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NASA says no pending announcement on alien life

US space agency NASA said that it has no pending announcement regarding extraterrestrial life, following a wave of media reports that it was about to announce the evidence of alien life.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, on Monday denied the reports andconfirmed that NASA scientists are still looking for proof of alien life, reports Xinhua news agency.

“Are we alone in the universe? While we do not know yet, we have missions moving forward that may help answer that fundamental question,” he tweeted.

The wave of media reports emerged after hacking group Anonymous posted a 12-minute video on YouTube, in which a man wearing a mask in a clear synthesized voice said that at a Congressional hearing in April, Zurbuchen had said: “Our civilization is on the verge of discovering evidence of alien life in the cosmos.”

“Taking into account all of the different activities and missions that are specifically searching for evidence of alien life we are on the verge of making one of the most profound and unprecedented discoveries in history,” the masked man quoted Zurbuchen as saying.

The video, which also touches on the latest discovery regarding Earth-size planets circling the star TRAPPIST-1 and several supposed UFO sightings, has so far been watched by more than 1 million viewers.

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This Look at Jupiter’s Rings From the Inside Is Breathtaking

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

Juno’s
first major information dump
revealed some incredible insights into our big ol’ friend, Jupiter. A few close approaches from the NASA spacecraft show that the gas giant has
extremely chaotic storms
and can generate aurorae in ways Earth can’t, among other oddities. In short, Jupiter is the wild west of the solar system, and an incredible view of its rings proves just how true that is.

An image captured by Juno on its
August 27, 2016 flyby
and featured in a
NASA press release last week
shows an unprecedented look at the Jovian ring system from inside them. Though the
Voyager 1 spacecraft
first discovered the four-part ring system back in 1979, this view is especially breathtaking, considering it’s the only photo of Jupiter’s rings from the inside, according to
Space.com
.
 
You can also see the dying star
Betelgeuse
-from the constellation Orion-totally photobombing this with its unmistakable glow. Way to be an attention hog, Betelgeuse.

An eclipse of the sun by Jupiter, with the rings visible as reflected sunlight. Image: NASA, JPL, Galileo Project, (NOAO), J. Burns (Cornell) et al.

All the gas giants in our solar system’s have rings, though Saturn’s rightfully
get the most attention
. This is because Saturn is clearly the best, and anyone who tells you otherwise
is wrong
.

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Jupiter’s rings are trickier to see because they’re much smaller than Saturn’s, and are 
made of dust
from
meteors colliding with Jupiter’s inner moons
. It’s sort of a downgrade from Saturn’s icy, light-scattering beauties, but still pretty cool I guess.

Image: NASA

Jupe-enthusiasts will be glad to know we’ll be getting a lot more info back before Juno’s mission
ends in February 2018
. Until then, we can drool over pictures of the planet over at
JunoCam’s site
.

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NASA rover finds diverse minerals in Martian rocks

Examining initial samples of rocks collected by NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover, scientists have found a wide diversity of minerals in the lower-most layers of Mount Sharp mountain, suggesting that conditions changed in the water environments on the Red Planet over time.

Curiosity landed near Mount Sharp in Gale Crater in August 2012. It reached the base of the mountain in 2014. Layers of rocks at the base of Mount Sharp accumulated as sediment within ancient lakes around 3.5 billion years ago.

Orbital infrared spectroscopy had shown that the mountain’s lower-most layers have variations in minerals.

“We went to Gale Crater to investigate these lower layers of Mount Sharp that have these minerals that precipitated from water and suggest different environments,” said Elizabeth Rampe of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston who is the first author of the study.

“These layers were deposited about 3.5 billion years ago, coinciding with a time on Earth when life was beginning to take hold. We think early Mars may have been similar to early Earth, and so these environments might have been habitable,” Rampe added.

The minerals found in the four samples drilled near the base of Mount Sharp suggest several different environments were present in ancient Gale Crater, according to the study published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

At the base are minerals from a primitive magma source; they are rich in iron and magnesium, similar to basalts in Hawaii, the data showed.

Moving higher in the section, scientists saw more silica-rich minerals.

In the “Telegraph Peak” sample, scientists found minerals similar to quartz. In the “Buckskin” sample, scientists found tridymite.

Tridymite is found on Earth in rocks that formed from partial melting of the Earth’s crust or in the continental crust — a strange finding because Mars never had plate tectonics.

In the “Confidence Hills” and “Mojave 2” samples, scientists found clay minerals, which generally form in the presence of liquid water with a near-neutral pH, and therefore could be good indicators of past environments that were conducive to life.

