To See Deep into Space, Start Deep Underground

In 1969, Neil Armstrong fired my imagination when he took “a giant leap” onto the moon. I was 11 years old as I watched him take that first step, and like millions around the world, I was riveted to the screen. Today I wonder how I would have reacted if the news anchor had simply described this incredible moment. Would I have been so excited? So inspired? So eager to learnmore? I don’t think so. It was seeing the story unfold that made it magical, that pulled me into the story.

How we see the world impacts how we view it: That first glimpse of outer space sparked an interest in science. And although I didn’t become a scientist, I found a career in science, working with researchers at Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota, explaining the abstract and highly complex physics experiments in ways the rest of us can appreciate. It isn’t always easy. Ever heard of neutrinoless double-beta decay? Probably not. If I told you this rare form of nuclear decay could go a long way in helping us understand some of the mysteries of the universe, would you get the picture? Maybe. The words are important, but an illustration or animation might give you a better idea.

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The Best Teacher I Never Had

Thirty years ago I went on vacation and fell for Richard Feynman.

A friend and I were planning a trip together and wanted to mix a little learning in with our relaxation. We looked at a local university’s film collection, saw that they had one of his lectures on physics, and checked it out. We loved it so much that we ended up watching it twice. Feynman had this amazing knack for making physics clear and fun at the same time. I immediately went looking for more of his talks, and I’ve been a big fan ever since. Years later I bought the rights to those lectures and worked with Microsoft to get them posted online for free.

In 1965, Feynman shared a Nobel Prize for work on particle physics. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of that honor, the California Institute of Technology—where he taught for many years before his death in 1988—asked for some thoughts about what made him so special. Here’s the video I sent:

In that video, I especially love the way Feynman explains how fire works. He takes such obvious delight in knowledge—you can see his face light up. And he makes it so clear that anyone can understand it.

In that sense, Feynman has a lot in common with all the amazing teachers I’ve met in schools across the country. You walk into their classroom and immediately feel the energy—the way they engage their students—and their passion for whatever subject they’re teaching. These teachers aren’t famous, but they deserve just as much respect and admiration as someone like Feynman. If there were a Nobel for making high school algebra exciting and fun, I know a few teachers I would nominate.

Incidentally, Feynman wasn’t famous just for being a great teacher and a world-class scientist; he was also quite a character. He translated Mayan hieroglyphics. He loved to play the bongos. While helping develop the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, he entertained himself by figuring out how to break into the safes that contained top-secret research. (Feynman cultivated this image as a colorful guy. His colleague Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Prize–winner in his own right, once remarked, “Feynman was a great scientist, but he spent a great deal of his effort generating anecdotes about himself.”)

Here are some suggestions if you’d like to know more about Feynman or his work:

  • The Messenger Lectures on Physics. These are the talks that first captivated me back in the 1980s and that you see briefly in the video above. The site is a few years old, but you can watch for free along with some helpful commentary.
  • Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher is a collection of the most accessible parts of Feynman’s famous Caltech lectures on physics.
  • He recounted his adventures in two very good books, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? You won’t learn a lot about physics, but you’ll have a great time hearing his stories.


The Advanced Nuclear Industry

By Samuel Brinton  Published June 15, 2015


The American energy sector has experienced enormous technological innovation over the past decade in everything from renewables (solar and wind power), to extraction (hydraulic fracturing), to storage (advanced batteries), to consumer efficiency (advanced thermostats).

What has gone largely unnoticed is that nuclear power is poised to join the innovation list.

A new generation of engineers, entrepreneurs and investors are working to commercialize innovative and advanced nuclear reactors.

This is being driven by a sobering reality—the need to add enough electricity to get power to the 1.3 billion people around the world who don’t have it while making deep cuts in carbon emissions to effectively combat climate change.

Third Way has found that there are nearly 50 companies, backed by more than $1.3 billion in private capital, developing plans for new nuclear plants in the U.S. and Canada. The mix includes startups and big-name investors like Bill Gates, all placing bets on a nuclear comeback, hoping to get the technology in position to win in an increasingly carbon-constrained world.

This report introduces you to the advanced nuclear industry in North America. It includes the most comprehensive set of details about who’s working on these reactor designs and where. We describe the money and momentum building behind advanced nuclear, and how the technology has evolved since the Golden Age of Nuclear.

