregnant. “I see these patients day in and day out,” he says. “I see how much they suffer, and I feel like we are not doing enough.”
Nishimoto-Kakiuchi’s team engineered an antibody that grabs onto the inflammatory factor IL-8, a protein that scientists have previously fingered as one potential culprit in the disease. The antibody acts like a garbage collector, Nishimoto-Kakiuchi says. It grabs IL-8, delivers it to the cell’s waste disposal machinery, and then heads out to snare more IL-8.
The team tested the antibody in cynomolgus monkeys that were surgically modified to have the disease. (Endometriosis rarely shows up spontaneously in these monkeys, the scientists discovered previously after screening more than 600 females.) The team treated 11 monkeys with the antibody injection once a month for six months. In these animals, lesions shriveled and the adhesive tissue that glues them to the body thinned out, too. Before this study, Nishimoto-Kakiuchi says, the team didn’t think such signs of endometriosis were reversible. Her company has now started a Phase I clinical trial to test the safety of therapy in humans. The treatment is one of several endometriosis therapies scientists are testing (SN: 7/19/19) . Other trials will test new hormonal drugs, robot-assisted surgery and behavioral interventions.
Doctors need new options to help people with the disease, Saunders says. “There’s a huge unmet clinical need.”
SpaceX’s rapidly growing fleet of Starlink internet satellites now make up half of all active satellites in Earth orbit.
On February 27, the aerospace company launched 21 new satellites to join its broadband internet Starlink fleet. That brought the total number of active Starlink satellites to 3,660, or about 50 percent of the nearly 7,300 active satellites in orbit, according to analysis by astronomer Jonathan McDowell using data from SpaceX and the U.S. Space Force. “These big low-orbit internet constellations have come from nowhere in 2019, to dominating the space environment in 2023,” says McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. “It really is a massive shift and a massive industrialization of low orbit.”
SpaceX has been launching Starlink satellites since 2019 with the goal of bringing broadband internet to remote parts of the globe. And for just as long, astronomers have been warning that the bright satellites could mess up their view of the cosmos by leaving streaks on telescope images as they glide past (SN: 3/12/20).
Even the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits more than 500 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, is vulnerable to these satellite streaks, as well as those from other satellite constellations. From 2002 to 2021, the percentage of Hubble images affected by light from low-orbit satellites increased by about 50 percent, astronomer Sandor Kruk of the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, and colleagues report March 2 in Nature Astronomy.
The number of images partially blocked by satellites is still small, the team found, rising from nearly 3 percent of images taken between 2002 and 2005 to just over 4 percent between 2018 and 2021 for one of Hubble’s cameras. But there are already thousands more Starlink satellites now than there were in 2021.
“The fraction of [Hubble] images crossed by satellites is currently small with a negligible impact on science,” Kruk and colleagues write. “However, the number of satellites and space debris will only increase in the future.” The team predicts that by the 2030s, the probability of a satellite crossing Hubble’s field of view any time it takes an image will be between 20 and 50 percent. The sudden jump in Starlink satellites also poses a problem for space traffic, says astronomer Samantha Lawler of the University of Regina in Canada. Starlink satellites all orbit at a similar distance from Earth, just above 500 kilometers.
“Starlink is the densest patch of space that has ever existed,” Lawler says. The satellites are constantly navigating out of each other’s way to avoid collisions (SN: 2/12/09). And it’s a popular orbital altitude — Hubble is there, and so is the International Space Station and the Chinese space station. “If there is some kind of collision [between Starlinks], some kind of mishap, it could immediately affect human lives,” Lawler says.
SpaceX launches Starlink satellites roughly once per week — it launched 51 more on March 3. And they’re not the only company launching constellations of internet satellites. By the 2030s, there could be 100,000 satellites crowding low Earth orbit.
So far, there are no international regulations to curb the number of satellites a private company can launch or to limit which orbits they can occupy.
“The speed of commercial development is much faster than the speed of regulation change,” McDowell says. “There needs to be an overhaul of space traffic management and space regulation generally to cope with these massive commercial projects.”
The oldest known fossils of pollen-laden insects are of earwig-like ground-dwellers that lived in what is now Russia about 280 million years ago, researchers report. Their finding pushes back the fossil record of insects transporting pollen from one plant to another, a key aspect of modern-day pollination, by about 120 million years.