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This Is One of the Coolest Shots of the Mars Curiosity Rover We’ve Ever Seen

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

See that faint, blue dot in the middle of this NASA image? That’s the Curiosity rover making its way up the rocky slopes of Mount Sharp. The robotic lander, now approaching its fifth year of operation, has never looked so lonely.

Zoomed in view. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

The remarkable image was captured on June 5, 2017, by a camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which obtains several images of the plucky little planet crawler each year, according to NASA. Curiosity appears as a blue splotch amid an intimidating group of rocks, cliffs, and dark sand. When the image was taken, the probe was heading uphill to an area containing hematite outcrops. Mission controllers are continuing to look for evidence of prior habitability on the Red Planet.

If the colors in this image look exaggerated that’s because they are. The deliberate contrasts are intended to show differences in Mars’ surface materials, which makes the rover look bluer than it actually is.

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Keep on truckin’, Curiosity! We’re all rooting for you, even though your
wheels are getting pretty worn
and you’re 241 million miles away.

[
NASA
]

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Neil Armstrong’s Solid Gold Moon Lander Replica Stolen From Museum

Photo: Cartier Collection

It’s been a bad couple of weeks for priceless artifacts from NASA history. First, a moon-dusted sample bag from Apollo 11
was privately auctioned
, and now a solid gold moon lander replica that was gifted to Neil Armstrong in 1969 has been stolen from his museum. On Sunday, a NASA investigator worried that the thieves don’t even know what they have on their hands.

On Friday
, security at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio, was summoned by an alarm and found a display case that housed the replica empty. The 5-inch-tall moon lander was the only thing stolen.

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In 1969, the French newspaper
Le Figaro
asked its readers to contribute funds to a special tribute to NASA’s astronauts following the successful Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Three exacting reproductions of the Lunar Excursion Module that was used on that mission
were created by Cartier
and gifted in-person to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. A piece of microfilm was attached to the base of each model that contained the names of all the readers who’d donated “10 francs, 20 francs, [or] whatever they could afford.”

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According to
NPR
, Cartier bought back the model that was given to Collins in a 2003 auction, paying $56,000 in order to place it in its own
permanent collection
. The model that was gifted to Armstrong was entrusted to his museum that was built in his hometown in 1973. In a
statement
, Wapakoneta police said that the “value of such an item cannot be determined” and no information has been given relating to whether the thieves were captured on security cameras.



One man who considers the artifact to be priceless is Texas attorney and retired federal agent with NASA
Joseph Gutheinz Jr.
, who tells the
Associated Press
that he fears the thieves may have already melted the piece down strictly to get its gold. Gutheinz previously worked for NASA on the recovery of a moon rock from the Apollo 17 mission. The item was a gift to the Honduran government and Gutheinz helped organize an undercover
sting operation
in 1998 to get it back. He says that a moon rock housed at Armstrong’s museum would be worth millions but the thieves didn’t touch it. This leads him to believe that they either didn’t have access to the rock, or they’re not really looking to sell collectibles. He believes “they were into turning a quick buck.” Perhaps the perpetrators will see news reports and realize how much more valuable the moon lander would be if it’s preserved.

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The FBI and Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation are working with local police to locate the item.

The museum wrote in a
statement on Facebook
, “the truth is that you can’t steal from a museum.” Taking a philosophical outlook, administrators said, “Theft from a museum is a theft from all of us… For every day that an item is missing, we are all robbed of an opportunity to enjoy it and our history.”

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Uranus Might Finally Get a Visitor After All These Years

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Uranus is the loneliest thing in the solar system. It hasn’t had contact with anyone in over 30 years, since
NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft
whizzed by it on January 24th, 1986. Thankfully, some good folks at NASA and elsewhere are advocating for missions to Uranus and its Ice Giant companion, Neptune, which could take place at some point in the next few decades.

The team’s
529-page-long report
, released this month, elucidates the benefits of visiting these two woefully-understudied worlds. Neptune and Uranus, the so-called “ice giants,” are different from Jupiter and Saturn (the “gas giants”), in the sense that their mass is roughly 65% water and other ices, like methane and ammonia. Despite knowing so little about ice giants, the scientists behind the new mission study
suggest
these planets are incredibly common in our galaxy. A mission to either Neptune or Uranus could help us better understand exoplanets we haven’t found yet.

Did we mention that Uranus and Neptune might be
hiding vast oceans
beneath their clouds? Because that seems like something worth looking into.

