For decades, Mars has entranced humans, including Matt Damon. Our cosmic neighbour, located some 56 to 401 million km away, is an enticing destination in part because of its mysterious history — but mostly because Earth is an especially terrible place to be right now.
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After much anticipation, NASA has finally released a shortlist of landing sites for its Mars rover mission slated for July 2020. The three finalists are Northeast Syrtis, which may have been warmed by volcanic activity; the Jezero Crater, which could be the remnants of a Martian lake; and Columbia Hills, which NASA's Spirit lander explored in early-to-mid 2000s. Though Jezero is reportedly the favourite among NASA scientists, in this case, it's the underdog that could be our best shot at finding hints at past or present life on the Red Planet — which is exactly what the 2020 mission seeks to do.
The Space Between Us never goes beyond exactly what it's supposed to be. It's so straightforward that if you've heard the plot — boy on Mars falls in love with girl on Earth, then comes to Earth to find her — you can probably guess everything about the story, the conflict, and all of the things it's going to try to make you feel, with the end result being you're not going to feel much at all.
Earth has some battle scars from back in the day. When the solar system was still young and wild, roughly four billion years ago, Earth, its Moon and Mars were attacked by a series of asteroid assailants. It's long been assumed that the space rocks involved in the assault — called the Late Heavy Bombardment — are now floating around in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Sending complex pieces of machinery to faraway celestial objects? Not an easy thing. The European Space Agency is well aware of what can go wrong, especially after the demise of Schiaparelli lander when it stacked into Mars earlier this year. No sweat, says the ESA, which will continue on with its ExoMars 2020 mission... flush with cash.
In case Schiaparelli's crash-landing left you thinking the European Space Agency's ExoMars mission was a bust, rest assured it wasn't. The mission's scientific workhorse — its Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) — is performing beautifully, as evidenced by the first images and splashes of data ESA has now received back from the Red Planet.
If we ever get proof of past life on Mars, it will come in the form of biosignatures, fingerprints that could only have been left by living organisms. We're a long way from finding that smoking gun evidence, but an analysis of silica minerals discovered by NASA's Spirit rover pushes us one step closer. Because of their similarity to silica deposits shaped by microbial life on Earth, these intriguing Martian minerals are now being called a "potential biosignature".
National Geographic's new TV miniseries Mars has a message for the people of Earth: Colonising the Red Planet is not a pipe dream. In fact, it's achievable within a generation. Unfortunately, in the first few episodes at least, that message smothers the show's ability to tell a good story. Mars is much more enjoyable when it's not trying to cram facts, figures and carefully scripted interviews down our throats.
Placed on Earth, it would stretch from Washington DC to New York to Denver. Larger than the Grand Canyon, wider and deeper than East Africa's Great Rift Valley, Mercury's newly-discovered "Great Valley" boggles the imagination. But it's more than size that makes this geologic feature remarkable. The Great Valley may be our best evidence that Mercury's entire crust is contracting.
It will be a while before we can actually colonise Mars (no matter what Elon Musk says). But when we get there, an official tartan will be ready for the outfits.
This weekend, National Geographic's Mars: The Live Experience is touring Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, with astronaut Buzz Aldrin and scientists from NASA and the European Space Agency talking about the future of space and humanity's goal of reaching Mars — what many believe should be our goal as a civilisation and the potential for the continued survival of the human race.
Before the shows, we sat down with Professor Mark McCaughrean, a senior science advisor at the ESA, to get his take on what the Agency does, what it sees as the future of missions to space, and how it works with governments and private sector space companies like SpaceX.
Video: This planet of ours, it ain't gonna last forever. And though who the heck knows what's going to happen to the world that far off into the future (or even after November 8), Life Noggin decided to conduct a little brain exercise about how we could convert a planet like Mars or Venus, or a moon like Europa, into a second Earth.