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Is it an old fossil barchan dune?

A Piece of Mars: There are many barchans on Mars, those lovely isolated crescent-shaped dunes. In a few places there are what looks like ancient preserved barchans, now lithified. The mound in the center of this 0.96×0.54 km (0.6×0.33 mi) scene shows what may be an example of a fossil barchan. If so, then this is quite unusual. On Earth, dunes are very rarely preserved in their full form, usually having been at least partially eroded away before being preserved. I love how much geology is visible from orbit on Mars! (HiRISE ESP_049955_1665, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Sand tails

A Piece of Mars: Up on the tallest volcanoes, the wind screams downhill at night. This 500x500m (0.31×0.31 mi) scene shows how dust is carried downhill, but only that which is trapped behind boulders and crater rims sticks around. The big hole may be a window into a lava tube. Formation of the window itself is one of the younger events to have formed this landscape, as the screaming dust hasn’t fully filled in the hole (although it has begun the process and formed a tailing wind streak). (HiRISE ESP_050089_1660, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

SETI Alumni: Portrait of Sarah Blunt

Cosmic Diary Marchis - May 05, 2017

SETI Institute GPI group from left to right: Eric Nielsen, Franck Marchis, Jasmine Garani, Sarah Blunt, and Clement Chalumeau (credit: F. Marchis/SETI Institute)

Sarah Blunt, REU student class of 2015, is today a full member of the Gemini Planet Imager Exoplanet Survey. Together with SETI researcher Eric Nielsen and Franck Marchis, she has developed an innovative method to fit the orbits of directly imaged exoplanets. She has published her work in Astronomical Journal and is a recipient of an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship that will fund her graduate school. Here her story.

Every year the SETI Institute hosts several interns who work with our researchers through a Research Experience for Undergraduates (or REU) program funded by the National Science Foundation. We often wonder what happened to those students, several years after they come to work with us in our HQ here in California.

Sarah Blunt is one of these interns who joined the Institute in 2015. Her application was one of the 200 we received every year for 12-15 internships. Sarah was a bachelor student at Brown University studying to get a major in mathematical physics. In her application she wrote about her previous experience in research at the National Solar Observatory and at her university, her emerging skills in programming in Python and her interest in one of the proposed internships related to the analysis of orbits of exoplanets and brown dwarfs discovered with the Gemini Planet Imager. Senior researcher Franck Marchis and SETI postdoctoral fellow Eric Nielsen were thinking of new ideas to fit the orbits of directly imaged extra-solar planets (or exoplanets) and needed a skilled student in math and computer science to implement those innovative algorithms.

Sarah started her internship in June 2015 under the supervision of Eric Nielsen and quickly showed the potential of these algorithms. After her internship, she continued to work with the SETI exoplanet group on fitting orbits of recently discovered planets and brown dwarfs and joined the GPI Exoplanet Survey (GPIES) collaboration as an official member. Her work was so successful that she was including an article published in 2015 describing the preliminary orbit of 51 Eri b, the only known Jupiter-like exoplanet discovered with GPI. In summer of 2016, she came back to California to work with Prof. Bruce Macintosh, principal investigator of the GPIES collaboration, at Stanford University. In January 2017, she presented the new algorithm, called OFTI (Orbits For the Impatient) at the AAS meeting 229 in Grapevine, TX. She is the first author of a peer-reviewed article article, accepted to the Astronomical Journal, which describes the algorithm and its potential.

Sarah Blunt and her colleagues at the AAS Meeting in 2017  (credit: Sarah Blunt)

Today, Sarah so loves her work in the booming field of exoplanets that she has decided to pursue a PhD in Astrophysics, instead of Mathematics or physics as she had in mind before her REU. We are very proud to announce that she has been accepted to several graduate schools and she is also the recipient of a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. No doubt she has a bright future ahead of her, and we hope that her story will inspire several of you to apply to the SETI REU program and to consider a career in the field of astrophysics.


Sarah Blunt at Gemini South Telescope in Chile where she participated to a GPI observing run (credit: Sarah Blunt).


Sarah’s experience as an REU student at the SETI Institute

-Could you let me know what motivated you to apply to the SETI REU program? Did you apply to any other ones?

- The summer before I did the SETI REU, I did a different REU at the National Solar Observatory in New Mexico. I really liked my project in solar physics, and I was interested in exploring other research in astrophysics. I chose to apply for seven REU programs that “sounded interesting” by scrolling through the NSF website and asking around. I actually think that my boyfriend found the SETI REU program and suggested that we both apply! I remember really liking the idea of the project you and Eric posted on the REU homepage, and thinking that it sounded like something I would be good at. The skills you listed as prerequisites for the summer project were very similar to the skills I had developed over my first two years in college, and I wrote most of my application essay about why I should do that particular project. 