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“Both Uranus and Neptune challenge our understanding of how planets form and evolve,” Dr. Curt Niebur, program scientist at NASA headquarters, told Gadgetlayout. “There are certain things about them which we cannot explain, [such as] their composition, how their magnetic fields are generated, and what geologic processes are active on their moons today.”

Lovely, lopsided Uranus. (Image: NASA)

This latest report from NASA outlines myriad potential mission designs, including, yes, a probe into Uranus. The team is particularly keen on sending both a probe-which would plunge into the planet’s atmosphere-and an orbiter that would hang out for several years, to at least one of the ice giants.

“A probe is the only way to measure heavy noble gases, isotopic ratios, and the bulk abundance of certain species,” the researchers
wrote
. “An orbiter is required to give us vantage points and enough time in the system to understand variable phenomena (e.g., magnetospheric responses to the varying solar wind or weather variations), to allow us to encounter several moons, and to observe all components of the system under varying geometries.”

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Voyager 2 showed us so much about the ice giants that was previously unknown. It illuminated
Neptune’s rings
, a giant, ephemeral vortex called the “Great Dark Spot,” and
geysers on its largest moon
, Triton. The spacecraft also
found 10
of Uranus’s 27 known moons, two new rings, and the planet’s lopsided magnetic field. Still, there’s so much left to learn about these weird worlds, such as what their interiors look like and what could have caused Uranus to have such an
extreme spin axis
that it basically rotates on its side. Maybe it’s just been really drunk all these years.

The ice giant report will be considered as part of
NASA’s Planetary Science Decadal Survey
, which outlines the agency’s priorities for the next ten years-in this case, from 2022-2032. The next report will likely be published sometime in 2018.

Until then, we wish the ice giants our best.

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“Our understanding of how planets work is incomplete,” Neibur told Gadgetlayout. “So studying Uranus and Neptune will help us understand how our solar system formed and how planets-including ones around other stars-evolve.”

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Mars had flowing water for long time, reveals high-silica ‘halos’

Ancient Mars had flowing water much longer than previously believed, suggests pale zones called “halos” with high concentration of silica on the Red Planet.

The halos were analysed by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover’s science payload, including the laser-shooting Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument, developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in conjunction with the French space agency.

“The concentration of silica is very high at the centrelines of these halos,” said Jens Frydenvang, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

“What we’re seeing is that silica appears to have migrated between very old sedimentary bedrock and into younger overlying rocks,” Frydenvang, lead author of a paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, said.

The goal of NASA’s Curiosity rover mission has been to find out if Mars was ever habitable, and it has been very successful in showing that Gale crater once held a lake with water that we would even have been able to drink, but we still don’t know how long this habitable environment endured.

“What this finding tells us is that, even when the lake eventually evaporated, substantial amounts of groundwater were present for much longer than we previously thought – thus further expanding the window for when life might have existed on Mars,” Frydenvang said.

The elevated silica in halos was found over approximately 20 to 30 metres in elevation near a rock-layer of ancient lake sediments that had a high silica content.

“This tells us that the silica found in halos in younger rocks close by was likely remobilised from the old sedimentary rocks by water flowing through the fractures,” Frydenvang said.

Specifically, some of the rocks containing the halos were deposited by wind, likely as dunes.

Such dunes would only exist after the lake had dried up. The presence of halos in rocks formed long after the lake dried out indicates that groundwater was still flowing within the rocks more recently than previously known, the study said.

Curiosity has travelled more than 16 km over more than 1,700 sols (martian days) as it has traveled from the bottom of Gale crater part way up Mount Sharp in the center of the crater.

Scientists are using all the data collected by ChemCam to put together a more complete picture of the geological history of Mars.

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NASA Lit A Fire In Space Again Because At This Point Sure Why Not

Image: NASA

The only thing better than lighting a fire in space is lighting a fire in space again-and
again
! On Sunday, June 4th, the pyromaniacal hooligans at NASA successfully performed their
third
Spacecraft Fire Experiment (
SAFFIRE
) inside an Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft. Lighting up in space-which sounds wildly irresponsible-will actually help scientists prepare astronauts for deep space missions should something go awry.

SAFFIRE-III is a
follow-up
to NASA’s SAFFIRE I and II, which were completed in June and November of 2016, respectively. The plan for this iteration of the experiment was pretty simple: Cygnus would depart the International Space Station and burn up inside the vessel for about 20 minutes. NASA is currently downlinking the results, which are sure to be
glorious
.

