How Do We Colonize Mars?

Welcome back to our series on Colonizing the Solar System! Today, we take a look at that cold and dry world known as “Earth’s Twin”. I’m talking about Mars. Enjoy!

Mars. It’s a pretty unforgiving place. On this dry, dessicated world, the average surface temperature is -55 °C (-67 °F). And at the poles, temperatures can reach as low as  -153 °C (243 °F). Much of that has to do with its thin atmosphere, which is too thin to retain heat (not to mention breathe). So why then is the idea of colonizing Mars so intriguing to us?

Well, there are a number of reasons, which include the similarities between our two planets, the availability of water, the prospects for generating food, oxygen, and building materials on-site. And there’s even the long-term benefits of using Mars as a source of raw materials and terraforming it into a liveable environment. Let’s go over them one by one…

Examples in Fiction:

The idea of exploring and settling Mars has been explored in fiction for over a century. Most of the earliest depiction of Mars in fiction involved a planet with canals, vegetation and indigenous life – owing to the observations of the astronomers like Giovanni Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell.

However, by the latter half of the 20th century (thanks in large part to the Mariner 4 missions and scientists learning of the true conditions on Mars) fictional accounts moved away from the idea of a Martian civilization and began to deal with humans eventually colonizing and transforming the environment to suit their needs.

Artist impression of a Mars settlement with cutaway view. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center
Artist impression of a Mars settlement with cutaway view. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

This shift is perhaps best illustrated by Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (published in 1950). A series of short stories that take place predominantly on Mars, the collection begins with stories about a Martian civilization which begins to encounter human explorers. The stories then transitions to ones that deal with human settlements on the planet, the genocide of the Martians, and Earth eventually experiencing nuclear war.

During the 1950s, many classical science fiction authors wrote about colonizing Mars. These included Arthur C. Clarke and his 1951 story The Sands of Mars, which is told from the point of view of a human reporter who travels to Mars to write about human colonists. While attempting to make a life for themselves on a desert planet, they discover that Mars has native life forms.

In 1952, Isaac Asimov released The Martian Way, a story which deals with the conflict between Earth and Mars colonists. The latter survive by salvaging space junk, and are forced to travel to Saturn to harvest ice when Earth enforces an embargo on their planet.

Robert A. Heinlein’s seminal novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) tells the story of a human who was raised on Mars by the native Martians, and then travels to Earth as a young adult. His contact with humans proves to have a profound affect on Earth’s culture, and calls into questions many of the social mores and accepted norms of Heinlein’s time.

Artist's concept of possible exploration of the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center
Artist’s concept of possible exploration of the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

Philip K. Dick’s fiction also features Mars often, in every case being a dry, empty land with no native inhabitants. In his works Martian Time Slip (1964), and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), life on Mars is presented as difficult, consisting of isolated communities who do not want to live there.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), most of humanity has left Earth after nuclear war ravaged it and now live in “the colonies” on Mars. Androids (Replicants) escaping illegally to come back to Earth claim that they have left because “nobody should have to live there. It wasn’t conceived for habitation, at least not within the last billion years. It’s so old. You feel it in the stones, the terrible old age”.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (published between 1992–1996), Mars is colonized and then terraformed over the course of many centuries. Ben Bova’s Grant Tour series – which deals with the colonization of the Solar System – also includes a novel titled Mars (1992). In this novel, explorers travel to Mars – locations including Mt. Olympus and Valles Marineris – to determine is Mars is worth colonizing.

Alastair Reynolds’ short story “The Great Wall of Mars” (2000) takes place in a future where the most technologically advanced humans are based on Mars and embroiled in an interplanetary war with a faction that takes issue with their experiments in human neurology.

Artist's impression of the terraforming of Mars, from its current state to a livable world. Credit: Daein Ballard
Artist’s impression of the terraforming of Mars, from its current state to a livable world. Credit: Daein Ballard

In Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief (2010), we get a glimpse of Mars in the far future. The story centers on the city of Oubliette, which moves across the face of the planet. Andry Weir’s The Martian (2011) takes place in the near future, where an astronaut is stranded on Mars and forced to survive until a rescue party arrives.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (2012) takes place in a future where humanity has colonized much of the Solar System. Mars is mentioned in the course of the story as a world which has been settled and terraformed (which involved lasers cutting canals similar to what Schiaparelli described) and now has oceans covering much of its surface.

Proposed Methods:

NASA’s proposed manned mission to Mars – which is slated to take place during the 2030s using the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and the Space Launch System (SLS) – is not the only proposal to send humans to the Red Planet. In addition to other federal space agencies, there are also plans by private corporations and non-profits, some of which are far more ambitious than mere exploration.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has long-term plans to send humans, though they have yet to build a manned spacecraft. Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, is also planning a manned Mars mission, with simulations (called Mars-500) having been completed in Russia back in 2011. The ESA is currently participating in these simulations as well.

In 2012, a group of Dutch entrepreneurs revealed plans for a crowdfunded campaign to establish a human Mars base, beginning in 2023. Known as MarsOne, the plan calls for a series of one-way missions to establish a permanent and expanding colony on Mars, which would be financed with the help of media participation.