I was offered two summer positions: one at CU Boulder doing more solar physics work, and one at SETI. In the spirit of exploration, I decided to try something new and go with the SETI REU!

– Could you let me know if what capacity this REU program has helped you to become a scientist?

- The SETI REU helped me to become a scientist in several important ways. First, it exposed me to a lot of interesting science, both through seminars and other formal events and by providing me with a community of peers working on a wide variety of projects. I learned so much just by discussing projects with the other REU students over dinner! Second, the REU forced me to work on my science communication skills, notably my public speaking abilities through the journal club and final talk series, and my scientific writing through the final report. Doing the SETI REU also paved the way for me to break into the world of scientific publishing, and I got plenty of experience with the process of writing and publishing science shortly after the REU ended! Finally, the SETI REU enabled me to participate in real science, and to learn about the process of coming up with project ideas, executing the ideas, reworking/revising, and publishing/communicating the work. I feel like a much more independent and knowledgable scientist after working with the GPI team for the past two years, and I owe that all to the SETI REU!

 Any anecdote, story, special memories related to the REU that you would like to share with us?

Not sure if this is a “publishable” story, but over the week that the REU students stayed in Lassen National Park, Jill Tarter, a few of the other REU students (Rosa Diaz, Kaley Brauer, Shannan Acedillo), and I caught a mouse together! It had been living in Kaley’s bed at our place next to the ATA. We spent about an hour running around the house together in pajamas, then finally cornered it and put it outside. There’s an amazing picture of us in PJs holding a Tupperware with the mouse somewhere. That is a very fun memory! How many people can say that they’ve caught a mouse in PJs with Jill Tarter? 

Curiosity, recovering from the Bagnold dunes campaign

A Piece of Mars: You’ll probably want to click on this image to see the whole thing, it’s pretty big, and it’s worth seeing. This 850×550 m (0.53×0.34 mi) scene shows the barchanoid dunes of the Bagnold dune field, imperceptibly crawling southwestward (to the lower left). This is the site where the Curiosity rover first encountered an active dune in its trek through Gale crater. This image was taken after the rover’s intensive field campaign of the two dunes in the upper middle of the frame – the rover is in fact in this frame (extra credit if you can find it!), but it’s backed off a bit from the dunes, and it’s sitting on some old sandstone (that we now know was also once a dune field, long ago, much like some of the sandstones we find on Earth). This image was taken in March 2016; the rover has since moved on and across the dune field, and is slowly working its way through the foothills of Mount Sharp.

I chose this image in tribute to a colleague who unexpectedly passed away last week. He worked on both the HiRISE and Curiosity teams, so it’s fitting to show both here, near the dunes that he studied. He’s best known for his work on dune migration and surface erosion on Mars. He also mapped and measured wind-carved stones called ventifacts (we have those on Earth too), and discovered that the ventifacts here in Gale crater were carved (probably long ago) by a wind blowing from the southwest, which is opposite the direction that the dunes are being blown today! There must have been quite a remarkable shift in wind patterns since those stones were carved, and it remains a mystery. Our dear colleague will be greatly missed.

A Piece of Mars: Get out your red and

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - April 24, 2017

A Piece of Mars: Get out your red and cyan glasses to see an old crater, which fills this 0.775×0.7 km (0.48×0.43 mi) scene. The crater punched through many thin layers when it formed, some of which you can still see in around the rim. The crater is filled with many small dunes called transverse aeolian ridges (TARs), given this laborious and generic name because they aren’t quite like dunes we find on Earth and we don’t yet understand what they are. The TARs are common in this area, but there are even more here, where sand is swept into and then trapped inside this deep bowl. (HiRISE PSP_008735_1700_PSP_007878_1700, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

A change of fluids

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - April 17, 2017

A Piece of Mars: Water carved this ~800 m (0.5 mi) wide channel billions of years ago. The water dried up, and since then it’s been sand that flows through here (from the right), building up lovely dunes. A single crater on one of the dunes indicates that they’re not very active (dunes of this type on Mars all seem to be inactive, unlike their bigger, darker cousins). Look closely between the dunes and you might see a few little dots – these are boulders that have fallen, weathered out from the channel walls. (HiRISE ESP_022693_1530, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Another smoking gun in the search for life in Enceladus’ ocean

Cosmic Diary Marchis - April 13, 2017

This illustration shows Cassini diving through the Enceladus plume in 2015.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Today, NASA-funded scientists announced a major new step in the search for life on Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, thanks to new data collected by the NASA/ESA Cassini mission.