Besides getting the chance to light a fire in space, which is objectively awesome, SAFFIRE can help NASA scientists understand how fire spreads in microgravity and prepare safety measures accordingly. Fire is especially dangerous during orbital missions because astronauts are typically enclosed in pretty tight quarters and ventilation fans onboard can feed a fire the air it needs to
move in any direction
.

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“As the first chance to actually study a realistically scaled fire, the SAFFIRE experiments have provided valuable insight into fire behavior inside a confined low-gravity environment,” David Urban, SAFFIRE principal investigator, said in a
statement
.



This will be the last SAFFIRE mission for some time. According to NASA, the next class of the experiment will fly in 2019.

“SAFFIRE IV-VI will extend the research by including larger, more energetic fires and by testing post-fire cleanup systems,” Urban explained.

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Here’s to many more bonfires in the final frontier.

[
NASA
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Proposed Trump Budget Would Kill Program That Monitors Debilitating Solar Storms

Image: Goddard Space Center, NASA

The idea that a huge solar storm could wreak havoc here on Earth isn’t just a sci-fi plot, it’s a situation that countries and power grids around the world actively prepare for. But the Trump Administration’s latest 2017 budget proposal would
completely eliminate the program
that keeps the continental US under 24/7 protection from this potentially catastrophic event.

The Denver-based United States Geological Survey Geomagnetism Program is tasked with monitoring charged particles which are emitted by the sun as a normal process of solar flares or magnetic storms-sometimes referred to as “space weather.” This data collection is important for industries like power grids-an electrical surge could have disastrous effects on the power supply- and for oil extraction, as the magnetic properties of the planet can help with aiming the actual drilling. The measurements are also used by the Department of Defense to keep on eye on their GPS satellites and radio communications around the world.

“Space weather above our heads interacts with the electrically conducting solid Earth beneath our feet to affect infrastructure at the surface of the Earth,” Jeffrey Love, USGS Advisor for Geomagnetic Research at the USGS Geomagnetism Program, told Gadgetlayout. Since the Earth’s crust (with its constituent rocks and minerals) is a pretty good conductor of electricity, we have to worry about the basic principle of induction during strong electrical events. Induction is the effect of moving magnetic fields interacting with conducting materials to create an electrical current. It’s the same effect that drives electrical motors and wireless chargers. When hit by a solar storm, basically, the planet gets charged up.

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Love’s team has learned that the entire $1.9 million program would be eliminated next fall should Trump’s budget proposal become reality. The group operates 14 magnetometer observatories across the US, has 12 full-time employees, and provides real-time data on the Earth’s shifting electrical fields.

“Under normal circumstances there’s very little of this induction going on inside the Earth,” said Love. This all changes during a strong bout of space weather. The power grid’s electrical systems-which use the Earth as a current-dispelling ground-are vulnerable to changes in the Earth’s electrical charge. Grounds act as a sink for the power, and if there’s nowhere for that energy to go, the entire grid overloads and shuts down.

This happens during a large solar storm,
like the one that just missed us in 2012
, as the magnetically charged particles flow over and through the planet, creating that induction in the Earth’s crust. Worst case scenario would be the major failure of whatever electric infrastructure is facing the storm. It would be gorgeous though, since the largest solar storm on record in 1859 caused an aurora as far south as Cuba.

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This isn’t simply theoretical: In 1989, a strong solar storm event known as the
Quebec Geomagnetic Blackout
completely took out the power in less than two minutes. Today-with our global reliance on our digital communication mediums-those effects would be amplified without the work done by the Geomagnetism Group. They work with the NOAA and NASA to provide info for space weather prediction services.

“Intense storms can last for days, and so it is important to monitor their development,” said Love about the role the Geomagnetism Program plays when the United States is hit by space weather. “In addition, long time series of ground magnetometer data inform scientists of the occurrence frequency and intensity of past magnetic storms.” This data is used to forecast future storms and how bad they can be.

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But that’s not all the Geomagnetic Program does.

“[The collected data is] used by the military for diagnosing the reliability of radio communication for the accuracy of GPS systems during magnetic storms, that’s interesting for the Defense Department,” said Love. “Ideally, we should have even more observatories.”

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When the program learned of its potential fate, the reaction from industry was swift.

“I have heard from a number of different customers and partners. In general, they are all surprised and concerned at the news of the possibility of the program being eliminated,” said Carol Finn, Group Leader at the Geomagnetism Program.