Mars-manned-mission vehicle (NASA Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0) feb 2009. Credit: NASA
Mars-manned-mission vehicle (NASA Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0) Feb 2009. Credit: NASA

Other details of the MarsOne plan include sending a telecom orbiter by 2018, a rover in 2020, and the base components and its settlers by 2023. The base would be powered by 3,000 square meters of solar panels and the SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy rocket would be used to launch the hardware. The first crew of 4 astronauts would land on Mars in 2025; then, every two years, a new crew of 4 astronauts would arrive.

On December 2nd, 2014, NASA’s Advanced Human Exploration Systems and Operations Mission Director Jason Crusan and Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs James Reuthner announced tentative support for the Boeing “Affordable Mars Mission Design“. Currently planned for the 2030s, the mission profile includes plans for radiation shielding, centrifugal artificial gravity, in-transit consumable resupply, and a return-lander.

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has also announced plans to establish a colony on Mars with a population of 80,000 people. Intrinsic to this plan is the development of the Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), a spaceflight system that would rely of reusable rocket engines, launch vehicles and space capsules to transport humans to Mars and return to Earth.

As of 2014, SpaceX has begun development of the large Raptor rocket engine for the Mars Colonial Transporter, and a successful test was announced in September of 2016. In January 2015, Musk said that he hoped to release details of the “completely new architecture” for the Mars transport system in late 2015.

In June 2016, Musk stated in the first unmanned flight of the Mars transport spacecraft would take place in 2022, followed by the first manned MCT Mars flight departing in 2024. In September 2016, during the 2016 International Astronautical Congress, Musk revealed further details of his plan, which included the design for an Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) and estimated costs.

There may come a day when, after generations of terraforming and numerous waves of colonists, that Mars will begin to have a viable economy as well. This could take the form of mineral deposits being discovered and then sent back to Earth for sale. Launching precious metals, like platinum, off the surface of Mars would be relatively inexpensive thanks to its lower gravity.

But according to Musk, the most likely scenario (at least for the foreseeable future) would involve an economy based on real estate. With human populations exploding all over Earth, a new destination that offers plenty of room to expand is going to look like a good investment.

And once transportation issues are worked out, savvy investors are likely to start buying up land. Plus, there is likely to be a market for scientific research on Mars for centuries to come. Who knows what we might find once planetary surveys really start to open up!

Over time, many or all of the difficulties in living on Mars could be overcome through the application of geoengineering (aka. terraforming). Using organisms like cyanobacteria and phytoplankton, colonists could gradually convert much of the CO² in the atmosphere into breathable oxygen.

In addition, it is estimated that there is a significant amount of carbon dioxide (CO²) in the form of dry ice at the Martian south pole, not to mention absorbed by in the planet’s regolith (soil). If the temperature of the planet were raised, this ice would sublimate into gas and increase atmospheric pressure. Although it would still not be breathable by humans, it would be sufficient enough to eliminate the need for pressure suits.

A possible way of doing this is by deliberately triggering a greenhouse effect on the planet. This could be done by importing ammonia ice from the atmospheres of other planets in our Solar System. Because ammonia (NH³) is mostly nitrogen by weight, it could also supply the buffer gas needed for a breathable atmosphere – much as it does here on Earth.

Similarly, it would be possible to trigger a greenhouse effect by importing hydrocarbons like methane – which is common in Titan’s atmosphere and on its surface. This methane could be vented into the atmosphere where it would act to compound the greenhouse effect.

Zubrin and Chris McKay, an astrobiologist with NASA’s Ames Research center, have also suggested creating facilities on the surface that could pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, thus triggering global warming (much as they do here on Earth).

Other possibilities exist as well, ranging from orbital mirrors that would heat the surface to deliberately impacting the surface with comets. But regardless of the method, possibilities exist for transforming Mars’ environment that could make it more suitable for humans in the long run – many of which we are currently doing right here on Earth (with less positive results).

Another proposed solution is building habitats underground. By building a series of tunnels that connect between subterranean habitats, settlers could forgo the need for oxygen tanks and pressure suits when they are away from home.

Additionally, it would provide protection against radiation exposure. Based on data obtained by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, it is also speculated that habitable environments exist underground, making it an even more attractive option.

Potential Benefits:

As already mentioned, there are many interesting similarities between Earth and Mars that make it a viable option for colonization. For starters, Mars and Earth have very similar lengths of days. A Martian day is 24 hours and 39 minutes, which means that plants and animals – not to mention human colonists – would find that familiar.

This diagram shows the distances of the planets in the Solar System (upper row) and in the Gliese 581 system (lower row), from their respective stars (left). The habitable zone is indicated as the blue area, showing that Gliese 581 d is located inside the habitable zone around its low-mass red star. Based on a diagram by Franck Selsis, Univ. of Bordeaux. Credit: ESO
Diagram showing the habitable zones of the Solar System (upper row) and the Gliese 581 system (lower row). Based on a diagram by Franck Selsis, Univ. of Bordeaux. Credit: ESO

Mars also has an axial tilt that is very similar to Earth’s, which means it has the same basic seasonal patterns as our planet (albeit for longer periods of time). Basically, when one hemisphere is pointed towards the Sun, it experiences summer while the other experiences winter – complete with warmer temperatures and longer days.

This too would work well when it comes to growing seasons and would provide colonists with a comforting sense of familiarity and a way of measuring out the year. Much like farmers here on Earth, native Martians would experience a “growing season”, a “harvest”, and would be able to hold annual festivities to mark the changing of the seasons.