To be clear, this is not your grandfather’s nuclear technology. While developers in some cases are working off of technology designs conceived in our national laboratories during the 1950s and 1960s, the advanced reactor technologies being developed are safer, more efficient and need a fraction of the footprint compared to the nearly 100 light water reactors (LWRs) that provide almost 20% of the U.S.’s electricity today (and 65% of its carbon-free power). New plants could be powered entirely with spent nuclear fuel sitting at plant sites across the country, built at a lower cost than LWRs and shut down more easily in an emergency.

The need for nuclear power has never been clearer. To stem climate change, the world needs 40% of electricity to come from zero-emissions sources, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). While we can and must grow renewable energy generation, it alone will leave us far short of meeting that demand, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have said. This is why the IPCC in November issued an urgent call for more non-emitting power, including the construction of more than 400 nuclear plants in the next 20 years. That would represent a near doubling of the 435 plants operating globally today.

Nuclear power is on the cusp of a comeback. The technology may be the best opportunity we have to address climate change and meet the world’s growing energy needs.

Introducing the Advanced Nuclear Industry

The energy sector has experienced enormous technological innovation over the past decade in everything from renewables (solar power), to extraction (hydraulic fracturing), to storage (advanced batteries), to consumer efficiency (advanced thermostats). What has gone less noticed is that nuclear power is poised to join the innovation list. Third Way original research has identified a new generation of engineers, entrepreneurs, and investors, along with several established nuclear companies, who are working to commercialize innovative and advanced nuclear reactors in North America. In total, we have found nearly 50 projects in companies and organizations working on small modular reactors based on the current light water reactor technology of today’s reactors, advanced reactors using innovative fuels and alternative coolants like molten salt, high temperature gas, or liquid metal instead of high-pressure water, and even fusion reactors, to generate electricity.

These companies are being built and funded because the innovators and investors see profit in creating an answer to the global energy paradox – there are 1.3 billion people in the world without access to reliable electricity; they will get that electricity, and advanced nuclear can provide it to them while cutting global carbon emissions. Our table and map of the advanced nuclear industry in North America is the most comprehensive listing to date of who is working on these reactor designs. In compiling this list, four important trends became clear:

  1. Coast to Coast: Research is not isolated to one state or even one coast. The companies and organizations leading the design revolution reach up and down both the East and West coasts of the United States and into Canada. In all, twenty different states host entities researching advanced nuclear energy.
  2. One Size Doesn’t Fit All: In interviews Third Way conducted with many of the companies on this list, we found real diversity in size and structure, ranging from lone entrepreneurs, to venture capital supported university spin-offs, to large international corporations. Each is making strides and bringing a unique perspective to the industry.
  3. A Compendium of Coolants: While water does a great job of cooling and moderating the atomic fissions of nuclear reactors, the next generation of nuclear reactors is looking to broaden our options. These include liquid metal, high temperature gases, and molten salt. Nuclear reactors using these coolants can be even safer than most light water reactors. The higher operating temperatures of coolants like helium, liquid metals, and molten salts more readily lend themselves to industrial applications requiring high temperature process heat.1
  4. Not Just Fission Anymore: Along with the evolution from large light water reactors to small modular light water reactors and beyond, Third Way has found major investment and interest in nuclear fusion from both small and large companies. Though this technology has much left to refine before commercialization, the growth has been staggering.

When thinking of the emerging advanced nuclear industry, it is important to understand how it compares to other sectors with a number of potentially new entrants. Let’s take the Internet. On the surface, there are similarities. As with the Internet today, the advanced nuclear space includes startups led by recent Ph.D. graduates, established Fortune 500 multinationals, and everything in between. And just like Internet companies, financing includes seed capital provided by angel investors, investments by established venture capital firms, and companies spending their own capital on significant R&D budgets.

The differences between the advanced nuclear companies and the companies spurring the latest Internet revolution are just as important. While the latest software or hardware improvement can take significant funding and research, the dollars and time required are a relative pittance in comparison to the funding necessary and regulation that must be navigated to design and build a new nuclear reactor. But despite these obstacles, nearly 50 companies and organizations are moving ahead, and a decade from now we may be seeing a brand new reactor revolutionizing the energy industry.

See the balance of this article, relevant data, an interesting infographic alongside references at:

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Op-Ed Nuclear power must be a part of greener future

Reference: Advanced Nuclear Summit & Showcase

A Ninth Planet Once Again?

Ninth Planet May Exist Beyond Pluto, Scientists Report

There might be a ninth planet in the solar system after all, and it is not Pluto.

