Curiosity and the search for the building blocks of life on Mars


Citrus trees under attack by invasive “yellow dragon disease.” (ISTOCKPHOTO)
March 18, 2013
Robots In Space
Focusing on Mars rover, book describes NASA’s innovations in space science
“Red Rover” by Roger Wiens

Last August, the Curiosity rover landed on the surface of Mars with one mission: Determine if the Red Planet ever could have supported life. The rover has since found proof of water and organic compounds in the crimson soil. In the process, it has shown that the United States is still capable of space innovation.

In “Red Rover,” geochemist Roger Wiens, who built Curiosity’s ChemCam laser device, tells the story of this new era of space exploration. He describes NASA’s Genesis mission — its spacecraft was launched in 2001 and returned in 2004 with samples from solar wind — and the tight deadlines, slim budgets, shutdown threats and engineering problems that the Curiosity project has faced.

The book illuminates the day-to-day challenges that the public never sees and leaves unanswered some questions, including whether it will be possible for humans to live on Mars one day. “The beautiful but deserted terrain of Mars evokes the feeling of an abandoned mansion,” Wien writes. “It seems that everything is there except the occupants. . . . Maybe that will change someday.”

The End of OJ?
Invasive insect poses a major threat to oranges and other U.S. citrus crops
Scientific American, March issue

Orange juice, the beloved breakfast beverage of many Americans, is under attack. The villain is a teeny insect that threatens to wipe out citrus groves from Florida to California.

The March issue of Scientific American reports that the Asian citrus psyllid has been spreading huanglongbing, Chinese for “yellow dragon disease,” which leaves oranges, grapefruit, pomelos and other citrus fruits misshapen, unripe and inedible.

According to the magazine, the damaging bacteria, transmitted via the psyllids’ saliva, disrupt a plant's circulatory system, blocking the flow of nutrients.

To slow the spread of this invasive species from Southeast Asia, scientists have imported Asian wasps to prey on the psyllids. The magazine says that genetic modification to make the plants resistant to the disease may be the only long-term solution.

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