Enceladus has attracted a lot of interest because it has an active pole that spews jets of material into outer space. During its last flyby over that pole, an instrument on board the Cassini spacecraft detected the presence of a biomarker—molecular hydrogen. This suggests that the ocean we know lies beneath the moon’s surface could indeed contain an ecosystem similar to the ones we find in deep-sea hydrothermal vents on Earth.

During Cassini’s deepest dive through the Enceladus plume, NASA-funded scientists discovered hydrogen gas in the material erupting from the Saturnian moon. Is there life down there? (Image Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Hunter Waite, a researcher at the Southwestern Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, is the lead author of a paper describing the findings in an upcoming issue of Science. In the piece, the team explains that the molecular hydrogen (H2) content was measured using Cassini’s INMS instrument, a mass spectrometer capable of sniffing the molecular composition of gas that it captures.

During its last flyby of Enceladus on October 28, 2015, the spacecraft grazed the moon’s southern pole at 8.5 kilometers per second, just 49 kilometers above the surface. It crossed the active region where jets spew material from the ocean that we know is located below the icy surface. On three previous flybys, scientists had managed to measure the composition of the jets’ material, and detected molecules of water, carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia. During the October 2015 flyby, they used the instrument in a mode they hoped would allow them to measure the content of hydrogen molecules in the gas of the vents.

They succeeded—Cassini detected molecular hydrogen.

This is important because the gas is used by microorganisms, known as methanogens, to produce methane from carbon dioxide. Thriving ecosystems seen in the deep oceans of our planet near the volcanic hydrothermal vents of the mid-Atlantic ridge, for instance, depend on the production of energy using this chemistry.

The scientists are very careful when discussing the origin of this molecular hydrogen. They show that the high concentrations measured are not compatible with a geological origin—in other words, such a large amount of molecular hydrogen couldn’t have been stored in the ice shell or in the ocean. Similarly, the scientists are confident that strong radiation on the surface of Enceladus can’t be the source of this molecular hydrogen.  They conclude its source is probably hydrothermal reactions between water and rock, emerging out of active volcanism, as it happens in submarine hydrothermal systems on Earth. The source of this volcanism on Enceladus is still not fully understood, but it is probably related to tidal dissipation in the moon’s core, which is squeezed and warmed as the satellite orbits the gas giant Saturn. As with Europa, a moon of Jupiter, this heat warms up the interior, creating an ocean with hydrothermal activity and surface fractures from which materials can escape in space.

Deep-sea hydrothermal vents in the bottom of the mid-Atlantic ridge when methanogenic-based ecosystems thrive. Similar conditions may exist in the bottom of the ocean of Enceladus. (NOAA Photo Library).

It must be emphasized that the scientists did NOT report the detection of life in Enceladus’ ocean, but rather the detection of molecular hydrogen—the final piece needed to infer the presence of methanogenesis. A model including the characteristics of the ocean (temperature, pH, mixing ratio and composition) supports the idea that methanogenic life could survive in this environment. But thermodynamic models alone are not enough to claim that life is indeed present on Enceladus. In other words, “habitable” does not mean “habited,” and this distinction is important for astrobiologists.

A targeted flyby of Enceladus occurred shortly after this one, on December 19, 2015. The team is probably analyzing more data, but it is not clear that the spacecraft’s INMS instrument was used again to collect observations. With the end of the Cassini mission scheduled for this September, the next step in the study of Enceladus and the understanding its habitability would probably be the design of a mission dedicated to the study of the satellite and the analysis of its jets.

A mission concept called JET was proposed in the last NASA Discovery round of proposals but was not selected. This latest discovery may reactivate interest in sending a spacecraft dedicated to the study of this small (272-kilometer-radius) moon of Saturn. Enceladus and its warm hydrothermal vents could be the place where we one day find life. Microbiological life, most likely, but life—and I for one would be extremely happy with that.

Clear skies,

Franck Marchis

Two directions

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - April 10, 2017

A Piece of Mars: Sometimes I just want to show the interior of a dune field, because it’s full of waves: ripples and dune crests, slip faces, all of which signs of movement. The dunes in this 0.67×0.47 km (0.41×0.29 mi) view have been made by two winds: one blowing from the top of the frame, and a more-recently-active one blowing from the right. Together, these two winds (and gravity) push this sand between a series of hills and down into Coprates Chasma, one of the longest canyons on Mars. (HiRISE ESP_035278_1655, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Where on Mars is this dune?