Two astronomers reported on Wednesday that they had compelling signs of something bigger and farther away — something that would satisfy the current definition of a planet, where Pluto falls short.

“We are pretty sure there’s one out there,” said Michael E. Brown, a professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology.

What Dr. Brown and a fellow Caltech professor, Konstantin Batygin, have not done is actually find that planet, so it would be premature to start revising mnemonics of the planets.

In a paper published in The Astronomical Journal, Dr. Brown and Dr. Batygin laid out a detailed circumstantial argument for the planet’s existence in what astronomers have observed: a half-dozen small bodies in distant elliptical orbits.

What is striking, the scientists said, is that the orbits of all six loop outward in the same quadrant of the solar system and are tilted at about the same angle. The odds of that happening by chance are about 1 in 14,000, Dr. Batygin said.

Read the entire article as:

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Who named the neutronino as the neutrino?

by Maury Goodman

I once heard that Fermi had named the neutrino, so I repeated it as fact in my last newsletter. That’s what underpaid journalists do. Luckily, readers correct me when the partial truth is incomplete.

Pauli had called his particle a neutron. But to distinguish it from Chadwick’s neutron, it needed a diminutive. In Italian, that would have been neutronino.

The name was pronounced for the first time by Edoardo Amaldi, as he wrote in his 1984 very long and detailed Physics Report (Volume 111) in note 277: “The name neutrino, (a funny and grammatically incorrect contraction of “little neutron” in Italian: neutrino) entered the international terminology through Fermi, who started to use it sometime between the conference in Paris in July 1932 and the Solvay Conference October 1933 where Pauli used it, the word came out in a humorous conversation at the Instituto di Via Panisperna.

Fermi, Amaldi and and few others were present and Fermi was explaining Pauli’s hypothesis about his “light neutron”.

For distinguishing this particle from the Chadwick neutron, Amalfi jokingly used this funny name, – says Occhialini, who recalls of having shortly later told around this little story in Cambridge.”

Reprinted from the November 2015 long-baseline neutrino newsletter, written and curated by Dr. Maury Goodman of Argonne National Laboratory.

Benedictine University professor’s egg research hatches new discoveries on environmental change

LISLE, Ill.Nov. 30, 2015 — Eggs. We eat them, decorate them and collect them.

But what if we could use eggs to go “back to the future” and find out what happened in the past that has affected and possibly is still affecting our current and future environment?

Monica Tischler, Ph.D., professor of Biology at Benedictine University, has solved this time paradox in a way that fully preserves historical artifacts. Except she didn’t use a specially fitted DeLorean. She used X-rays.

But it wasn’t just any ordinary X-rays. It was X-rays from one of the world’s most powerful sources – the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory. Tischler is one of many researchers using the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) $467 million X-ray machine. The DOE reports that scientists from around the world go to Argonne to conduct potentially groundbreaking research.

The renowned laboratory is only a few miles from Benedictine, allowing Tischler the opportunity to break new ground without breaking the treasured, rare eggs she used to assess past environmental living conditions of native animals from across the United States.

An osprey egg being tested by Monica Tischler, Ph.D., professor of Biology at Benedictine University, during research conducted at Argonne National...
An osprey egg being tested by Monica Tischler, Ph.D., professor of Biology at Benedictine University, during research conducted at Argonne National…

Typically, researchers have to destroy their egg specimens by crushing them into fine particles so they can more easily examine the material. Doing so gives researchers a window into changes in the environment that can possibly predict future environmental changes including some that could prove hazardous to the Earth, as well as animal and human life.

Tischler first began theorizing in 2012 whether egg specimens could be analyzed using X-rays. She had access to thousands of egg specimens the late Benedictine professors Frs. Hilary and Edmund Jurica, O.S.B., had amassed over a period of decades. Those specimens are now part of the University’s Jurica-Suchy Nature Museum, which boasts a collection of more than 50,000 plants and creatures ranging from butterflies, beetles and spiders to a whale skeleton.

Monica Tischler, Ph.D., professor of Biology at Benedictine University, discusses the alignment of a sample during research using the Advanced Photon...
Monica Tischler, Ph.D., professor of Biology at Benedictine University, discusses the alignment of a sample during research using the Advanced Photon…

“We have eggs dating back 150 years,” Tischler said. “Before binoculars were invented and made bird-watching popular, many people collected bird eggs. Then when migratory bird acts were instituted in the late 19th century and made the practice of collecting eggs unfashionable and illegal, many collections were donated to museums.