Also, much like Earth, Mars exists within our Sun’s habitable zone (aka. “goldilocks zone“), though it is slightly towards its outer edge. Venus is similarly located within this zone, but its location on the inner edge (combined with its thick atmosphere) has led to it becoming the hottest planet in the Solar System. That, combined with its sulfuric acid rains makes Mars a much more attractive option.

Additionally, Mars is closer to Earth than the other Solar planets – except for Venus, but we already covered why it’s not a very good option! This would make the process of colonizing it easier. In fact, every few years when the Earth and Mars are at opposition – i.e. when they are closest to each other – the distance varies, making certain “launch windows” ideal for sending colonists.

For example, on April 8th, 2014, Earth and Mars were 92.4 million km (57.4 million miles) apart at opposition. On May 22nd, 2016, they will be 75.3 million km (46.8 million miles) apart, and by July 27th of 2018, a meager 57.6 million km (35.8 million miles) will separate our two worlds. During these windows, getting to Mars would be a matter of months rather than years.

Also, Mars has vast reserves of water in the form of ice. Most of this water ice is located in the polar regions, but surveys of Martian meteorites have suggested that much of it may also be locked away beneath the surface. This water could be extracted and purified for human consumption easily enough.

In his book, The Case for Mars, Robert Zubrin also explains how future human colonists might be able to live off the land when traveling to Mars, and eventually colonize it. Instead of bringing all their supplies from Earth – like the inhabitants of the International Space Station – future colonists would be able to make their own air, water, and even fuel by splitting Martian water into oxygen and hydrogen.

Global map of Water ice on Mars
New estimates of water ice on Mars suggest there may be large reservoirs of underground ice at non-polar latitudes. Credit: Feldman et al., 2011

Preliminary experiments have shown that Mars soil could be baked into bricks to create protective structures, which would cut down on the amount of materials needed to be shipped to the surface. Earth plants could eventually be grown in Martian soil too, assuming they get enough sunlight and carbon dioxide. Over time, planting on the native soil could also help to create a breathable atmosphere.

Challenges:

Despite the aforementioned benefits, there are also some rather monumental challenges to colonizing the Red Planet. For starters, there is the matter of the average surface temperature, which is anything but hospitable. While temperatures around the equator at midday can reach a balmy 20 °C, at the Curiosity site – the Gale Crater, which is close to the equator – typical nighttime temperatures are as low as -70 °C.

The gravity on Mars is also only about 40% of what we experience on Earth’s, which would make adjusting to it quite difficult. According to a NASA report, the effects of zero-gravity on the human body are quite profound, with a loss of up to 5% muscle mass a week and 1% of bone density a month.

Naturally, these losses would be lower on the surface of Mars, where there is at least some gravity. But permanent settlers would still have to contend with the problems of muscle degeneration and osteoporosis in the long run.

 The Biosphere 2 project is an attempt to simulate Mars-like conditions on Earth. Credit: Science Photo Library
The Biosphere 2 project is an attempt to simulate Mars-like conditions on Earth. Credit: Science Photo Library

And then there’s the atmosphere, which is unbreathable. About 95% of the planet’s atmosphere is carbon dioxide, which means that in addition to producing breathable air for their habitats, settlers would also not be able to go outside without a pressure suit and bottled oxygen.

Mars also has no global magnetic field comparable to Earth’s geomagnetic field. Combined with a thin atmosphere, this means that a significant amount of ionizing radiation is able to reach the Martian surface.

Thanks to measurements taken by the Mars Odyssey spacecraft’s Mars Radiation Environment Experiment (MARIE), scientists learned that radiation levels in orbit above Mars are 2.5 times higher than at the International Space Station. Levels on the surface would be lower, but would still be higher than human beings are accustomed to.

In fact, a recent paper submitted by a group of MIT researchers – which analyzed the Mars One plan to colonize the planet beginning in 2020 – concluded that the first astronaut would suffocate after 68 days, while the others would die from a combination of starvation, dehydration, or incineration in an oxygen-rich atmosphere.

Artist's concept of a Martian astronaut standing outside the Mars One habitat. Credit: Bryan Versteeg/Mars One
Artist’s concept of a Martian astronaut standing outside the Mars One habitat. Credit: Bryan Versteeg/Mars One

In short, the challenges to creating a permanent settlement on Mars are numerous, but not necessarily insurmountable. And if we do decide, as individuals and as a species, that Mars is to become a second home for humanity, we will no doubt find creative ways to address them all.

Who knows? Someday, perhaps even within our own lifetimes, there could be real Martians. And they would be us!

Universe Today has many interesting articles about the possibility of humans living on Mars. Here’s a great article written by Nancy Atkinson about the possibility of a one-way, one-person trip to Mars

What about using microbes to help colonize mars? And if you want to know the distances between Earth and Mars, check it out here.

For more information, check out Mars colonies coming soon, Hubblesite’s News Releases about Mars, and NASA’s Quick Facts

The Mars Society is working to try and colonize Mars. And Red Colony is a great resource of articles about colonizing Mars.

Finally, if you’d like to learn more about Mars in general, we have done several podcast episodes about the Red Planet at Astronomy Cast. Episode 52: Mars, Episode 91: The Search for Water on Mars, and Episode 94: Humans to Mars – Part 1, Scientists.

Reference:
NASA Quest: Possibility of colonizing Mars

The Dwarf Planet Eris

Eris is the largest dwarf planet in the Solar System, and the ninth largest body orbiting our Sun. Sometimes referred to as the “tenth planet”, it’s discovery is responsible for upsetting the traditional count of nine planets in our Solar System, as well as leading the way to the creation of a whole new astronomical category.