The insects — from a pollen-eating genus named Tillyardembia first described in 1937 — were typically about 1.5 centimeters long, says Alexander Khramov, a paleoentomologist at the Borissiak Paleontological Institute in Moscow. Flimsy wings probably kept the creatures mostly on the forest floor, he says, leaving them to climb trees to find and consume their pollen.
Recently, Khramov and his colleagues scrutinized 425 fossils of Tillyardembia in the institute’s collection. Six had clumps of pollen grains trapped on their heads, legs, thoraxes or abdomens, the team reports February 28 in Biology Letters. A proportion that small isn’t surprising, Khramov says, because the fossils were preserved in what started out as fine-grained sediments. The early stages of fossilization in such material would tend to wash away pollen from the insects’ remains. The pollen-laden insects had only a couple of types of pollen trapped on them, the team found, suggesting that the critters were very selective in the tree species they visited. “That sort of specialization is in line with potential pollinators,” says Michael Engel, a paleoentomologist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence who was not involved in the study. “There’s probably vast amounts of such specialization that occurred even before Tillyardembia, we just don’t have evidence of it yet.”
Further study of these fossils might reveal if Tillyardembia had evolved special pollen-trapping hairs or other such structures on their bodies or heads, says Conrad Labandeira, a paleoecologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., also not part of the study. It would also be interesting, he says, to see if something about the pollen helped it stick to the insects. If the pollen grains had structures that enabled them to clump more readily, for example, then those same features may have helped them grab Velcro-like onto any hairlike structures on the insects’ bodies.
Fungi may help some tree-killer beetles turn a tree’s natural defense system against itself.
The Eurasian spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus) has massacred millions of conifers in forests across Europe. Now, research suggests that fungi associated with these bark beetles are key players in the insect’s hostile takeovers. These fungi warp the chemical defenses of host trees to create an aroma that attracts beetles to burrow, researchers report February 21 in PLOS Biology.
This fungi-made perfume might explain why bark beetles tend to swarm the same tree. As climate change makes Europe’s forests more vulnerable to insect invasions, understanding this relationship could help scientists develop new countermeasures to ward off beetle attacks. Bark beetles are a type of insect found around the world that feed and breed inside trees (SN: 12/17/10). In recent years, several bark beetle species have aggressively attacked forests from North America to Australia, leaving ominous strands of dead trees in their wake.
But trees aren’t defenseless. Conifers — which include pine and fir trees — are veritable chemical weapons factories. The evergreen smell of Christmas trees and alpine forests comes from airborne varieties of these chemicals. But while they may smell delightful, these chemicals’ main purpose is to trap and poison invaders.
Or at least, that’s what they’re meant to do.
“Conifers are full of resin and other stuff that should do horrible things to insects,” says Jonathan Gershenzon, a chemical ecologist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany. “But bark beetles don’t seem to mind at all.”
This ability of bark beetles to overcome the powerful defense system of conifers has led some scientists to wonder if fungi might be helping. Fungi break down compounds in their environment for food and protection (SN: 11/30/21). And some type of fungi — including some species in the genus Grosmannia — are always found in association with Eurasian spruce bark beetles. Gershenzon and his colleagues compared the chemicals released by spruce bark infested with Grosmannia and other fungi to the chemical profile of uninfected trees. The presence of the fungi fundamentally changed the chemical profile of spruce trees, the team found. More than half the airborne chemicals — made by fungi breaking down monoterpenes and other chemicals that are likely part of the tree defense system — were unique to infected trees after 12 days.
This is surprising because researchers had previously assumed that invading fungi hardly changed the chemical profile of trees, says Jonathan Cale, a fungal ecologist at the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, Canada, who was not involved with the research. Later experiments revealed that bark beetles can detect many of these fungi-made chemicals. The team tested this by attaching tiny electrodes on bark beetles’ heads and detecting electrical activity when the chemicals wafted passed their antennae. What’s more, the smell of these chemicals combined with beetle pheromones led the insects to burrow at higher rates than the smell of pheromones alone.
The study suggests that these fungi-made chemicals can help beetles tell where to feed and breed, possibly by advertising that the fungi has taken down some of the tree’s defenses. The attractive nature of the chemicals could also explain the beetle’s swarming behavior, which drives the death of healthy adult trees.
But while the fungi aroma might doom trees, it could also lead to the beetles’ demise. Beetle traps in Europe currently use only beetle pheromones to attract their victims. Combining pheromones with fungi-derived chemicals might be the secret to entice more beetles into traps, making them more effective.
