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Dawn mission reborn
In early March, NASA cancelled its Dawn mission built to orbit two of the solar system's largest asteroids using ion engine propulsion. Technical problems and cost overruns were blamed. But in this news conference from March 27, agency officials announce NASA's decision to reverse the cancellation and restart the mission.

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CEV planning
Lockheed Martin holds this news conference in Houston on March 24 to announced that it is partnering with the State of Texas to locate the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) program office in Houston, as well as systems engineering, software development and qualification testing, if the corporation wins the NASA contract to build the next generation spacecraft for NASA.

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Expedition 12 recap
As the Expedition 12 mission aboard the International Space Station winds down, officials managing the flight from Mission Control in Houston hold this retrospective briefing to talk about the highs and lows, the science, the spacewalks and everything in between.

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Expedition 13 preview
International Space Station officials preview the next Expedition mission to the orbiting outpost, which is scheduled for launch March 29. The preview was given during a briefing March 22 from Johnson Space Center.

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STS-41B: Human satellite
One of the iconic moments of the early space shuttle program was astronaut Bruce McCandless floating above the brilliantly blue Earth completely disconnected from his spacecraft. He was testing the Manned Maneuvering Unit, a jet-powered backpack that would enable spacewalkers to travel away from the space shuttle to service satellites. In this post-flight presentation, the crew of Challenger's STS-41B mission of February 1984 narrate the film highlights from their mission that also included the first shuttle landing at Kennedy Space Center.

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Shuttle launch delay
Space Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale announces his decision to replace suspect fuel-level sensors inside the liquid hydrogen portion of Discovery's external tank. The three-week job means Discovery will miss its May launch window, delaying the second post-Columbia test flight to the next daylight period opening July 1. Hale made the announcement during a news conference from Johnson Space Center on March 14.

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Stardust science
NASA's Stardust spacecraft returned to Earth in January with the first samples ever retrieved from a comet. This briefing with mission scientists held March 13 from the Johnson Space Center offers an update on the initial research into the comet bits.

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Exploring Enceladus
The Cassini spacecraft orbiting the planet Saturn has found evidence indicating pockets of liquid water may exist near the surface on the icy moon Enceladus, raising the question of whether the small world could support life. This movie includes stunning images of Enceladus taken by Cassini and animation of geysers seen erupting from the moon.

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MRO's orbit insertion explained
The make-or-break engine firing by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to enter orbit around Mars and the subsequent aerobraking to reach the low-altitude perch for science observations are explained by project manager Jim Graf in this narrated animation package.

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Mars meteorite similar to bacteria-etched Earth rocks
Posted: March 28, 2006

A new study of a meteorite that originated from Mars has revealed a series of microscopic tunnels that are similar in size, shape and distribution to tracks left on Earth rocks by feeding bacteria.

And though researchers were unable to extract DNA from the Martian rocks, the finding nonetheless adds intrigue to the search for life beyond Earth.

Results of the study were published in the latest edition of the journal Astrobiology.

Martin Fisk, a professor of marine geology in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University and lead author of the study, said the discovery of the tiny burrows do not confirm that there is life on Mars, nor does the lack of DNA from the meteorite discount the possibility.

"Virtually all of the tunnel marks on Earth rocks that we have examined were the result of bacterial invasion," Fisk said. "In every instance, we've been able to extract DNA from these Earth rocks, but we have not yet been able to do that with the Martian samples.

"There are two possible explanations," he added. "One is that there is an abiotic way to create those tunnels in rock on Earth, and we just haven't found it yet. The second possibility is that the tunnels on Martian rocks are indeed biological in nature, but the conditions are such on Mars that the DNA was not preserved."

More than 30 meteorites that originated on Mars have been identified. These rocks from Mars have a unique chemical signature based on the gases trapped within. These rocks were "blasted off" the planet when Mars was struck by asteroids or comets and eventually these Martian meteorites crossed Earth's orbit and plummeted to the ground.

One of these is Nakhla, which landed in Egypt in 1911, and provided the source material for Fisk's study. Scientists have dated the igneous rock fragment from Nakhla - which weighs about 20 pounds - at 1.3 billion years in age. They believe that the rock was exposed to water about 600 million years ago, based on the age of clay found inside the rocks.

"It is commonly believed that water is a necessary ingredient for life," Fisk said, "so if bacteria laid down the tunnels in the rock when the rock was wet, they may have died 600 million years ago. That may explain why we can't find DNA - it is an organic compound that can break down."

Other authors on the paper include Olivia Mason, an OSU graduate student; Radu Popa, of Portland State University; Michael Storrie-Lombardi, of the Kinohi Institute in Pasadena, Calif.; and Edward Vicenci, from the Smithsonian Institution.

Fisk and his colleagues have spent much of the past 15 years studying microbes that can break down igneous rock and live in the obsidian-like volcanic glass. They first identified the bacteria through their signature tunnels then were able to extract DNA from the rock samples - which have been found in such diverse environments on Earth as below the ocean floor, in deserts and on dry mountaintops.

They even found bacteria 4,000 feet below the surface in Hawaii that they reached by drilling through solid rock.

In all of these Earth rock samples that contain tunnels, the biological activity began at a fracture in the rock or the edge of a mineral where the water was present. Igneous rocks are initially sterile because they erupt at temperatures exceeding 1,000 degrees C. - and life cannot establish itself until the rocks cool. Bacteria may be introduced into the rock via dust or water, Fisk pointed out.

"Several types of bacteria are capable of using the chemical energy of rocks as a food source," he said. "One group of bacteria in particular is capable of getting all of its energy from chemicals alone, and one of the elements they use is iron - which typically comprises 5 to 10 percent of volcanic rock."

Another group of OSU researchers, led by microbiologist Stephen Giovannoni, has collected rocks from the deep ocean and begun developing cultures to see if they can replicate the rock-eating bacteria. Similar environments usually produce similar strains of bacteria, Fisk said, with variable factors including temperature, pH levels, salt levels, and the presence of oxygen.

The igneous rocks from Mars are similar to many of those found on Earth, and virtually identical to those found in a handful of environments, including a volcanic field found in Canada.

One question the OSU researchers hope to answer is whether the bacteria begin devouring the rock as soon as they are introduced. Such a discovery would help them estimate when water - and possibly life - may have been introduced on Mars.