Well, ice, that is. For over twenty years, scientists have accepted the working hypothesis that water or ice may exist on Mercury based on bright patches that showed up in reflected in radar images of Mercury’s north pole. But with temperatures reaching as high as 800 degrees Fahrenheit on the sunny side, without definitive proof that the conditions for ice to thrive existed on Mercury, the hypothesis could only remain such. Through experiments using infrared imaging, combined with satellite imagery, altitudinal data, and temperature modeling, NASA scientists are confident the hypothesis that water ice exists on Mercury is true.
But all this pales in comparison to the discovery that regions of the water ice deposits on Mercury are covered with dark patches of less reflective material – presumably material deposited by asteroids and comets that impacted the Mercurian surface.
Mercury is approximately the size of Earth’s moon. Because Mercury is so small, it lacks the gravitational forces necessary to retain a substantive atmosphere. The solar winds Mercury experiences are so strong that nearly all of Mercury’s atmosphere was blown away long, long ago. As Mercury has almost no atmosphere, asteroids don’t experience the atmospheric burn that asteroids entering Earth’s atmosphere experience. Because asteroids experience no burn approaching Mercury, material on or within an asteroid can be retained upon impact with Mercury. So, if an asteroid that hit Mercury’s north pole contained organic material, it is likely that organic material is retained in deep freeze on Mercury’s poles.
Considering all of this, if this dark material on Mercury is organic, where did it come from?
Mars Curiosity Rover has finally landed in Gale Crater, defiant of the one-in-three chance of success researchers gave her. It took five years of preparation and engineering, 8 – 1/2 months of interplanetary transport, and 350 million miles; but she’s finally arrived, plum and ready to unearth Mars’ secrets. Powered by a radioisotope generator, Curiosity will transmit pictures of the Mars landscape for at least two years (quite probably many more). Ever more importantly, as she is equipped with a gas chromatograph, mass and other spectrometers, atmospheric instrumentation, radiation detectors and more, Curiosity will analyze the surface of Mars for evidence of microbial life, measure background radiation levels, and search for evidence of water on the surface [Mars Science Lab Facts].
All this sounds wonderfully interesting, and stands to keep curious minds occupied analyzing the data for years to come. But this successful landing on Mars means so much more for humankind. The ultimate hope is that Curiosity’s work will enable scientists to successfully plan and execute a manned mission to Mars.
The arrival of humans on Mars presents enormous opportunity for humanity to better its probability of long-term survival. If Mars once harbored, but no longer harbors life, its study can reveal useful clues to into the life cycle of a planet and a future that our own planet could experience. If Mars is currently in an extinction cycle, studying it could lend insight to questions about the extinction cycles experienced on Earth.
If Mars has water – on the surface, under the surface – it opens up a whole new world for humanity. How much Uranium is on Mars? How much Thorium? Rare Earth elements? Boron, lithium, silver, gold? Mars could be awash with resources that could sustain humanity’s future. Does Mars hold the key to a sustainable technological future? Are there ethical issues that arise with the potential exploitation of a neighboring planet that could theoretically sustain life; but is (only currently) lifeless?
Curiosity has just touched the surface. There are so many possibilities laying before us. And so many questions. What is humanity’s next step?
I am so anxious for Curiosity to finally land on Mars. When the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft launched in November, I was watching with baited breath, twice. The launch was postponed once, which really lucked out for me as all the televisions at work were undergoing tests the day of the first launch. (I was like, GEEZ! Don’t they know how important today is?)
Even knowing the rocket is well off on its way, set to land just 55 days from today, I knew I’d be waiting even longer than that. Curiosity was scheduled to take many months to reach her – yes, I’ve made her a grrl. It’s only fitting – primary research subject. But Curiosity announced today on her twitter feed (@MarsCuriosity – you really should follow her!) that her landing site has been adjusted and she’ll only have half the distance to travel to get to Mount Sharp.
And when she does, we are in for a great treat my lay reader friends! Curiosity seeks answers to the most profound questions of the universe (for humans, anyway). Did life exist on Mars? Are we alone in the universe? What kind of environments can support life? Could Mars once become inhabitable again?
These questions are what keeps me excited about the space program and about Curiosity. I simply cannot wait to see what Curiosity turns up next!
It takes just take a few random variables put together in the correct sequence to remind one how big the universe is, and how small the universe is.
One of the first warm nights of the spring season brought me out of doors while the night was new to gaze into the cosmos. The sky was so clear and the breeze so light – it was like a little gift from the universe. The moon, Jupiter, Mars and Venus were all there with me. Staring at those twinkling planets – communing with the universe – brought a feeling of happiness and exhilaration upon me – the result of knowing that I am walking talking coincidence of universal imperfection.
Reminders of the origin of life have regaled me of late. First there is was the slew of storms and tornados that swept the midwest. That storm was followed by a beautiful night sky displaying sparkly red Mars and twinkly white Venus in their naked beauty. Then video shot by NASA of a Solar Storm on the Sun sending a disruptive cloud of subatomic charged particles hurtling toward Earth. Watching the force of a solar flare explosion make the whole Sun shiver moved me. (Literally I was jumping around my living room shouting, “It’s just so awesome. I so want to go there! Almost.”)
Video credit: NASA
It takes just take a few random variables put together in the correct sequence to remind one how big the universe is, and how small the universe is. Life is a big deal. Having the ability to live and think and reason and imagine what life can be – knowing that the same forces that caused the big bang, created everything, and hold together the nuclei and their electrons in their orbitals so that I can type this post just makes me feel enormous.
And topping off all of this feel-good, atheistic revelry came a video by Max Schlickenmeyer that almost brought me to tears.
Video credit: Max Schlickenmeyer
I owe a lot to the fervid mass of plasma that spit out the heavy particles that form me. Thank you Supernova!