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - April 03, 2017

A Piece of Mars: This 0.48×0.27 km (0.3×0.17 mi) scene shows a rotund barchan dune. Can you tell from looking at it where on Mars it might be? To me the most obvious feature are the bumpy piles at the bottom of the slip face (at the foot of the dune on the right). They’re probably the remains of avalanches that occurred when there was still winter frost on the dunes. This is a summertime image, so the frost is long gone and the wind is reworking the dune, trying to erase signs of the cold season avalanches. This sort of pattern is best seen in dunes near the north pole. (HiRISE ESP_027674_2650, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

A big rock in a big air stream

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - March 27, 2017

A Piece of Mars: Sand pours in from the top of this 1.95×1.95 km (1.21×1.21 mi) scene. The sand piles up and up (here ~115 m or 377 ft high), but ahead (at the bottom) is a mountain poking up. Like water diverting around a rock in a stream, the mountain affects the air flow just upwind of it, causing the sand to move around it. The steep dune slope is a slip face, caused by oversteepened sand avalanching. If you look closely, you’ll see some of those narrow avalanches near the bottom of the slip face (those at the top have been covered by ripples and falling sand). (HiRISE ESP_049045_1760, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

More Earth-like views of Mars

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - March 20, 2017

A Piece of Mars: In a recent post (Dunes in a Colorful Hole), I showed some dunes crawling over layered terrain, with a view that looked a lot like some desert regions of Earth. Here’s another spot on Mars (0.95×1.1 km, 0.59×0.68 mi) showing yet more beautiful layers with dunes filling up the valleys. Part of what makes it seem Earth-like is the lack of craters, although if you go looking you’ll see there are some there. It’s hard to tell from here, but this whole scene is inside an old fluvial channel. The layers are thought to be lake deposits from when the river dammed up, ages ago. Since then the wind has taken over, taking apart the layers one grain at a time, and then building up dunes with some of those grains. (HiRISE PSP_010329_1525, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Windblown or not? Probably…

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - March 14, 2017

A Piece of Mars: This 0.95×0.95 km (0.59×0.59 mi) scene shows an eroding surface punctured by some old craters. Long, thin lines seem to form in the wake of many brighter knobs. Are those thin lines windblown in origin? They look like erosional features – things that are left behind when other stuff erodes away around it (not like sand dunes, which are things that pile up over time). If so, they don’t look like typical yardangs, which are streamlined bedrock, formed as sand wears down the rock. But this isn’t typical bedrock – it is easily erodible material. The bright knobs and crater rims are what’s left of a once-higher surface. The darker material may be a lag deposit that has built up as that brighter layer eroded down, leaving behind coarser grains that the wind has a harder time transporting (a similar process has occurred in Meridiani Planum, where the Opportunity rover drove through many kilometers of ripples, which now help protect the surface from erosion). If so, these long thin lines are a very unusual sort of yardang. (HiRISE ESP_016843_1590, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Hills made by wind and ice

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - March 08, 2017

A Piece of Mars: A fluid is something that fills a container it’s put into, and it includes both gas and liquids. This 0.7×0.5 km (0.43×0.31 mi) scene shows hills of sediment left behind by two different fluids (wind and ice). The hill on the left is a rippled sand dune, which has been piled up by the wind as it drops its sandy load. On the right is a layered sinuous hill, leftover from when ice flowed down a slope offscreen to the right. The dune is slowly encroaching on the hill, and will eventually be disrupted by it. (HiRISE ESP_048913_1330, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Dunes in a colorful hole

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - February 27, 2017

A Piece of Mars: Gray dunes have migrated over reddish rock, moving toward a narrowing cleft surrounded by tall tan cliffs. Bright lines on the dunes are exposed internal layers (bones of the dunes, really) that show you where the lee-side slopes once were (so you can tell they’ve moved to the left). The cliffs are made of layered rocks (extra points if you can find the fault), suggesting these are sedimentary layers, laid down long ago in Mars’ geologic past. The whole HiRISE image is worth a long look, it’s really amazing. (HiRISE ESP_049009_1520, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Protected: Wonderful Potentially Habitable Worlds Around Trappist-1

Cosmic Diary Marchis - February 22, 2017

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Who wins in the fight of wind vs. ice?

