On Saturday, May 5, NASA is launching its newest Mars lander. The Mars InSight lander is set to arrive at Mars in November. This spacecraft is a first of its kind because it will be launched from the West Coast unlike other launches to Mars. More importantly, however, this lander is unique because it will attempt to peer beneath the surface of Mars; past rovers have only been able to explore their surroundings and at most collect samples and drill into the topsoil. Unlike the past rovers, the InSight lander will stay still, rather than moving around Mars’s surface, so that it can measure the internal properties of Mars. One thing the Insight lander is set to look for is marsquakes, or seismic activity on Mars. Earthquakes on Earth are caused by plate tectonics, whereas marsquakes are caused by volcanism. When a marsquake occurs, the InSight will be able to take a picture of Mars’s interior for astronomers on Earth to see. The goal is that greater study of Mars’s interior will be able to give us more insight into how Mars was formed. We have a general idea about how rocky terrestrial planets like Mars were formed, but we would like to learn more about how Mars came to be the cold, geologically dead world it is today.
Illustration of InSight from NASA
Some of the information to be gathered includes the thickness of Mars’s crust and the composition of its mantle and core. In particular, three main experiments will be conducted by InSight. The Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure will track marsquakes and internal activity. This will tell us more about Mars’s history and structure. The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package will measure the movement of heat under Mars’s surface. This will tell us more about how Mars’s interior has evolved over time. The Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment will use radio signals to detect rotational wobbles. This will tell us more about the properties of the core and the interaction between the core and the mantle. It is the hope of scientists that with the results from this mission, we will be able to better understand how and why Mars formed the way it did and what it would take for worlds similar to Mars to form, whether they be terrestrial worlds in our own solar system or even exoplanets in other star systems. Fascinatingly enough, these studies of Mars’s interior will help the scientific community learn about planetary formation and evolution that extends beyond our own solar neighborhood!
Hypoliths are photosynthetic bacteria that inhabit the desert. Despite the Namib desert in Namibia being one of the most extreme environments on Earth, hypoliths thrive under quartz rock under these harsh conditions. This desert can go years without rain and it is subject to constant solar radiation and scorching heat. With very little water and no trees or shrubs in sight, the fact that this desert has life at all is amazing. Living under the rocks protects the hypoliths from ultraviolet radiation and wind scouring. The rocks are also translucent, allowing light to penetrate, and trap moisture. What hypoliths and other extremophiles can tell us is where to look and where not to look for life on other planets. Mars may be cold, but it features a desert environment that is also subject to brutal solar radiation. Therefore, Mars may be a good place to look for bacterial life.
Picture from Xochitl Garcia
We may not find quartz rock on Mars, but if we wanted to find life, we may look for areas in which only a certain amount of light can infiltrate, which would create hospitable conditions for life. Although it’s probably best not to interfere with the natural environments of other planets, it would be interesting to see if hypoliths or other extremophiles would be able to survive on Mars or other planets if we were to deposit colonies there. Out of anything we have here on Earth, extremophiles give us the most insight about the possibility of extraterrestrial life, so I hope further research into them continues to teach us more about what may be out there in our expansive universe.
The six most common elements found in living organisms on Earth are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur, oxygen, and phosphorus. Recently, astronomers have been attempting to look more into the origins of phosphorus in the universe, and through observations of the Crab Nebula, they found that the amount and distribution of phosphorus in the Milky Way galaxy may be more random than indicated by our computer models of how phosphorus is created in supernovae. This means that some parts of the galaxy with exoplanets that would otherwise be hospitable environments for life may not have enough phosphorus to support life. In fact, some researchers have described it as pure luck that meteorites were able to carry just enough phosphorus bearing minerals that were reactive enough to engage in biological processes.
However, astronomers admit that more research of other supernovae remnants in the universe still needs to be done, as the phosphorus that has been measured in the Crab Nebula may not be representative of our vast universe. Still, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed that the probability of life outside Earth may be less likely than the scientific community previously believed. With that said, I look forward to further research, as there’s no telling what we’ll find tomorrow, a year from now, 50 years from now, etc. I still believe the chance that at least one other planet in our seemingly endless universe is home to some form of life is far more likely than not. What I’m most shocked about is that our computer models of the universe may not be completely accurate, so I’m curious to know what else we will find that we were incorrect about through more observations of our universe.
