Is it the summer of Mars? If not, it’s about to be. Just a months ago, the Mars Curiosity Rover hit the motherload: organic molecules that may point to the existence of life on the red planet. And just yesterday, the scientists from the European Space Agency published a paper claiming to have discovered what looks like a miles-long lake of liquid water underneath the Martian surface.
Before we get into the news, that header image of Mars above the article was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope just last week. But tomorrow, it’s time for Mars to really enjoy the spotlight and for Earthlings to enjoy the visual feast with their own eyes.
Mars will make its closest approach to Earth since 2003. The neighbouring worlds were just under 36 million miles from one another on Tuesday and tomorrow, will be in opposition. This means that both our host star, the Sun, and Mars will be on the direct opposite sides of the Earth.
Just 15 years ago, Earth and Mars made their closest approach in nearly 60,000 years at 34.6 million miles according to NASA. The next closest approach will be in 2020 at 38.6 million miles.
Also tomorrow, many folks around the world will enjoy a total lunar eclipse. It will be visible in Europe, Australia, Asia, Africa, and South America and will be the longest total lunar eclipse of the 21st century.
“The totality phase of the eclipse will last 1 hour and 43 minutes, during which Earth’s Moon will turn red/brown, leading to this kind of eclipse being called a ‘Blood Moon’. From start to finish, the entire event will last nearly four hours,” according to the European Space Agency.
For the past month, skywatchers and astronomers have enjoyed the view of Mars in the sky as it has been shining brightly. This is expected to continue until early August. Unfortunately for our robots on the red planet, they won’t be seeing too much. For the past month, a dust storm has engulfed the planet has caused NASA’s Opportunity rover to shut down due to the inability to capture solar energy for its power cells.
According to the Associated Press, the dust storm will cause Mars to be even brighter in the sky. “It’s magnificent. It’s as bright as an airplane landing light,” Augensen said. “Not quite as bright as Venus, but still because of the reddish, orange-ish-red color, you really can’t miss it in the sky,” said Astronomer Harry Augensen of Widener University.
So here are a few science-y thoughts to unpack while you’re enjoying the red glow of Mars in the night sky about the recent discoveries and what they actually mean:
Regarding the business of organic molecules made by NASA in June, Dr. Jennifer Eigenbrode, a geologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Washington D.C says that “while it was fascinating to find this, it was not exactly what we expected, assuming a geological, meteoritic or biological source, you would expect a diversity of sources. It inspired us to find a better set of rocks for more organics.”
So June’s announcement made by Curiosity is another clue on the trail to finding life on Mars, but not quite there. Researchers and scientists need more samples and to find the other building blocks of life….like water.
Enter the Europeans and their Mars Express orbiter whose data points to a lake of liquid water buried under layers of ice in the south polar region of Mars. “Evidence for the Red Planet’s watery past is prevalent across its surface in the form of vast dried-out river valley networks and gigantic outflow channels clearly imaged by orbiting spacecraft, says a release by ESA.
“Orbiters, together with landers and rovers exploring the Martian surface, also discovered minerals that can only form in the presence of liquid water.”
Why the excitement of finding water we probably can’t drink? Well, under these same conditions here on Earth where water is trapped under the surface, there is some form of life surviving. And that’s what’s exciting about finding water on Mars––we may actually find biological life next.