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Jan. 11, 2013 at 6:43 PM
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Simulated Mars mission highlights problems

PARIS, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- A simulated Mars mission conducted in Europe found some of the crew experienced isolation and mild depression made worse by sleep problems, researchers say.

Scientists writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences say the findings suggest not all current astronauts would be suited to interplanetary travel.

The European Space Agency's 17-month Mars500 project, during which three Russian, two European and one Chinese volunteer crew members had only limited contact with the outside world, was intended to study the physical and psychological effects the long journey to Mars might have on astronauts.

A sleep study conducted during the simulated mission indicated astronauts for such missions should be tested for their ability to deal with changes in their natural day/night cycle, researchers said.

"This illustrates that there are huge differences between individuals and what we need to do is select the right crew, people with the right stuff, and train them properly," said Mathias Basner of the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in the sleep study portion of the research.

One crew member lost his natural day/night rhythm completely, slipping into a 25-hour day that after 12 days had him completely out of sync with his crewmates, the researchers said.

"You can imagine that that would not be good during a real Mars mission when there are mission critical tasks planned during the day," Basner told BBC News.

The affected crew member became somewhat isolated from his companions, finding himself the only person awake as the others slept, researchers said.

Another crew member developed a mild depression, they said.

Facebook charges $100 to message founder

MENLO PARK, Calif., Jan. 11 (UPI) -- Some Facebook members could have a message delivered to the Inbox of the social network's chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, the site says -- for $100.

The charge is part of a test of a system introduced in December, charging $1 to a sender for a message to reach the Inbox of a Facebook member who is not the sender's Facebook friend.

Facebook members who want to reach VIP members with large numbers of followers who are not their friends -- including Zuckerberg -- face the higher $100 charge, Britain's Daily Telegraph reported Friday.

A Facebook spokesman confirmed the $100 charge was part of the test, currently only running in the United States.

"We are testing some extreme price points to see what works to filter spam," he said.

Facebook focused on the spam-fighting aspect of the test when it was introduced.

"Several commentators and researchers have noted that imposing a financial cost on the sender may be the most effective way to discourage unwanted messages and facilitate delivery of messages that are relevant and useful," Facebook said at the time.

U.S. banks ask NSA for cybersecurity help

WASHINGTON, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- U.S. banks have asked the National Security Agency for help protecting computer systems after a slew of cyberattacks against their websites, officials said.

As the sophistication of the attacks has increased, major banks have turned to the NSA for technical assistance to help them analyze their systems and better understand attackers' tactics, The Washington Post reported Friday.

"If you look at [the government's] actions, they're taking this very seriously," one bank official told the Post.

"The government is stepping up to the plate," said the official, who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak for the record.

The NSA assistance has drawn the attention of privacy advocates, who've expressed concern over the world's largest electronic spying agency being given access private companies' systems, even under the express goal of improving computer security.

"The dual mission of the NSA, to promote security and to pursue surveillance, creates an intractable privacy problem," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

NSA declined to comment beyond a statement saying it provides assistance "in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations," the Post reported.

'Mars-like' Earthly spots harboring life

HUELVA, Spain, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- Microorganisms have been found living inside salt deposits in the acidic environment of a Spanish river that seems similar to deposits on Mars, researchers say.

The extreme conditions in the Rio Tinto River in Huelva also appear to be similar to those in deposits on Jupiter's moon, Europa, they said.

Radiation, lack of moisture and extreme temperatures and pressures on the surface of Mars make the development of life difficult, scientists say, so they've been searching the Earth for "friendlier" niches that could encourage life, and one of the candidates is the salt deposits of the Rio Tinto, which are highly acidic and ferrous.

"The salt deposits are good 'hosts' for biological remains and even life itself in extreme circumstances," said researcher Felipe Gomez, coauthor of the study published in the journal Planetary and Space Science.

"The discovery of these protected microniches in one of Mars' analogue on Earth, like Río Tinto, is an important step in evaluating the habitability potential of the Red Planet," the researchers said.

NASA's Mars Global Surveyor probe has detected alluvial fan-shaped salt formations on the Martian surface and scientists believe that they could exist below the frozen oceans on Europa.

"From the astrological point of view, salt deposits are of great importance and should be considered when searching for life on space exploration missions, like the current Curiosity rover mission on Mars," Gomez said.

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