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - February 21, 2017

A Piece of Mars: This is the crest of one of the largest dunes on Mars (0.5×0.5 km or 0.31×0.31 mi). The wind mostly blows from the right, slowly pushing sand up the windward slope. But frost accumulates on (and probably in) the sand during winter, and sometimes it gets too heavy and slides down the steepest slope (toward the left), carving out big gullies in the sand. And then the wind blows some more, trying to erase the gullies by 1) making ripples, 2) burying the gullies (the featureless blue patches are grainfall, which is a fancy term for sand that fell as airfall), and 3) forming dust devils that leave faint but wide tracks. Who wins this fight, wind or ice? Neither: gravity wins (it usually does). (HiRISE ESP_020876_1330, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Mars’ yin-yangs

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - February 13, 2017

A Piece of Mars: Is this 480×270 m (0.3×0.17 mi) scene showing a 150 m (492 ft) wide yin-yang symbol on Mars? Sort of, maybe, if you blur your eyes and lend me artistic license, but it’s not doing so intentionally. One side of the crater is dark and the other is light. Both have their tone because of windblown material blown from the same direction, but the different materials collected where they did for different reasons. The dark material is probably mafic sand (iron and magnesium-rich, like what’s found near many volcanoes), which was bounced along the ground from the lower right, and collected in the lee of the crater rim. The bright material is much finer-grained, dust carried aloft, and it probably settled down on the far side of the crater, and outside as well, as the crater rim poked into the wind and provided enough shelter to let some of the bright material settle out as airfall. (HiRISE ESP_016496_2000, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

The two-faced dunes of Mars

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - February 06, 2017

A Piece of Mars: The focus of this 0.96×0.96 km (0.6×0.6 mi) scene is one of many two-faced dunes on Mars. The bright sunlit slope is one face, formed recently by wind blowing from the upper right. The dark shaded slope is the other face – it’s a little older, formed by wind blowing from the left. Together these two winds alternate, probably in different seasons, forcing the sand into a needle-shaped point that carries sand in a direction that is, give or take, the sum of those two winds. Two-faced dunes like this are rare on Earth, as winds here typically quickly erase older crestlines. (HiRISE ESP_021716_1685, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

What the Hack

ENCORE  A computer virus that bombards you with pop-up ads is one thing. A computer virus that shuts down a city’s electric grid is another. Welcome to the new generation of cybercrime. Discover what it will take to protect our power, communication and transportation systems as scientists try to stay ahead of hackers in an ever-escalating game of cat and mouse.

The expert who helped decipher the centrifuge-destroying Stuxnet virus tells us what he thinks is next. Also convenience vs. vulnerability as we connect to the Internet of Everything. And, the journalist who wrote that Google was “making us stupid,” says automation is extracting an even higher toll: we’re losing basic skills. Such as how to fly airplanes.


•   Ray Sims – Computer Technician, Computer Courage, Berkeley, California

•   Eric Chien – Technical Director of Security Technology and Response, Symantec

•   Paul Jacobs – Chairman and CEO of Qualcomm

•   Shankar Sastry – Dean of the College of Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, director of TRUST

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•   Nicholas Carr – Author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains and the forthcoming “The Glass Cage”. His article, “The Great Forgetting,” is in the November 2013 issue of The Atlantic.


First released November 11, 2013.

Skeptic Check: Evolutionary Arms Race

ENCORE It’s hard to imagine the twists and turns of evolution that gave rise to Homo Sapiens. After all, it required geologic time, and the existence of many long-gone species that were once close relatives. That may be one reason why – according to a recent poll – one-third of all Americans reject the theory of evolution. They prefer to believe that humans and other living organisms have existed in their current form since the beginning of time.

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But if you’ve ever been sick, you’ve been the victim of evolution on a very observable time scale. Nasty viruses and bacteria take full advantage of evolutionary forces to adapt to new hosts. And they can do it quickly.

Discover how comparing the deadly 1918 flu virus with variants today may help us prevent the next pandemic. Also, while antibiotic resistance is threatening to become a major health crisis, better understanding of how bacteria evolve their defenses against our drugs may help us out.

And the geneticist who sequenced the Neanderthal genome says yes, our hirsute neighbors co-mingled with humans.

It’s Skeptic Check … but don’t take our word for it!


•   Svante Pääbo – Evolutionary geneticist, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, author of Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes

•   Ann Reid – – Molecular biologist, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, Oakland, California

•   Martin Blaser – Microbiologist, New York University School of Medicine, member of the National Academy of Sciences, author of Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues

•   Gautam Dantas – Pathologist, immunologist, Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology, Washington University, Saint Louis

First released March 31, 2014.


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