Is there life on Mars? NASA’s Curiosity rover has detected the highest level of methane gas ever found on the planet, offering the tantalizing possibility that there might be some form of life beneath...
The news: Last week, the rover recorded a methane reading of 21 parts per billion at Gale Crater. It’s three times the last record, which Curiosity recorded back in 2013.
Why it’s exciting: Methane is usually produced by living things, so it could be a sign of microbial life on the Red Planet. Don’t get carried away, though; it can also come from rocks. “With our current measurements, we have no way of telling if the methane source is biology or geology, or even ancient or modern,” said Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center.
Backup: A follow-up experiment taken last night by Curiosity found that the methane reading had dropped back to the usual level, NASA said. This suggests it’s a source that comes and goes. However, in a stroke of luck, two satellites (the Mars Express and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter) were observing the crater at roughly the same time the rover took the initial reading. Mars Express was the first probe to spot methane on the planet back in 2003. The new satellite data should help researchers confirm this historic reading and its source.
However, finding out more about the source—and whether it really is life, ancient or current—will require new instruments to be sent to the planet’s surface. So we’ve got a wait on our hands.
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A smarter smart city: Sidewalk was spun out of Alphabet on the promise of rebooting the smart-city concept through community engagement and understanding of local technology needs. The company won a bid to redevelop 800 acres of Toronto’s waterfront in October 2018, and it says it’s spent the past 18 months consulting with Toronto’s citizens and companies.
Planning permission: Amid a growing skepticism toward Silicon Valley, citizen groups questioned Sidewalk’s business objectives, and civil liberties advocates have worried about the privacy implications. In April, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association sued the city of Toronto in an effort to block the project.
Privacy plan: Sidewalk released a proposed data governance plan late last year. It states that data gathered through the project will be kept by an independent “civic data trust” and will not be sold, used for advertising, or shared without people’s permission.
Tomorrow-land: Sidewalk’s new Master Innovation & Development Plan (MIDP) for Toronto, released today, shows that the company’s ambitions remain largely the same. The plan promises ubiquitous high-speed internet; intelligent traffic lights and curbs; smart awnings in public spaces; underground delivery robots; wooden homes; and a thermal energy grid.
Climate changes: Sidewalk’s plan includes a range of provisions aimed at making city living less energy intensive. These include low-energy buildings that rely on clean sources, a smart thermal energy grid, and an environment optimized for cycling.
Data-driven: All of Sidewalk’s smart systems will, of course, still generate copious quantities of data that can be used to optimize and improve services. But Sidewalk promises it will also implement “the strongest governance regime for urban data in the world.” The question for Torontonians—and for inhabitants of other smart cities—is whether the promised improvements are worth the privacy risks.