Located beyond the orbit of Pluto, this “dwarf planet” is both a trans-Neptunian object (TNO), which refers to any planetary object that orbits the Sun at a greater distance than Neptune – or 30 astronomical units (AU). Because of this distance, and the eccentricity of its orbit, it is also a member of a the population of objects (mostly comets) known as the “scattered disk”.

The discovery of Eris was so important because it was a celestial body larger than Pluto, which forced astronomers to consider, for the first time in history, what the definition of a planet truly is.

Discovery:

Eris, which has the full title of 136199 Eris, was first observed in 2003 during a Palomar Observatory survey of the outer solar system by a team led by Mike Brown, a professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology. The discovery was confirmed in January 2005 after the team examined the pictures obtained from the survey in detail.

Classification:

At the time of it’s discovery, Brown and his colleagues believed that they had located the 10th planet of our solar system, since it was the first object in the Kuiper Belt found to be bigger than Pluto. Some astronomers agreed and liked the designation, but others objected since they claimed that Eris was not a true planet. At the time, the definition of “planet” was not a clear-cut since there had never been an official definition issued by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

The matter was settled by the IAU in the summer of 2006. They defined a planet as an object that orbits the Sun, which is large enough to make itself roughly spherical. Additionally, it would have to be able to clear its neighborhood – meaning it has enough gravity to force any objects of similar size or that are not under its gravitational control out of its orbit.

In addition to finally defining what a planet is, the IAU also created a new category of “dwarf planets“. The only difference between a planet and a dwarf planet is that a dwarf planet has not cleared its neighborhood. Eris was assigned to this new category, and Pluto lost its status as a planet. Other celestial bodies, including Haumea, Ceres, and Makemake, have been classified as dwarf planets.

artist's impression shows the distant dwarf planet Eris. New observations have shown that Eris is smaller than previously thought and almost exactly the same size as Pluto. Eris is extremely reflective and its surface is probably covered in frost formed from the frozen remains of its atmosphere. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression shows the distant dwarf planet Eris, highlighting its bright surface. Credit: ESO

Naming:

Eris is named after the Greek goddess of strife and discord. The name was assigned on September 13th, 2006, following an unusually long consideration period that arose over the issue of classification. During this time, the object became known to the wider public as Xena, which was the name given to it by the discovery team.

The team had been saving this name, which was inspired by the title character of the television series Xena: Warrior Princess, for the first body they discovered that was larger than Pluto. They also chose it because it started with the letter X, a reference to Percival Lowell’s hunt for a planet he believed to exist the edge of the Solar System (which he referred to as “Planet X“).

According to fellow astronomer and science writer Govert Schilling, Brown initially wanted to call the object “Lila”. This name was inspired by a concept in Hindu mythology that described the cosmos as the outcome of a game played by Brahma, and also because it was similar to “Lilah” – the name of Brown’s newborn daughter.

Size and Orbit:

The actual size and mass of Eris has been the subject of debate, as official estimates have changed with time and subsequent viewing. In 2005, using images from the Hubble Space Telescope. the diameter of Eris was measured to be 2397 ± 100 km (1,489 miles). In 2007, a series of observations of the largest trans-Neptunian objects with the Spitzer Space Telescope estimated Eris’s diameter at 2600 (+400/-200) km (1616 miles).

A diagram showing solar system orbits. The highly tilted orbit of Eris is in red. Credit: NASA
A diagram showing solar system orbits. The highly tilted orbit of Eris is in red. Credit: NASA

The most recent observation took place in November of 2010, when Eris was the subject of one of the most distant stellar occultations yet achieved from Earth. The teams findings were announced on October 2011, and contradicted previous findings with an estimated diameter of 2326 ± 12 km (1445 miles).

Because of these differences, astronomers have been hard-pressed to maintain that Eris is more massive than Pluto. According to the latest estimates, the Solar System’s “ninth planet” has a diameter of 2368 km (1471 miles), placing it on par with Eris. Part of the difficulty in accurately assessing the planet’s size comes from interference from Pluto’s atmosphere. Astronomers expect a more accurate appraisal when the New Horizons space probe arrives at Pluto in July 2015.

Eris has an orbital period of 558 years. Its maximum possible distance from the Sun (aphelion) is 97.65 AU, and its closest (perihelion) is 37.91 AU. This means that Eris and its moon are currently the most distant known objects in the Solar System, apart from long-period comets and space probes.

Eris’s orbit is highly eccentric, and brings Eris to within 37.9 AU of the Sun, a typical perihelion for scattered objects. This is within the orbit of Pluto, but still safe from direct interaction with Neptune (29.8-30.4 AU). Unlike the eight planets, whose orbits all lie roughly in the same plane as the Earth’s, Eris’s orbit is highly inclined – the planet is tilted at an angle of about 44° to the ecliptic.

Moons:

Eris has one moon called Dysnomia, which is named after the daughter of Eris in Greek mythology, which was first observed on September 10th, 2005 – a few months after the discovery of Eris. The moon was spotted by a team using the Keck telescopes in Hawaii, who were busy carrying out observations of the four brightest TNOs (Pluto, Makemake, Haumea, and Eris) at the time.