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Love understands that they’re not the only scientific program being cut, but there are continual observations-some of which have been performed for over a century-at risk of being interrupted. This isn’t something where other countries can step in either, as observations are made with localized data that can only be collected nearby to the magnetometers.

“There are other magnetometer systems around the United States, but they are not operated with the degree of reliability that the USGS commits to the operation of its observatories and they are not usually real time,” said Love.

The details have yet to be finalized as Congress still needs to take the next steps and include the cuts in their version of the 2017 US budget, but the fact remains that a really integral scientific program is on the chopping block.

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“Our program is a very small program in the United States government, and a very small program in the USGS, but we do provide an important service for the nation and even for the world,” said Love at the end of our conversation. “I think that our program is tax dollars well spent.”

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There’s Growing Evidence That Pluto’s Largest Moon Had a Massive Ocean

Pluto’s moon Charon is the best sidekick a dwarf planet could hope for: unwavering in its loyalty, content to be a minor character in somebody else’s narrative. But two years after the New Horizons flyby, the largest of Pluto’s five moons is finally getting some well-deserved time in the spotlight. New research suggests that Charon’s storied history includes tectonic activity, cryovolcanism, and perhaps, a globe-spanning ocean.

While Pluto is
alive and active geologically
, its large satellite Charon, which probably formed during a massive collision billions of years ago, is a crater-covered wasteland whose surface has been aging for eons. Charon today is dead-but
enormous chasms
spotted by the New Horizons spacecraft suggests the moon hasn’t always been this way. An ongoing research effort, including a geologic survey
published
recently in the journal
Icarus
, affirms that billions of years ago, Charon went through at least one period of tectonic activity, when its entire surface expanded outwards.

As described in the study led by NASA planetary scientist Ross Beyer, the Pluto-facing hemisphere of Charon, which New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager saw during its flyby, features two distinct geologic provinces. To the south, the smooth plains of Vulcan Planum, coated in ice that Beyer and his colleagues
interpret to be
a cryvolcanic “lava flow.” To the north, a vast and diverse area known informally as Oz Terra, whose surface is riddled with grooves, scarps, and deep, elongated, chasms that put Earth’s Grand Canyon to shame.

“All of the observed tectonics is extensional, meaning the crust of Charon is being stretched and pulled apart,” James Tuttle Keane, a planetary scientist at Caltech who was not involved with the new study, told Gadgetlayout. “You could imagine blowing up a balloon, painting it, letting the paint dry, and then inflating it some more. Here, Charon is the balloon, and the paint is its water-ice crust, breaking apart.”

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Using craters to age the moon’s surface, the researchers determined that Charon puffed up about four billion years ago. While nobody’s sure why this happened, the authors suggest ancient Charon could have had a global, subterranean ocean, kept warm by energy contained in the moon’s silicate-rich core. As that core heat dissipated, the ocean cooled, froze, and expanded. “It grows in volume, and this pressure is what causes the icy crust above it to crack, fracture, and rift apart,” Beyer told Gadgetlayout.

Such expansion, Keane agreed, could “easily result in the observed tectonics on Charon.” Once freezing was complete, Charon would have become dormant.

A subsurface ocean could also explain those icy lava flows spotted across Charon’s southern terrain, which Beyer and his colleagues are continuing to study. “What we think happened is that during this period when Charon was expanding and rifts were forming, for whatever reason, the areas in the north pulled apart a little bit, but the areas in the south maybe pulled apart more,” Beyer said. As additional rifting in the south caused chunks of crustal material to sink, alien ocean brine was extruded upwards, oozing everywhere and smothering the surface in ice.

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It’s a nice, clean explanation for why Charon looks the way it does today, but nothing can be proven without more data on the moon’s interior-and that may require another mission to the Pluto system. “Only a few objects in our solar system are
confirmed
ocean worlds (worlds like Europa, Enceladus, and Titan),” Keane said. “The measurements necessary to conclusively show that there is a subsurface ocean usually require staying around the system for a while.”

Still, the notion that Charon may have had oceans and ice volcanoes hints at the moon’s similarities to Pluto, which might be hiding
a vast liquid water ocean
beneath its surface. While it’s unlikely we’ll find anything alive and wriggling on either world, these findings expand our understanding of the environments in which some of the conditions for life may exist.

Beyer, for one, suspects the New Horizons data will continue yielding insights for years to come. “We’ve only had this data for about two years, we’re trying to sleuth out what happened over 4.5 billion years of solar system history,” he said. “There’s a lot we still don’t know.”

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