Phosphorus May Be More Rare in Universe than Previously Thought
Why Extraterrestrial Life May Be More Unlikely Than Scientists Thought
Kuiper Belt Objects are unique in that they have different compositions than most asteroids and different orbits than most comets. This has led astronomers to contemplate the identity of Kuiper Belt Objects. Surprisingly, the answer isn’t so clear. Asteroids are mostly composed of rock while comets are mostly composed of rock and ice. Most Kuiper Belt Objects are composed of half rock and half ice, so in this respect, they might be considered comets. Nevertheless, it is believed that some comets can actually turn into asteroids as they lose their ice from passing close to the Sun. It is also worth noting that comets that come close to the Sun have elliptical orbits while most Kuiper Belt Objects have circular orbits that don’t come close to the Sun at all. This is why many have concluded that Kuiper Belt Objects are simply an icy asteroid belt. However, then we enter the issue of whether the larger Kuiper Belt Objects should be classified as dwarf planets. Our knowledge of the universe has expanded rapidly in just a few decades, and we have realized that our universe and all the objects and worlds within it are more complex than we initially believed. Maybe it’s time to update our classification system or accept that many, if not most, objects in our universe fall somewhere in between the categories we have created.
Kuiper Belt Objects
Comets, Meteors, and Asteroids
Venus is often called Earth’s twin, which seems like a very strange thing to say considering Earth is bountiful with life while Venus is uninhabitable to virtually all organisms we have on Earth. However, new research has led scientists to believe Venus’s surface is more dynamic than previously thought. The planets of terrestrial worlds such as the Moon and Mars are static, but this isn’t the case with Earth and Venus. Venus is a world covered in lava and ancient volcanoes. It is compared to Earth due to their similar sizes and thick atmospheres, and while Venus doesn’t feature plate tectonics that we have on Earth, we have found evidence of geological activity on Venus. Based on discoveries of lava filled blocks, scientists speculate that Venus’s crust could heat up enough for blocks of land to rotate and move around. Given the fact that it was thought that no geological activity had occurred on Venus for millions of years, this is an extraordinary theory. Similar to plate tectonics on Earth, large chunks of rock move around Venus’s surface. However, unlike on Venus, on Earth new crust is created and old crust sinks into the planet. It’s still to early to know what exactly is causing the geological activity on Venus, but I’m hopeful further study of Venus will make us increasingly certain that we truly do have a (fraternal) twin planet beside us!
It’s no secret that the universe is growing. However, research leads us to believe that our own Milky Way Galaxy is growing as well. In fact, our galaxy exhibits cannibalistic behavior, absorbing material from the dwarf galaxies surrounding it. We know that the chemical makeup in the central bulge of our galaxy differs from the chemical makeup of the outer halo of our galaxy, and we have also found that the chemical makeup of the outer halo of our galaxy is similar to the chemical makeup of stars found in dwarf galaxies orbiting our galaxy – namely, the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy. Therefore, these dwarf galaxies may simply be the leftovers of galaxies that were long ago absorbed into our own galaxy.
Milky Way Galaxy
Astronomers believe the key to understanding the growth of our galaxy is learning more about the dark matter around our galaxy. The halo of dark matter surrounding our galaxy actually exerts a gravitational force on smaller, neighboring galaxies, so it may be that dark matter is ripping away stars and pulling them into the external regions of our galaxy. There are still so many unanswered questions about dark matter and dark energy, but a project called the Dark Energy Survey is currently underway, in which we are using a tool called the Dark Energy Camera to detect stellar streams. Stellar streams are groups of relatively few stars that have been ripped away. They are difficult to detect because we are looking for a small number of stars in such a large region of space. Nevertheless, these stellar streams illustrate how our galaxy is constructed from smaller galaxies, so the future findings of the Dark Energy Survey should prove exciting!
The European Southern Observatory began construction of the European-Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) back in 2014. This telescope is on track to be the world’s largest optical and infrared telescope by the time it is completed in 2024, thus living up to its name. The E-ELT will include a main mirror that is 128 feet in diameter, beating out some of its competitors, such as the Giant Magellan Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope, which boast main mirrors that are 82 feet and 98 feet in diameter respectively. This telescope will be able to capture images 16 times sharper than images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.
The E-ELT will be used to study exoplanets, dark matter, supermassive black holes, galaxy formation in the early universe, and much more. Observations from this telescope may be able to answer questions such as if the laws of nature really are universal, and we may be able to learn more about stellar populations at distances of tens of millions of light-years away from us. The E-ELT will be operating in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert, an ideal location for astronomical observation due to the dryness of the air and the clarity of the night sky. However, Chile, like most other locations in the world, still suffers from light pollution, so efforts to limit blue light emissions and luminous signs have come about.
Astronomers hope the E-ELT will be in use for at least 30 years. At a price of $1.4 billion, I would sure hope so. The more technology advances, the more we will be able to learn about our universe. The farther distances we will be able to look out to, and the more we will be able to essentially look back in time. I’m excited for the astronomical discoveries bound to emerge. However, given the fact that we have just over six and a half years left until the E-ELT’s first light, we’ll just have to be patient for now!