Eris (center) and its moon of Dysnomia (left of center), taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/Mike Brown
Eris (center) and its moon of Dysnomia (left of center), taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/Mike Brown

Interesting Facts:

The dwarf planet is rather bright and can be detected using something as simple as a small telescope. Models of internal heating via radioactive decay suggest that Eris may be capable of sustaining an internal ocean of liquid water at the mantle-core boundary. These studies were conducted by Hauke Hussmann and colleagues from the Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences (IAG) at the University of São Paulo.

Brown and the discovery team followed up their initial identification of Eris with spectroscopic observations of the planet, which were made on January 25th, 2005. Infrared light from the object revealed the presence of methane ice, indicating that the surface may be similar to that of Pluto and of Neptune’s moon Triton.

Due to Eris’s distant eccentric orbit, its surface temperature is estimated to vary between about 30 and 56 K (?243.2 and ?217.2 °C). This places it on par with Pluto’s surface temperature, which ranges from 33 to 55 K (-240.15 and -218.15 °C).

We have many interesting articles on planets here at Universe Today, including this article on What is the newest planet and the 10th planet.

If you are looking for more information, try Eris and NASA’s Solar System Exploration entry.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on Pluto’s planetary identity crisis.

Source:

America’s First Space Station: The NASA Skylab

Before there was the International Space Station, before there was Mir, there was Skylab. Established in 1973, and remaining in orbit until 1979, this orbital space station was American’s first long-duration orbital workshop, and the ancestor of all those that have followed.

Originally conceived of in 1969, the plans for the station were part of a general winding down that took place during the last years of the Space Race – which officially ran from 1955 to 1972. Having sent astronauts into orbit and achieved the dream of manned missions to the Moon, the purpose of Skylab was to achieve a lasting presence in space. Rather than simply “getting there first”, NASA was now concerned with staying there.

Planning:

The seeds of Skylab were planted as early as 1959, when Wernher von Braun – the head of the Development Operations Division at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency – proposed a mission that would use a multistage rocket to place men on the Moon. As part of this mission, the upper stage of the rocket would be deposited around the Earth to function as an orbital laboratory. Known as Horizon, these plans were eventually be seized upon by NASA, which was rapidly forming at the time.

A 1967 conceptual drawing of the Gemini B reentry capsule separating from the MOL at the end of a mission. Credit: NASA
A 1967 conceptual drawing of the Gemini B reentry capsule separating from the MOL at the end of a mission. Credit: NASA

Similarly, as of September 1963, the US Department of Defense (DoD) and NASA began collaborating on a manned facility known as the “Manned Orbital Laboratory” (MOL). The initial DoD plan called for a station that would be the same diameter as a Titan II upper stage, and which would primarily be intended for photo reconnaissance using large telescopes directed by a two-man crew.

As the head of the Marshall Space Flight Center during the 1960s, Von Braun became concerned that his employees would not have work beyond developing the Saturn rockets intended for the Apollo program. As a result, he began advocating for the creation of a space station using modified Apollo hardware – which included the S-II second stage of a Saturn V rocket.

Throughout 1965, several more proposals were considered that relied on the Saturn S-IVB stage to create a space station. As part of NASA’s The Orbital Workshop program, this proposal also called for sending a crew to man the station using a Apollo Command-Service Module (CSM) aboard a Saturn IB rocket.

 This artist's concept is a cutaway illustration of the Skylab with the Command/Service Module being docked to the Multiple Docking Adapter. Credit: NASA
This artist’s concept is a cutaway illustration of the Skylab with the Command/Service Module being docked to the Multiple Docking Adapter. Credit: NASA

The crew would dock with the station, vent the residual propellants from the S-IVB stage, fill the hydrogen tank with a breathable oxygen atmosphere, and then enter the tank and outfit it as a station. On August 8th, 1969, after years of development and workshops, the McDonnel Douglas Corporation received a contract to create an Orbital Workshop out of two existing S-IVB stages.

In February of 1970, the program was renamed “Skylab” as a result of a NASA contest. A Saturn V rocket that was originally produced for the Apollo program – before the cancellation of Apollo 18, 19, and 20 – was re-purposed and redesigned to carry the station into orbit.

Launch:

Skylab was launched on May 14th, 1973 on a mission that is sometimes referred to as Skylab 1 (or SL-1). Severe damage was sustained during the launch when the station’s meteoroid shield and one of the two solar panels tore off due to vibrations.

Since the station was designed to face the Sun in order to get as much power as possible, and the shield was ripped off, the station rose to a temperature of 52°C. As a result, scientists had to move the space station and effect repairs before astronauts could be dispatched to it.

Launch of the modified Saturn V rocket carrying the Skylab space station. Credit: NASA
Launch of the modified Saturn V rocket carrying the Skylab space station. Credit: NASA

Missions:

The first manned mission (designated Skylab 2, or SL-2) took place on May 25th, 1973, atop a Saturn IB and involved extensive repairs to the station. This mission last four weeks, and astronauts Charles Conrad, Jr., Paul J. Weitz, Joseph P. Kerwin were the crew members. During the mission, the crew conducted a number of experiments, including solar astronomy and medical studies, and three EVAs (extra-vehicular activities) were completed as well.

The second manned mission, also known as Skylab 3 (SL-3), was launched on July 28th, 1973. The crew consisted of Alan L. Bean, Jack R. Lousma, and Owen K. Garriott. The mission lasted 59 days and 11 hours, during which time the crew carried out additional repairs as well as performing scientific and medical experiments.