Tischler, who worked closely with Fr. Theodore Suchy, O.S.B, who served as the University’s museum curator for more than 40 years, was partly inspired by the monk’s dedication to preserving the collection for future generations.

“Fr. Ted’s contribution was to take that teaching collection and make it into a museum for the public and the University,” Tischler said.

Now she has taken the use of the collection a step further.

“The next step would be to take this incredible collection and see what we can use for research,” she added. “I felt that is where my contribution could lie. While a microbiologist by training, I have a strong background in environmental research and toxicology.”

She wrote a proposal asking Argonne if she could use its advanced X-ray equipment to detect metals and inorganic pollutants in bird eggs. Argonne approved her request and in 2013, Tischler and her research team began detecting some pollutants using the X-ray beam.

But why eggs? And what does finding pollutants in the eggs really mean?

“When birds lay eggs, they excrete contaminants into the egg, and the contaminants in the eggshell reflect blood concentrates of those contaminants,” Tischler said. “These specimens represent a window into the past. The problem is that up until this research, all the techniques used to identify the contaminant in an eggshell were destructive. You take the eggshell, crush it, dissolve it in acid and examine it. It would be unfathomable to destroy these rare eggs for research.”

Using the Advanced Photon Source, Tischler designed a method to examine changes in an ecosystem by looking at these rare egg collections without damaging them. She tested the methodology with chicken eggs first to make sure X-rays would not damage the eggs.

The machine uses an electron storage ring that produces hard X-rays. The X-rays cause the elements to fluoresce, and analyzing the fluorescence allows the researchers to determine which elements are present. Researchers identified within the eggs naturally occurring elements such as calcium, iron and zinc, but also elements such as manganese, arsenic, bromine and lead, which can be considered contaminants.

Researchers examined the eggs of a variety of birds including eagles, ospreys, pied-billed grebes, common terns and peregrine falcons. Curiously, not all eggs (grebes, terns) taken from the same period and geographical location showed contaminants.

“With the eagle and osprey eggs, we could detect quite a bit of contaminants,” Tischler said. “My conclusion is my technique does not work on specimens that are lower on the food chain. It’s based upon what they eat.”

To prove her hypothesis, Tischler submitted a second proposal approved by Argonne to test a new set of eggs in order to ascertain whether the presence or absence of contaminants is related to the type of bird or its environment.

In the examination of eagle and osprey eggs from approximately the same era (circa mid-1910s), researchers found levels of arsenic and lead in addition to iron and zinc.

“You see the same contaminants in both types of bird, so it’s the environment – not the bird,” Tischler said. “The same species at the same time from different watersheds were exposed to different contaminants and we can show this. It’s a new technique to gain a window into the past to compare watersheds and compare contaminants over time.”

Benedictine undergraduate and graduate students were engaged in the research process, which developed a following on Snapchat. Student researchers helped switch out samples, operated the equipment and recorded results. This type of hands-on research has become commonplace for Benedictine students pursuing careers in the sciences.

Tischler plans to submit a manuscript with full results for publication in a scientific journal in the near future.

The College of Science at Benedictine University provides unique opportunities for undergraduate students to participate in research projects on campus, and internships through its ties to the regional science community, which includes Argonne, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Field Museum of Natural History. This experience allows students to gain expertise in a laboratory setting, connecting their classroom work to real-world applications.

For nearly a century, the science faculty at Benedictine has prepared its students to lead lives of meaning, purpose and distinction. Empowered by a values-centered Benedictine science education that emphasizes hands-on scientific exploration and discovery, alumni have gone on to realize their professional potential, build stellar careers and bring their talents to bear on society’s most pressing needs.

SOURCE  Benedictine University

Coordinating Exchanges for Learning

Were the contemporary scientific discoveries that were placed before you as a child in any way a catalyst for your own curiosities? As a youngster did you keen-fully observe the engineering of technology that was tooled for discovery? Did the Apollo or space shuttle orbiter missions inspire any meaning or perspective?  Are you a scientist, a citizen scientist?  Are more science professionals needed?

Childhood impressions are core components to who an  individual becomes. Positive influences by skilled and knowledgeable teachers, concerned even loving parents are paramount.

