The top three news stories of the week, as chosen by our resident students. This week’s top stories include a new hope in the battle against carbon dioxide, a British made Mars rover is on it’s way and space diamonds give scientists clues to what our solar system may have looked like

By Federico Dona

The future of the environment may not be so dark: grassland plants “love” carbon dioxide.

Scientists in the US have found that some grassland plants grow better in conditions with high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2). From a recent paper in Science it appears that these plants can offer a buffer against climate change. It seems from this 20 year study, that the plants defined as C4 use a two-step process to boost their internal level of CO2 and can use more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than the plants knowns as C3. “The main message is don’t count out the C4 grasslands,” says Dana Blumenthal, an ecologist with the US Department of Agriculture in Fort Collins, Colorado. It is clear from this research and from others conducted around the world that it is not still clear how the process of photosynthesis and CO2 levels can be related. Maybe we need to look deeper into this phenomenon and maybe we can find a solution from nature to fight the increased atmospheric CO2 and climate change.

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Grasslands in warm, dry climates are predicted to expand their range as the climate heats up. Credit: David Gray/Reuters.

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Europe (and UK) is on the front to discover more about Mars

A new Mars rover is on it’s way to be built by the European Space Agency for the ExoMars 2020 mission that will search for life on the red planet.

The Structural Thermal Model, or STM (as it is known), is a group of three identical copies of robot. Only one of these robot triplets will make if to Mars. One of them will go through a tough testing regime to check that the rover that eventually is launched to Mars – the “flight model” – will be able to cope with whatever is thrown at it. And the third one will be used to troubleshoot any problems

The STM, which has been built in UK, is going to France to be put through battery of different tests before moving to the next step.

“Overall, I think we’re on a good track to complete everything we need to do. We have margin. It could be better, but we’re not working double shifts and on weekends, which is what you see on most projects towards the end” said ExoMars project scientist Jorge Vago.

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Image copyright, TASImage caption Artwork: The ExoMars rover will launch in 2020 and land in 2021

ExoMars is a joint venture with the Russians, that are responsible of the descent module to land the rover on Mars.

There are differences to the American rover that was sent on Mars in a not 100% mission. From autonomous navigation, that can cut the time of exploration by days, to wheel-walking that will help the robot to overcome some sand traps that it could find on the surface of Mars. But when will the launch happen? We will find out in November when the scientists meet at Leicester University (UK) to choose between two equatorial locations, known as Oxia Planum and Mawrth Vallis.

Read more from the BBC here

Diamonds give us clue on meteorites origins

New information is giving us a clearer idea of the story of the universe that we inhabit. In our solar system (4.5 billion years ago), different planets where moving around the sun—some of which coalesced into larger and larger masses, while others broke up into smaller pieces. Some of these carbon-rich asteroids fell to the Earth where researchers are spending time and resources to understand the origin of these.

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NASA/JPL-CALTECH 

Now,  after having analysed the Almahata Sitta meteorites, that rained down on Sudan’s Nubian Desert in 2008 and included tiny diamonds that measured up to 1/10th of a millimetre, researchers may have may found an answer.

To form diamonds of these dimensions, 100 times larger than the nanodiamonds formed when planetary objects collide, the meteorites need to come from something else. There are two suggested possibilities:

  1. the meteorites grew deep inside a large protoplanet before it suffered the collision that turned it into cosmic shrapnel. But how large was this planet? Because the minerals could only have formed at pressures about 200,000 times those of Earth’s atmosphere at sea level, the diamonds would have formed near the center of a Mercury-or-larger-size protoplanet.
  2. They could have formed just outside the metal-rich core of a Mars-or-larger-size body.

These results demonstrate the first real evidence of such a large space body that was once in our solar system, but has since disappeared. Increasingly sophisticated techniques continue to give us fascinating insights into the tumultuous birth of our amazing solar system.

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