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Water on Mars, new human relative made science headlines
When it comes to science, exploring the future and digging into the past are equally crucial to enable the human race to learn, survive and thrive. Here, 2015 will be remembered for two path-breaking discoveries - the presence of water on Mars and discovery of a brand new human relative.
 
In its constant search of alien life in space, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in September obtained the first definitive signs of liquid water (briny) flowing intermittently on the surface of the Red Planet.
 
In a paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience, the team led by Lujendra Ojha, a researcher of Nepalese origin from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, looked at streaks that form on some slopes on Mars during warmer times of the year, having previously suspected they might be caused by flowing, salty water.
 
The discovery hints towards a full-fledged life that may have sustained on the Red Planet in the past.
 
"There is liquid water today on the surface of Mars," Michael Meyer, lead scientist of NASA's Mars exploration programme, said in a statement.
 
In December, Curiosity found mysterious rocks rich in silica - a rock-forming chemical combining the elements silicon and oxygen and commonly seen on Earth as quartz - bolstering the presence of water on the Martian surface.
 
In September, the world woke up to welcome a new member of the human species that globally made the home pages of all top publications.
 
Homo naledi - a broad-chested fellow who walked upright and had a face with a smile that was probably more human than ape-like years ago - was uniquely adapted for both tree climbing and walking as dominant forms of movement, while also being capable of precise manual manipulation.
 
Lead author William Harcourt-Smith from University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa describes H naledi's foot based on 107 foot elements from the Denaldi Chamber, including a well preserved adult right foot.
 
"H naledi foot shares many features with a modern human foot, indicating it is well-adapted for standing and walking on two feet. However, it differs in having more curved toe bones," Harcourt-Smith noted in a paper published in the journal Nature Communications.
 
In the middle of the year, two big events grabbed the eyeballs. First, NASA's New Horizons probe -- after travelling over 4.8 billion km -- flew past the mysterious Pluto dwarf planet on July 14. Since then, the mission has been beaming a Pluto "treasure trove" to Earth.
 
In what may necessitate rewriting of science books, the probe has returned the sharpest images ever of cratered, mountainous and glacial terrain on Pluto and the best close-ups of the mysterious system that humans have seen for decades.
 
After its historic July 14 flyby of the Pluto system, NASA has selected the next potential destination for its New Horizons mission - a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 that orbits nearly a billion miles beyond Pluto.
 
Later in July, NASA's Kepler mission confirmed the first near-Earth-size planet in the "habitable zone" around a Sun-like star.
 
The newly discovered Kepler-452b is the smallest planet to date discovered orbiting in the habitable zone - the area around a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of an orbiting planet -- of a G2-type star, like our Sun.
 
"We can think of Kepler-452b as an older, bigger cousin to Earth, providing an opportunity to understand and reflect upon Earth's evolving environment," said Jon Jenkins, Kepler data analysis leader at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
 
The International Space Station (ISS), with humans on board, turned 15 in November, enabling research breakthroughs and driving technology innovations that will provide benefits on the Earth and enable long-duration human and robotic exploration missions into deep space, including Mars.
 
After having a sumptuous feast of "Outredgeous" red romaine lettuce grown in space in August, ISS astronauts were set to witness flowers blooming on the orbiting laboratory after the New Year.
 
"Growing a flowering crop is more challenging than growing a vegetative crop such as lettuce," said Gioia Massa, a NASA Kennedy Space Center payload scientist.
 
In December, with the opening of hatches between the ISS and an arriving Soyuz spacecraft, three new Expedition 46 astronauts joined the three ISS residents to continue key research that advances NASA's journey to Mars while making discoveries that can benefit humanity.
 
Highlights:
 
* After 10 years, NASA's New Horizons probe flew past the mysterious dwarf planet Pluto on July 14.
 
* NASA's Kepler mission confirmed the first near-Earth-size planet in the "habitable zone" around a Sun-like star in July.
 
* The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in September obtained first-ever definitive signs of liquid water flowing intermittently on the surface of present-day Mars.
 
* In September, scientists unearthed a new member of the human species called Homo naledi who walked upright and had a face with a smile that was probably more human than ape-like years ago.
 
* The International Space Station (ISS) with humans on board turned 15 in November,
 
Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.

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NASA suspends 2016 launch of key Mars mission
In a setback to future Mars exploration, NASA has decided to suspend the planned March 2016 launch of the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) mission to Mars.
 
The decision follows unsuccessful attempts to repair a leak in a section of the prime instrument in the science payload, the US space agency said in a statement on Tuesday.
 
“We push the boundaries of space technology with our missions to enable science but space exploration is unforgiving and the bottom line is that we're not ready to launch in the 2016 window,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, DC.
 
“A decision on a path forward will be made in the coming months, but one thing is clear: NASA remains fully committed to the scientific discovery and exploration of Mars,” he added.
 
The instrument involved is the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), a seismometer provided by France’s Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES).
 
Designed to measure ground movements as small as the diameter of an atom, the instrument requires a vacuum seal around its three main sensors to withstand the harsh conditions of the Martian environment.
 
“InSight's investigation of the Red Planet's interior is designed to increase understanding of how all rocky planets, including Earth, formed and evolved,” said Bruce Banerdt, InSight principal investigator.
 
Mars retains evidence about the rocky planets' early development that has been erased on Earth by internal churning Mars lacks.
 
“Gaining information about the core, mantle and crust of Mars is a high priority for planetary science, and InSight was built to accomplish this,” he added.
 
A leak earlier this year that previously had prevented the seismometer from retaining vacuum conditions was repaired, and the mission team was hopeful the most recent fix also would be successful.
 
However, during testing in extreme cold temperature (-45 degrees Celsius), the instrument again failed to hold a vacuum.
 
NASA officials determined there is insufficient time to resolve another leak, and complete the work and thorough testing required to ensure a successful mission.
 
“It’s the first time ever that such a sensitive instrument has been built. We were very close to succeeding, but an anomaly has occurred, which requires further investigation,” said Marc Pircher, director of CNES’s Toulouse Space Centre.
 
“Our teams will find a solution to fix it, but it won’t be solved in time for a launch in 2016,” Pircher noted.
 
The spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin, was delivered to Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
 
With the 2016 launch canceled, the spacecraft will be returned from Vandenberg to Lockheed’s facility in Denver.
 
For InSight, that 2016 launch window existed from March 4 to March 30.
 
NASA is on an ambitious journey to Mars that includes sending humans to the Red Planet.
 
Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.

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RBI working on payment systems vision document
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is in the process of preparing a new Payment Systems Vision document, Deputy Governor R. Gandhi said on Tuesday.
 
"The Reserve Bank is working on the next Payment Systems Vision document. In this context, it is also imperative that market participants also continue to take serious interest in developing the payment systems," he said at an event organised by National Payments Corporation of India here.
 
The payments landscape in India is changing fast and the key elements are the regulatory focus on creating robuse payments infrastructure, technology enabling solutions and others, said Gandhi, adding that the interoperability of the technology is the key and critical ingredient for evolving a larger payment ecosystems.
 
"The retail payments in the next 3-5 years are likely to be driven essentially through mobile payments. This is to ride on over one billion mobile connections in the country and the financial Inclusion drive," he said.
 
Citing the availability of the digital payment channels in tier I and II cities, Gandhi said it is important that population of over six lakh villages in India is exposed to alternate delivery channels.
 
He said electronic benefit transfer is a clear strategy to promote efficient payment systems.
 
Apart from interoperability of technological systems, Gandhi said the end customers need to have simple ways of accessing digital channels while making the channels safe and secure to build the customer confidence on using digital payment channels.
 
Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.

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