The third and final mission to the Skylab (Skylab 4, SL-4) was the longest, lasting 84 days and one hour. Gerald P. Carr, William R. Pogue, Edward G. Gibson were the crew, and in addition to performing various experiments, they also observed the Comet Kohoutek. The crew conducted three EVAs which lasted a total of 22 hours and 13 minutes.

Skylab in February 1974, pictured by the SL-4 crew as they departed the station to return to Earth. Credit: NASA
Skylab in February 1974, pictured by the SL-4 crew as they depart the station to return to Earth. Credit: NASA

Skylab was occupied a total of 171 days and orbited the Earth more than 2,476 times during the course of its service. Each Skylab mission set a record for the amount of time astronauts spent in space.

Decommissioning:

Though NASA hoped that the station would remain in orbit for ten years, by 1977, it became clear that it would not be able to maintain a stable orbit for that long. As a result, after SL-4, preparations were made to shut down all operations and de-orbit the station.

Skylab’s demise was an international media event, with merchandising of T-shirts and hats with bullseyes, wagering on the time and place of re-entry, and nightly news reports. In the hours before re-entry, ground controllers adjusted Skylab’s orientation to try to minimize the risk of re-entry on a populated area.

They aimed the station at a spot 1,300 km (810 miles) south southeast of Cape Town, South Africa, and re-entry began at approximately 16:37 UTC, July 11, 1979. The debris reached Earth on July 11th, 1979, raining down over the Indian Ocean and parts of Australia.

On May 13, NASA commemorated the 40th anniversary of Skylab’s liftoff with a special roundtable discussion broadcast live on NASA TV. The event took place at NASA’s Headquarters in Washington, DC, and participants included Skylab and current ISS astronauts and NASA human spaceflight managers.

While the station did not have the history of service that NASA initially hoped for, the development, deployment and crewed missions to Skylab were essential to the creation of the International Space Station, which began almost 20 years after Skylab came home.

We have many interesting articles on the Apollo program and space stations here at Universe Today. For example, here are some articles on Apollo 20 and the International Space Station.

You should also check out Skylab and NASA Skylab. Astronomy Cast has an episode on space elevators.

Source: NASA

What is Lunar Regolith?

When you’re walking around on soft ground, do you notice how your feet leave impressions? Perhaps you’ve tracked some of the looser earth in your yard into the house on occasion? If you were to pick up some of these traces – what we refer to as dirt or soil – and examine them beneath a microscope, what would you see?

Essentially, you would be seeing the components of what is known as regolith, which is a collection of particles of dust, soil, broken rock, and other materials found here on Earth. But interestingly enough, this same basic material can be found in other terrestrial environments as well – including the Moon, Mars, other planets, and even asteroids.

Definition:

The term regolith refers to any layer of material covering solid rock, which can come in the form of dust, soil or broken rock. The word is derived from the combination of two Greek words – rhegos (which means “blanket”) and lithos (which means “rock).

Earth:

On Earth, regolith takes the form of dirt, soil, sand, and other components that are formed as a result of natural weathering and biological processes. Due to a combination of erosion, alluvial deposits (i.e. moving water deposing sand), volcanic eruptions, or tectonic activity, the material is slowly ground down and laid out over solid bedrock.

central Yilgarn Craton, Western Australia.
Picture of Mt Magnet in the Central Yilgarn Craton in Western Australia, which dates to the Precambrian Era. Credit: geomorphologie.revues.org

It can be made up of clays, silicates, various minerals, groundwater, and organic molecules. Regolith on Earth can vary from being essentially absent to being hundreds of meters thick. Its can also be very young (in the form of ash, alluvium, or lava rock that was just deposited) to hundreds of millions of years old (regolith dating to the Precambrian age occurs in parts of Australia).

On Earth, the presence of regolith is one of the important factors for most life, since few plants can grow on or within solid rock and animals would be unable to burrow or build shelter without loose material. Regolith is also important for human beings since it has been used since the dawn of civilization (in the form of mud bricks, concrete and ceramics) to build houses, roads, and other civil works.

The difference in terminology between “soil” (aka. dirt, mud, etc.) and “sand” is the presence of organic materials. In the former, it exists in abundance, and is what separates regolith on Earth from most other terrestrial environments in our Solar System.

The Moon:

The surface of the Moon is covered with a fine powdery material that scientists refer to it as “lunar regolith”. Nearly the entire lunar surface is covered with regolith, and bedrock is only visible on the walls of very steep craters.

Earth viewed from the Moon by the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Credit: NASA
Earth viewed from the Moon by the Apollo 11 spacecraft, across a sea of lunar soil. Credit: NASA

The Moon regolith was formed over billions of years by constant meteorite impacts on the surface of the Moon. Scientists estimate that the lunar regolith extends down 4-5 meters in some places, and even as deep as 15 meters in the older highland areas.

When the plans were put together for the Apollo missions, some scientists were concerned that the lunar regolith would be too light and powdery to support the weight of the lunar lander. Instead of landing on the surface, they were worried that the lander would just sink down into it like a snowbank.

However, landings performed by robotic Surveyor spacecraft showed that the lunar soil was firm enough to support a spacecraft, and astronauts later explained that the surface of the Moon felt very firm beneath their feet. During the Apollo landings, the astronauts often found it necessary to use a hammer to drive a core sampling tool into it.