The results present “an exciting direction for developing new tools to manage destructive bark beetle outbreaks” for other beetle species as well, Cale says. In North America, mild winters and drought have put conifer forests at greater risk from mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus pendersoae) attacks. Finding and using fungi-derived chemicals might be one way to fend off the worst of the bark beetle invasions in years to come.
In August 2021 on a lonely crater floor, the newest Mars rover dug into one of its first rocks.
The percussive drill attached to the arm of the Perseverance rover scraped the dust and top several millimeters off a rocky outcrop in a 5-centimeter-wide circle. From just above, one of the rover’s cameras captured what looked like broken shards wedged against one another. The presence of interlocking crystal textures became obvious. Those textures were not what most of the scientists who had spent years preparing for the mission expected. Then the scientists watched on a video conference as the rover’s two spectrometers revealed the chemistry of those meshed textures. The visible shapes along with the chemical compositions showed that this rock, dubbed Rochette, was volcanic in origin. It was not made up of the layers of clay and silt that would be found at a former lake bed.
Nicknamed Percy, the rover arrived at the Jezero crater two years ago, on February 18, 2021, with its sidekick helicopter, Ingenuity. The most complex spacecraft to explore the Martian surface, Percy builds on the work of the Curiosity rover, which has been on Mars since 2012, the twin Spirit and Opportunity rovers, the Sojourner rover and other landers.
But Perseverance’s main purpose is different. While the earlier rovers focused on Martian geology and understanding the planet’s environment, Percy is looking for signs of past life. Jezero was picked for the Mars 2020 mission because it appears from orbit to be a former lake environment where microbes could have thrived, and its large delta would likely preserve any signs of them. Drilling, scraping and collecting pieces of the Red Planet, the rover is using its seven science instruments to analyze the bits for any hint of ancient life. It’s also collecting samples to return to Earth. Since landing, “we’ve been able to start putting together the story of what has happened in Jezero, and it’s pretty complex,” says Briony Horgan, a planetary scientist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., who helps plan Percy’s day-to-day and long-term operations.
Volcanic rock is just one of the surprises the rover has uncovered. Hundreds of researchers scouring the data Perseverance has sent back so far now have some clues to how the crater has evolved over time. This basin has witnessed flowing lava, at least one lake that lasted perhaps tens of thousands of years, running rivers that created a mud-and-sand delta and heavy flooding that brought rocks from faraway locales.
Jezero has a more dynamic past than scientists had anticipated. That volatility has slowed the search for sedimentary rocks, but it has also pointed to new alcoves where ancient life could have taken hold.
Perseverance has turned up carbon-bearing materials — the basis of life on Earth — in every sample it has abraded, Horgan says. “We’re seeing that everywhere.” And the rover still has much more to explore. Perseverance finds unexpected rocks Jezero is a shallow impact crater about 45 kilometers in diameter just north of the planet’s equator. The crater formed sometime between 3.7 billion and 4.1 billion years ago, in the solar system’s first billion years. It sits in an older and much larger impact basin known as Isidis. At Jezero’s western curve, an etched ancient riverbed gives way to a dried-out, fan-shaped delta on the crater floor.
That delta “is like this flashing signpost beautifully visible from orbit that tells us there was a standing body of water here,” says astrobiologist Ken Williford of Blue Marble Space Institute of Science in Seattle.
Perseverance landed on the crater floor about two kilometers from the front of the delta. Scientists thought they’d find compacted layers of soil and sand there, at the base of what they dubbed Lake Jezero. But the landscape immediately looked different than expected, says planetary geologist Kathryn Stack Morgan of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Stack Morgan is deputy project scientist for Perseverance. For the first several months after the landing, the Mars 2020 mission team tested the rover’s movements and instruments, slowly, carefully. But from the first real science drilling near the landing location, researchers back on Earth realized what they had found. The texture of the rock, Stack Morgan says, was “a textbook igneous volcanic rock texture.” It looked like volcanic lava flows.
Over the next six months, several more rocks on the crater floor revealed igneous texture. Some of the most exciting rocks, including Rochette, showed olivine crystals throughout. “The crystal fabric was obviously cooled from a melt, not transported grains,” as would be the case if it were a sedimentary sample, says Abigail Allwood of the Jet Propulsion Lab. She leads the rover’s PIXL instrument, which uses an X-ray beam to identify each sample’s composition.