Although science is tractably understood through experience and the application of theories, the details are complicated, work and tenacity are required to reach any level of competence, as is a recursive process that takes years to master, the best practice being an early inception, suggesting 4th or 5th grades as optimal.

As a lot, elementary school teachers are amazing, passionate, empathetic educators who contribute directly to student successes.   They are excellent “conductors” orchestrating the development of knowledge across the disciplines, despite their lack of high proficiency at any of  the “oboe, violin, timpani, harp”, or any of the “instruments” they aptly “conduct”.

Middle school teachers build upon their colleagues base by applying their special areas of credentialed interest and skill for specific subjects, that is the mathematics teacher teaches math, the science teacher science, the music teacher music, the arts art.

Generally these teachers were trained at the bachelors level, were raised and attended nearby schools where education theories, psychology strategies, human behaviors were well studied, but elected to take a fewer rather than more science and mathematics courses.

Missing for many teachers is that detailed experience in, for example, the sciences, the associated physics or chemistry experiments, the engineering design and access to relevant applications, and or the technologies that have shaped human kind, say in biology.

Moreover, integrative strategies that rely on trans-disciplinarity where the dynamic of collaboration is used in solving relevant problems have few examples of successful implementation.

Helpful are the opportunities that any science, technology, engineering, or mathematics expert creates for students, particularly when in a collaboration with those teachers.

Traditional learning opportunities which align formally in the classroom are ideal, yet well implemented after-school programs continue to impress principals, teachers, parents, while inspiring selected students.

Needed is a coordination of professionals from companies such as John Deere, Sanford Engineering, Mortenson Construction, Moore Engineering, but also from North Dakota Universities and Colleges,   as well as from non-profits and for-profits which are practiced at informal learning strategies that include the Inspire Innovation Laboratory and Discover Express Kids.

As an example of an exchanged asset,  consider astronomy and astrophysics as an integrative topical strategy that is proven effective at sparking a middle school student’s scientific interests.

Lofting sophisticated instrumentation such as the Hubble Space Telescope into the heavens was an accomplishment built upon the successes and failures that extend from “choosing to go to the moon” by President Kennedy.

It was relatively recent that there was knowledge of other galaxies in the universe, that galaxies are clustered much the way stars are, that they collide, explode, evolve, all fascinating and a wonderful context to inspire students.

Providing tours of the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, and beyond is a unique specialty of  the University of North Dakota’s Physics and Astronomy Department through an outreach project funded by the NSF-EPSCoR program.

In UND’s portable Elumenati Geodome, youngsters are treated to a highly engaging planetarium experience where craters on the moon, atmospheres on Earth and Mars, where solar system dynamics can be viewed in a 3D splendor.

Knowledge that such a program exists,  that a highly specialized and experienced professional can join in your North Dakota classroom through communications facilitated through the vehicle of the ND STEM Exchange is among its core functions.

Lining up, coordinating, managing, and assessing those opportunities is a developing role of the North Dakota STEM Exchange, a project being piloted by the North Dakota STEM Network.

For more information on the Exchange, please visit:

A Century Ago, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity Changed Everything

PRINCETON, N.J. — By the fall of 1915, Albert Einstein was a bit grumpy.

And why not? Cheered on, to his disgust, by most of his Berlin colleagues, Germany had started a ruinous world war. He had split up with his wife, and she had decamped to Switzerland with his sons.

He was living alone. A friend, Janos Plesch, once said, “He sleeps until he is awakened; he stays awake until he is told to go to bed; he will go hungry until he is given something to eat; and then he eats until he is stopped.”

Worse, he had discovered a fatal flaw in his new theory of gravity, propounded with great fanfare only a couple of years before. And now he no longer had the field to himself. The German mathematician David Hilbert was breathing down his neck.

So Einstein went back to the blackboard. And on Nov. 25, 1915, he set down the equation that rules the universe. As compact and mysterious as a Viking rune, it describes space-time as a kind of sagging mattress where matter and energy, like a heavy sleeper, distort the geometry of the cosmos to produce the effect we call gravity, obliging light beams as well as marbles and falling apples to follow curved paths through space.

This is the general theory of relativity. It’s a standard trope in science writing to say that some theory or experiment transformed our understanding of space and time. General relativity really did.

Since the dawn of the scientific revolution and the days of Isaac Newton, the discoverer of gravity, scientists and philosophers had thought of space-time as a kind of stage on which we actors, matter and energy, strode and strutted.