Once astronauts reached the surface, they reported that the fine moon dust stuck to their spacesuits and then dusted the inside of the lunar lander. The astronauts also claimed that it got into their eyes, making them red; and worse, even got into their lungs, giving them coughs. Lunar dust is very abrasive, and has been noted for its ability to wear down spacesuits and electronics.

Alan Bean Takes Lunar Soil Sample
Alan Bean takes a sample of lunar regolith during the Apollo 12 mission. Credit: NASA

The reason for this is because lunar regolith is sharp and jagged. This is due to the fact that the Moon has no atmosphere or flowing water on it, and hence no natural weathering process. When the micro-meteoroids slammed into the surface and created all the particles, there was no process for wearing down its sharp edges.

The term lunar soil is often used interchangeably with “lunar regolith”, but some have argued that the term “soil” is not correct because it is defined as having organic content. However, standard usage among lunar scientists tends to ignore that distinction. “Lunar dust” is also used, but mainly to refer to even finer materials than lunar soil.

As NASA is working on plans to send humans back to the Moon in the coming years, researchers are working to learn the best ways to work with the lunar regolith. Future colonists could mine minerals, water, and even oxygen out of the lunar soil, and use it to manufacture bases with as well.

Mars:

Landers and rovers that have been sent to Mars by NASA, the Russians and the ESA have returned many interesting photographs, showing a landscape that is covered with vast expanses of sand and dust, as well as rocks and boulders.

A successful scoop of Martian regolith (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute)
A successful scoop of Martian regolith performed by NASA’s Phoenix lander. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Max Planck Institute

Compared to lunar regolith, Mars dust is very fine and enough remains suspended in the atmosphere to give the sky a reddish hue. The dust is occasionally picked up in vast planet-wide dust storms, which are quite slow due to the very low density of the atmosphere.

The reason why Martian regolith is so much finer than that found on the Moon is attributed to the flowing water and river valleys that once covered its surface. Mars researchers are currently studying whether or not martian regolith is still being shaped in the present epoch as well.

It is believed that large quantities of water and carbon dioxide ices remain frozen within the regolith, which would be of use if and when manned missions (and even colonization efforts) take place in the coming decades.

Mars moon of Deimos is also covered by a layer of regolith that is estimated to be 50 meters (160 feet) thick. Images provided by the Viking 2 orbiter confirmed its presence from a height of 30 km (19 miles) above the moon’s surface.

Asteroids and Outer Solar System:

The only other planet in our Solar System that is known to have regolith is Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The surface is known for its extensive fields of dunes, though the precise origin of them are not known. Some scientists have suggested that they may be small fragments of water ice eroded by Titan’s liquid methane, or possibly particulate organic matter that formed in Titan’s atmosphere and rained down on the surface.

Another possibility is that a series of powerful wind reversals, which occur twice during a single Saturn year (30 Earth years), are responsible for forming these dunes, which measure several hundred meters high and stretch across hundreds of kilometers.  Currently, Earth scientists are still not certain what Titan’s regolith is composed of.

Data returned by the Huygens Probe’s penetrometer indicated that the surface may be clay-like, but long-term analysis of the data has suggested that it may be composed of sand-like ice grains.  The images taken by the probe upon landing on the moon’s surface show a flat plain covered in rounded pebbles, which may be made of water ice, and suggest the action of moving fluids on them.

Asteroids have been observed to have regolith on their surfaces as well. These are the result of meteoriod impacts that have taken place over the course of millions of years, pulverizing their surfaces and creating dust and tiny particles that are carried within the craters.

False color picture of Eros' 5.3-kilometer (3.3-mile) surface crater, showing regolith inside. Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL
False color picture taken by NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker camera of Eros’ 5.3-kilometer (3.3-mile) surface crater, showing the presence of regolith inside. Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL

NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft produced evidence of regolith on the surface of the asteroid 433 Eros, which remains the best images of asteroid regolith to date. Additional evidence has been provided by JAXA’s Hayabusa mission, which returned clear images of regolith on an asteroid that was thought to be too small to hold onto it.

Images provided by the Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) cameras on board the Rosetta Spacecraft confirmed that the asteroid 21 Lutetia has a layer of regolith near its north pole, which was seen to flow in major landslides associated with variations in the asteriod’s albedo.

To break it down succinctly, wherever there is rock, there is likely to be regolith. Whether it is the product of wind or flowing water, or the presence of meteors impacting the surface, good old fashioned “dirt” can be found just about anywhere in our Solar System; and most likely, in the universe beyond…

We’ve done several articles about the Moon’s regolith here on Universe Today. Here’s a way astronauts might be able to extract water from lunar regolith with simple kitchen appliances, and an article about NASA’s search for a lunar digger.

Want to buy some lunar regolith simulant? Here’s a site that lets you buy it. Do you want to be a Moon miner? There’s lots of good metal in that lunar regolith.

You can listen to a very interesting podcast about the formation of the Moon from Astronomy Cast, Episode 17: Where Did the Moon Come From?

Reference:
NASA

What Are Extrasolar Planets?

For countless generations, human beings have looked out at the night sky and wondered if they were alone in the universe. With the discovery of other planets in our Solar System, the true extent of the Milky Way galaxy, and other galaxies beyond our own, this question has only deepened and become more profound.

And whereas astronomers and scientists have long suspected that other star systems in our galaxy and the universe had orbiting planets of their own, it has only been within the last few decades that any have been observed. Over time, the methods for detecting these “extrasolar planets” have improved, and the list of those whose existence has been confirmed has grown accordingly (to over 3000!)

