By Stuart Proctor
It’s been a big week in the world of space exploration and what better timing, considering Wednesday’s release of ‘The Martian’?
In a quite frankly stunning announcement, NASA announced on Monday that they had found evidence for liquid
water on Mars. After 15 years of observing odd, changing ‘streaks’ on the surface of the red planet, scientists may have discovered at least part of the cause: salt.
Although salt has a reputation (and a use) for drying out things, in this case the salts found on Mars (magnesium chlorate, magnesium chloride and magnesium perchlorate) have the potential to lower the freezing point of any water in contact with them by a fairly hefty 80 degrees Celsius; equally, or perhaps more, significant is that they can also drop the rate at which the liquid vaporises by a factor of 10. This may give enough time for the salty water to flow, creating the streaks seen on the surface.
This has caused excitement for a couple of reasons; first, it could mean that Matt Damon, or any other human settlers, would have an easier time of it – as liquid water of some form exists, astronauts would merely have to collect and desalinate it. This would also reduce the cost of any such mission.
The other reason, of course, is the increased possibility of life already existing on the planet, albeit in the form of microbes. Extremely hardy microbes, or ‘Extremophiles’, can stay alive in some really quite inhospitable places; tardigrades, for example, have been taken up to the International Space Station, deprived of water, and exposed to the worst that space can throw at them. Yet afterwards, they were pretty much fine. In this context then, does it seem so unlikely that they could live in the salty water, wherever it may come from?
Having said all that, though, any life that exists on Mars, or any humans that eventually land there, should not expect to wake up to morning rain. It is as yet unknown where the water comes from – does the salt draw water vapour from the sky, causing the flows? Or are there aquifers, providing water from underneath? Evidence points to the former, but in either case the effect is small. We may not find the source for a little while yet, as Curiosity (the most advanced rover on Mars) will not be allowed to visit; the risk of contamination is too high.
But Mars isn’t the only red object in the sky. And this week, adding to the multitude of stars on that list, was the
Moon. Due to the particular characteristics of the satellite’s orbit around the Earth, the ‘bright’ side of the Moon was eclipsed and plunged into darkness by the Earth, causing it to faintly shine with a slight reddish tinge; by sheer coincidence, the eclipse fell in the same period as the ‘supermoon’, the point at which the full moon is as close to Earth as its orbit will allow. This produced a spectacular effect, as the large red disc of the satellite shone overnight in skies from Preston to the Pacific.
Alas, such occurrences are rare. The next lunar eclipse is estimated to happen in late January 2018; the next supermoon is not until 2033. Happily, however, we live in an age of cameras, smartphones, and other such technology, so although arguably not quite as good as observing it directly, photos and videos of the event are not hard to find. Might be worth a look!
In other news:
- Marine biologist Professor David Gruber has discovered a biofluorescent hawksbill sea turtle whilst filming coral off the Solomon Islands. This is an extremely significant discovery, not least because the hawksbill is listed as ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It is also the first time that biofluorescence has ever been observed in reptiles.
- The New Horizons team has released yet more pictures of the Pluto system. This time, they include shots of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, which fortunately looks just as interesting as Pluto; of particular note is a very fractured middle, suggesting huge geological activity at some point in Charon’s history.
- Since the last blog, I was fortunate enough to visit the Space Centre in Leicester. Located on the brilliantly named ‘Exploration Drive’, the building is as spectacular as it sounds; your first glimpse is of the rocket tower, housing 2 fully-sized rockets – and it is no less spectacular inside. The Boosters Café (situated at the bottom of the tower, just beneath the rockets) is well worth a visit, but the highlight has to be the Sir Patrick Moore planetarium, where throughout the day short, 30 minute animated films are displayed on screens covering the entirety of the dome –shaped ceiling. Unfortunately, at the time of visiting no Italian translation was available for ‘We Are Stars’ (due to it being a new show), but despite this, my friends Paolo and Marco seemed to enjoy it, as did I; with narration by Andy Serkis and music by Rhian Sheehan, along with the fantastic animation, it is not hard to see why. Well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area, but if you can, set aside a few hours for it!