With general relativity, the stage itself sprang into action. Space-time could curve, fold, wrap itself up around a dead star and disappear into a black hole. It could jiggle like Santa Claus’s belly, radiating waves of gravitational compression, or whirl like dough in a Mixmaster. It could even rip or tear. It could stretch and grow, or it could collapse into a speck of infinite density at the end or beginning of time.

Scientists have been lighting birthday candles for general relativity all year, including here at the Institute for Advanced Study, where Einstein spent the last 22 years of his life, and where they gathered in November to review a century of gravity and to attend performances by Brian Greene, the Columbia University physicist and World Science Festival impresario, and the violinist Joshua Bell. Even nature, it seems, has been doing its bit. Last spring, astronomers said they had discovered an “Einstein cross,” in which the gravity of a distant cluster of galaxies had split the light from a supernova beyond them into separate beams in which telescopes could watch the star exploding again and again, in a cosmic version of the movie “Groundhog Day.”

Hardly anybody would be more surprised by all this than Einstein himself. The space-time he conjured turned out to be far more frisky than he had bargained for back in 1907.

It was then — perhaps tilting too far back in his chair at the patent office in Bern, Switzerland — that he had the revelation that a falling body would feel weightless. That insight led him to try to extend his new relativity theory from slip-siding trains to the universe.

According to that foundational theory, now known as special relativity, the laws of physics don’t care how fast you are going — the laws of physics and the speed of light are the same. Einstein figured that the laws of physics should look the same no matter how you were moving — falling, spinning, tumbling or being pressed into the seat of an accelerating car.

One consequence, Einstein quickly realized, was that even light beams would bend downward and time would slow in a gravitational field. Gravity was not a force transmitted across space-time like magnetism; it was the geometry of that space-time itself that kept the planets in their orbits and apples falling.

It would take him another eight difficult years to figure out just how this elastic space-time would work, during which he went from Bern to Prague to Zurich and then to a prestigious post in Berlin.

In 1913, he and his old classmate Marcel Grossmann published with great fanfare an outline of a gravity theory that was less relative than they had hoped. But it did predict light bending, and Erwin Freundlich, an astronomer at the Berlin Observatory, set off to measure the deflection of starlight during a solar eclipse in the Crimea.

When World War I started, Freundlich and others on his expedition were arrested as spies. Then Einstein discovered a flaw in his calculations.

“There are two ways that a theoretician goes astray,” he wrote to the physicist Hendrik Lorentz. “1) The devil leads him around by the nose with a false hypothesis (for this he deserves pity) 2) His arguments are erroneous and ridiculous (for this he deserves a beating).”

And so the stage was set for a series of lectures to the Prussian Academy that would constitute the final countdown on his quest to grasp gravity.

Continue reading this article at:


Researchers Reveal How Climate Change Killed Mars

Climate change isn’t just something to worry about here on Earth. New research published today shows that Mars has undergone a dramatic climate shift in the past that has rendered much of the planet inhospitable to life.

About 3.8 billion years ago, Mars was a reasonably pleasant place. It had a thick atmosphere filled with carbon dioxide that kept it warm. Rivers trickled into lakes across its surface. Some researchers think there might even have been an ocean.

“It seems to have been a much more clement climate, a climate more suitable to sustaining life at the surface,” says Bruce Jakosky, a researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Nobody knows if there was life on Mars back then, but it’s now a hostile place. The water’s mostly gone. So is a lot of that cozy atmosphere. To try and find out what went wrong, Jakosky and other scientists have sent a spacecraft called the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission, or MAVEN.

With each swing around Mars, MAVEN actually dips into the planet’s atmosphere, gathering data. The results are published today in two journals — Geophysical Research Letters and Science — and they reveal something remarkable: Mars’ atmosphere is actually leaking into space.

“It’s leaving at a rate about 100 grams per second,” Jaksosky says. “That doesn’t seem like much, but you add it up over a couple of billion years and it’s enough to remove the entire atmosphere.”

The cause is our friendly neighborhood star, the sun. It’s constantly shooting out high energy particles known collectively as the solar wind.

“[The wind] streams outward at a gas flow at about a million miles per hour,” Jaksosky says.

On Earth, our magnetic field blocks the solar wind. Particles become tangled in it before they can ever reach our precious air supply.

There is no magnetic field on Mars, so when the solar wind reaches the Red Planet, the atmosphere gets stripped away.

To view an excellent simulation by NASA demonstrating solar winds on Mars, read more at: