The Red (Yet Not Quite Dead) Planet

By Tyler DeWacht


Hello and welcome to Concordia! I hope this new semester brings many good things for you! So many interesting things have been happening recently here on Earth (for better or for worse), but have you recently wondered what’s been happening on our neighborly planet Mars? It may not be as active on the red planet as it is here, but is it really as dead as we assume it to be? Let’s take some time to catch up with our cold companion on this edition of Space News!


If you want to look at Mars in the night sky, now would be a good time to do it! When Mars, Earth, and the Sun align in just the right positions, you get the opposition point, which is when Mars is the closest and brightest in the sky for us! While the ideal point of July 27 has come and gone, Mars should still be about as bright as Jupiter for a few days. Don’t miss this fleeting chance, you won’t get it again until 2020!


Down on the Martian surface, the Mars Exploration Rover mission of 2003 was only supposed to last 90 Martian days, but the Spirit and Opportunity rovers lasted far longer than that. After getting permanently stuck in a sand trap on the first of May 2009, the Spirit rover finally lost communications with Earth on March 22, 2010, presumably falling victim to the cold conditions. Meanwhile, Opportunity kept on going until June 12, 2018, when a planet-encompassing dust storm essentially forced it to go into hibernation due to a lack of sunlight. The dust storm finally dissipated in early August, but at the time of writing this article, Opportunity is still stuck in sleep mode and has not yet responded to communication attempts. However, there is still hope for the rover, and the experts at NASA have not yet given up on it. They’ve been playing music to it in the hopes that it finally wakes up, including upbeat songs such as Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go by Wham! and motivational songs like I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor. If you look on the mission website, you can also send the rover a postcard. Let’s send some love to this resilient rover!


Meanwhile, the Curiosity rover is doing just fine, and it remained mostly unaffected by the dust storm due to having a nuclear-run battery rather than a solar-powered one. Fun fact, did you know it has an official Twitter account? If you’re curious as well, you can follow @MarsCuriosity to keep up with the current news about it! Over the years, it has determined that the methane levels on Mars fluctuate between the seasons, and that some components indicative of life have been detected. Is this a geological or a biological phenomenon? We’re not sure yet, but scientists say that we may be on the right track to finding the answer to life. It also found an unidentified flaky object, but it was later determined to be just a really thin rock. False alarm, no confirmed alien life yet!


Also, the Mars rovers will soon have new friends on the surface! In 2020, a new NASA rover based on Curiosity’s design is expected to launch. It currently has no name, but the goal of this mission will be to search for signs of ancient habitable conditions for life as well as geological evidence of past life. The ExoMars 2020 mission, a joint operation between the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, will launch another as-of-yet unnamed rover around the same time with a similar mission behind it. If these future missions are successful, they could tell us a lot more about the history behind the fourth planet from the Sun.


In other news, a subterranean lake was recently discovered on Mars thanks to the radar satellite MARSIS. Locked underneath the southern polar ice cap, it stays in liquid form, likely due to the natural magnesium, calcium, and sodium salt deposits lowering its freezing points, combined with the immense pressure of the glaciers 1.5 km above it. Lake Vostok in Antarctica exists under similar conditions, and it has been shown to have life, so could this have new implications for the possibilities of life on Mars? Only time will tell.


Meanwhile, in the far reaches of space, a robotic lander named InSight just recently passed the halfway mark to Mars. Upon reaching its destination, it will burrow down and plant a seismometer when it lands as well as a heat probe. Travelling independently alongside this lander are twin satellites roughly the size of a suitcase, known as CubeSats. These mini-satellites having previously been used only in Earth orbit, the Mars Cube One mission is the first of its kind, sending MarCO-A and MarCO-B (affectionately nicknamed Wall-E and Eva) to Mars in order to monitor the InSight’s landing. If all goes well, we’ll have more data collection options than ever before.


Now for the weather! Stay hydrated, because the air is going to remain dry for quite a while. Temperatures near the equator will be a nice 20°C in the day, but you might want to bundle up at night, because it can go down to a chilly -73°C. The skies should be relatively clear for a while with no chance of rain, but mind the high winds. If you see a dust storm approaching, immediately seek shelter, and stay clear of the dust devils. That’s all for the weather, now back to the news!


A burning question on everyone’s minds is this: Could we terraform Mars? The scientist of NASA say no; there just isn’t enough carbon dioxide available on the surface to make this possible. Others say yes, but it’ll be much more difficult and time-consuming, and that’s assuming enough nitrogen exists. Elon Musk claims that there’s enough CO2 trapped beneath the surface to make it possible, and that NASA severely underestimated the total amount available. Who’s right in this debate is a question that may never be answered for hundreds or even thousands of years, and almost certainly not within our lifetimes, but it is still an interesting idea to think about.


Our final story comes from back on Earth’s surface. We’re nowhere near the point yet where we could colonize Mars, but we have gotten a step closer: Researchers at the University of Colorado recently developed a super-insulating gel that is see-through, fire resistant, and traps enough heat to negate most heat loss. It’s relatively cheap to produce as well, the main materials for it being extracted from beer waste. It’s good for recycling and useful for building infrastructure, which takes care of two problems at once!

That’s the news now available regarding Mars so far, so you should mostly be caught up with the affairs of the fourth of four inner planets. In the next edition of Space News, we will move from the freezing into the flaming. With that, I will conclude this edition of Space News. Have a good Earth year to the new and returning students and faculty, and keep gazing at the cosmos!


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