Mission scientists now think the crater floor is filled with igneous rocks from two separate events — both after the crater was created, so more recently than the 3.7 billion to 4.1 billion years ago time frame. In one, magma from deep within the planet pushed toward the surface, cooled and solidified, and was later exposed by erosion. In the other, smaller lava flows streamed at the surface. Sometime after these events, water flowed from the nearby highlands into the crater to form a lake tens of meters deep and lasting tens of thousands of years at least, according to some team members. Percy’s instruments have revealed the ways that water altered the igneous rocks: For example, scientists have found sulfates and other minerals that require water to form, and they’ve seen empty pits within the rocks’ cracks, where water would have washed away material. As that water flowed down the rivers into the lake, it deposited silt and mud, forming the delta. Flooding delivered 1.5-meter-wide boulders from that distant terrain. All of these events preceded the drying of the lake, which might have happened about 3 billion years ago.
Core samples, which Perseverance is collecting and storing on board for eventual return to Earth, could provide dates for when the igneous rocks formed, as well as when the Martian surface became parched. During the time between, Lake Jezero and other wet environments may have been stable enough for microbial life to start and survive.
“Nailing down the geologic time scale is of critical importance for us understanding Mars as a habitable world,” Stack Morgan says. “And we can’t do that without samples to date.”
About a year after landing on Mars, Perseverance rolled several kilometers across the crater floor to the delta front — where it encountered a very different geology.
The delta might hold signs of ancient life Deltas mark standing, lasting bodies of water — stable locales that could support life. Plus, as a delta grows over time, it traps and preserves organic matter.
Sand and silt deposited where a river hits a lake get layered into sedimentary material, building up a fan-shaped delta. “If you have any biological material that is trapped between that sediment, it gets buried very quickly,” says Mars geologist Eva Scheller of MIT, a researcher with the Percy team. “It creates this environment that is very, very good for preserving the organic matter.”
While exploring the delta front between April 2022 and December 2022, Perseverance found some of the sedimentary rocks it was after. Several of the rover’s instruments zoomed in on the textures and shapes of the rocks, while other instruments collected detailed spectral information, revealing the elements present in those rocks. By combining the data, researchers can piece together what the rocks are made of and what processes might have changed them over the eons. It’s this chemistry that could reveal signs of ancient Martian life — biosignatures. Scientists are still in the early stages of these analyses.
There won’t be one clear-cut sign of life, Allwood says. Instead, the rover would more likely reveal “an assemblage of characteristics,” with evidence slowly building that life once existed there.
Chemical characteristics suggestive of life are most likely to hide in sedimentary rocks, like those Perseverance has studied at the delta front. Especially interesting are rocks with extremely fine-grained mud. Such mud sediments, Horgan says, are where — in deltas on Earth, at least — organic matter is concentrated. So far, though, the rover hasn’t found those muddy materials.
But the sedimentary rocks studied have revealed carbonates, sulfates and unexpected salts — all materials indicating interaction with water and important for life as we know it. Percy has found carbon-based matter in every rock it has abraded, Horgan says.
“We’ve had some really interesting results that we’re pretty excited to share with the community,” Horgan says about the exploration of the delta front. Some of those details may be revealed in March at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.
Perseverance leaves samples for a future mission As of early February, Perseverance has collected 18 samples, including bits of Mars debris and cores from rocks, and stored them on board in sealed capsules for eventual return to Earth. The samples come from the crater floor, delta front rocks and even the thin Martian atmosphere.
In the final weeks of 2022 and the first weeks of 2023, the rover dropped — or rather, carefully set down — half of the collected samples, as well as a tube that would reveal whether samples contained any earthly contaminants. These captured pieces of Mars are now sitting at the front of the delta, at a predetermined spot called the Three Forks region. If Perseverance isn’t functioning well enough to hand over its onboard samples when a future sample-return spacecraft arrives, that mission will collect these samples from the drop site to bring back to Earth.
Researchers are currently working on designs for a joint Mars mission between NASA and the European Space Agency that could retrieve the samples. Launching in the late 2020s, it would land near the Perseverance rover. Percy would transfer the samples to a small rocket to be launched from Mars and returned to Earth in the 2030s. Lab tests could then confirm what Perseverance is already uncovering and discover much more.
Meanwhile, Percy is climbing up the delta to explore its top, where muddy sedimentary rocks may still be found. The next target is the edge of the once-lake, where shallow water long ago stood. This is the site Williford is most excited about. Much of what we know about the history of how life has evolved on Earth comes from environments with shallow water, he says. “That’s where really rich, underwater ecosystems start to form,” he says. “There’s so much going on there chemically.”