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RIP, Mars Phoenix Lander

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Yesterday, NASA announced that the Mars Phoenix Lander has died. Okay, they said that the lander had "ceased communications" and that the lander had "finish[ed] successful work," both of which are merely euphemisms for its tragic death after five months of lonely toil on Mars.

The Mars Phoenix Lander's death is not unexpected. It landed in a polar region of Mars, because that's where the ice is. But it's also where it gets real darn cold during the Martian winter, and at this point, Phoenix (and its batteries) are freezing solid -- there's no hope that this robot will magically survive for five years like the Mars Rovers which are near the Martian equator, where the temperature ranges from -130 degrees F in the winter to a toasty 95 degrees F in the summer. For the record, Phoenix did indeed find ice, fulfilling its mission.

Phoenix was highly anthropomorphized during its mission, with its team continually posting tweets (Twitter messages) in the voice of the lander. Its final message came yesterday in an uncharacteristic binary code: "01010100 01110010 01101001 01110101 01101101 01110000 01101000 <3" Translated from binary, this reads "Triumph" with a "heart" emoticon at the end. On October 31, things were looking grim for Phoenix. It posted the message, "The team has me on extreme 'bed rest' to recharge power supply. There's cautious optimism about pulling out of this in a few days." Four days later: "I'm resting a lot but still communicating with orbiters once per day. Still hoping to get a bit of strength back & maybe do more science." Just before its death, Phoenix held a contest to have humans write its epitaph. Nearly 1,000 epitaphs were submitted. The winners, by popular vote:

1. Veni, vidi, fodi. (I came, I saw, I dug)
Graham Vosloo

2. So long and thanks for all the ice.
D. Adams

3. It is enough for me. But for you, I plead: go farther, still.
Fernando Rojas

As Dylan Thomas wrote, "Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Rest in peace, brave lander.

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Courtesy Murdoch University
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Animals
Australian Scientists Discover First New Species of Sunfish in 125 Years
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Courtesy Murdoch University

Scientists have pinpointed a whole new species of the largest bony fish in the world, the massive sunfish, as we learned from Smithsonian magazine. It's the first new species of sunfish proposed in more than 125 years.

As the researchers report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the genetic differences between the newly named hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) and its other sunfish brethren was confirmed by data on 27 different samples of the species collected over the course of three years. Since sunfish are so massive—the biggest can weigh as much as 5000 pounds—they pose a challenge to preserve and store, even for museums with large research collections. Lead author Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia traveled thousands of miles to find and collected genetic data on sunfish stranded on beaches. At one point, she was asked if she would be bringing her own crane to collect one.

Nyegaard also went back through scientific literature dating back to the 1500s, sorting through descriptions of sea monsters and mermen to see if any of the documentation sounded like observations of the hoodwinker. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time," she said in a press statement. "Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the 'hoodwinker.'"

Japanese researchers first detected genetic differences between previously known sunfish and a new, unknown species 10 years ago, and this confirms the existence of a whole different type from species like the Mola mola or Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta looks a little different from other sunfish, with a more slender body. As it grows, it doesn't develop the protruding snout or bumps that other sunfish exhibit. Similarly to the others, though, it can reach a length of 8 feet or more. 

Based on the stomach contents of some of the specimens studied, the hoodwinker likely feeds on salps, a jellyfish-like creature that it probably chomps on (yes, sunfish have teeth) during deep dives. The species has been found near New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Gregory H. Revera, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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Space
Study Suggests There's Water Beneath the Moon's Surface
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Gregory H. Revera, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Astronauts may not need to go far to find water outside Earth. As CNN reports, Brown University scientists Ralph E. Milliken and Shuai Li suspect there are significant amounts of water churning within the Moon’s interior.

Their findings, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, lean on the discovery of glass beads encased in the Moon’s volcanic rock deposits. As recently as 100 million years ago, the Earth’s moon was a hotbed of volcanic activity. Evidence of that volatile time can still be found in the ancient ash and volcanic rock that’s scattered across the surface.

Using satellite imagery, the researchers identified tiny water droplets preserved inside glass beads that formed in the volcanic deposits. While water makes up a small fraction of each bead, its presence suggests there’s significantly more of it making up the Moon’s mantle.

Milliken and Li aren't the first scientists to notice water in lunar rocks. In 2008, volcanic materials collected from the Moon during the Apollo missions of 1971 and 1972 were revealed to contain the same water-flecked glass beads that the Brown scientists made the basis of their recent study. They took their research further by analyzing images captured across the face of the Moon and quickly saw the Apollo rocks represented a larger trend. "The distribution of these water-rich deposits is the key thing," Milliken said in a press statement. "They're spread across the surface, which tells us that the water found in the Apollo samples isn't a one-off. Lunar pyroclastics seem to be universally water-rich, which suggests the same may be true of the mantle."

The study challenges what we know about the Moon's formation, which scientists think occurred when a planet-sized object slammed into the Earth 4.5 billion years ago. "The growing evidence for water inside the Moon suggests that water did somehow survive, or that it was brought in shortly after the impact by asteroids or comets before the Moon had completely solidified," Li said. "The exact origin of water in the lunar interior is still a big question."

The findings also hold exciting possibilities for the future of space travel. NASA scientists have already considered turning the Moon into a water station for astronauts on their way to Mars. If water on the celestial body is really as abundant as the evidence may suggest, figuring out how to access that resource will definitely be on NASA's agenda.

[h/t CNN]

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