Definition:

An extrasolar planet, also called an exoplanet, is a planet that orbits a star (i.e. is part of a solar system) other than our own. Our Solar System is only one among billions and many of them most likely have their own system of planets. As early as the sixteenth century, there have been astronomers who hypothesized of the existence of extrasolar planets.

The first recorded mention was made by Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, an early supporter of the Copernican theory. In addition to supporting the idea that the Earth and other planets orbit the Sun (heliocentrism), he put forward the view that the fixed stars are similar to the Sun and are likewise accompanied by planets.

Credit: The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog, Planetary Habitability Laboratory @ UPR Arecibo (phl.upl.edu)
List of potentially habitable exoplanets discovered so far in our universe. Credit: phl.upl.edu

In the eighteenth century, Isaac Newton made a similar suggestion in the “General Scholium” section which concludes his Principia. Making a comparison to the Sun’s planets, he wrote “And if the fixed stars are the centers of similar systems, they will all be constructed according to a similar design and subject to the dominion of One.”

Since Newton’s time, various claims have been made, but which were rejected by the scientific community as false positives. In the 1980’s, some astronomers claimed that they had identified a some extrasolar planets in nearby star systems, but were unable to confirm their existence until years later.

First Discoveries:

One of the reasons why extrasolar planets are so difficult to detect is because they are even fainter than the stars they orbit. Additionally, these stars give off light that “washes” the planets out – i.e. obscures them from direct observation. As a result, the first discovery was not made until 1992 when astronomers Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail – using the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – observed several terrestrial-mass planets orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12.

It was not until 1995 that the first confirmation of an exoplanet orbiting a main-sequence star was made. In this case, the planet observed was 51 Pegasi b, a giant planet found in a four-day orbit around the Sun-like star 51 Pegasi (approx 51 light years from our Sun).

Initially, most of the planets detected were gas giants similar to, or larger than, Jupiter – which led to the term “Super-Jupiter” being coined. Far from suggesting that gas giants were more common than rocky (i.e. “Earth-like“) planets, these findings were simply due to the fact that Jupiter-sized planets are simply easier to detect because of their size.

The Kepler Mission:

Named after the Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler, the Kepler space observatory was launched by NASA on March 7th, 2009 for the purpose of discovering Earth-like planets orbiting other stars. As part of NASA’s Discovery Program,  a series of relatively low-cost project focused on scientific research, Kepler’s mission is to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way to find evidence of extrasolar planets and estimate how many stars in our galaxy have planetary systems.

Relying on the Transit Method of detection (see below), Kepler’s sole instrument is a photometer that continually monitors the brightness of over 145,000 main sequence stars in a fixed field of view. This data is transmitted back to Earth where it is analyzed by scientists to look for any signs of periodic dimming caused by extrasolar planets transiting (passing) in front of their host star.

Histogram showing the number of exoplanets discovered by year. Credit: NASA Ames/W. Stenzel, Princeton/T. Morton
Histogram showing the number of exoplanets discovered by year. Credit: NASA Ames/W. Stenzel, Princeton/T. Morton

The initial planned lifetime of the Kepler mission was 3.5 years, but greater-than-expected results led to the mission being extended. In 2012, the mission was expected to last until 2016, but this changed due to the failure of one the spacecraft’s reaction wheels – which are used for pointing the spacecraft. On May 11, 2013, a second of four reaction wheels failed, disabling the collection of science data and threatening the continuation of the mission.

On August 15, 2013, NASA announced that they had given up trying to fix the two failed reaction wheels and modified the mission accordingly. Rather than scrap Kepler, NASA proposed changing the mission to utilizing Kepler to detect habitable planets around smaller, dimmer red dwarf stars.  This proposal, which became known as K2 “Second Light”, was approved on May 16th, 2014.

Since that time, the K2 mission has focused more on brighter stars (such as G- and K-class stars). As of October 13th, 2016, astronomers have confirmed the presence of 3,397 exoplanets and 573 multi-planet systems, the vast majority of which were found using data from Kepler. All told, the space probe has observed over 150,000 stars in the course of its primary and K2 missions.

In November 2013, astronomers reported, based on Kepler space mission data, that there could be as many as 40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of Sun-like and red dwarf stars within the Milky Way. It is estimated that 11 billion of these planets may be orbiting Sun-like stars.

This diagram shows the distances of the planets in the Solar System (upper row) and in the Gliese 581 system (lower row), from their respective stars (left). The habitable zone is indicated as the blue area, showing that Gliese 581 d is located inside the habitable zone around its low-mass red star. Based on a diagram by Franck Selsis, Univ. of Bordeaux. Credit: ESO
Diagram showing the habitable zone of the Solar System (upper row) and in the Gliese 581 system (lower row), based on the work of Franck Selsis, Univ. of Bordeaux. Credit: ESO

Habitable Planets:

The discovery of exoplanets has also intensified interest in the search for extraterrestrial life, particularly for those that orbit in the host star’s habitable zone. Also known as the “goldilocks zone“, this is the region of the solar system where conditions are warm enough (but not too warm) so that it is possible for liquid water (and therefore life) to exist on the planet’s surface.

The first planet confirmed by Kepler to have an average orbital distance that placed it within its star’s habitable zone was Kepler-22b. This planet is located about 600 light years from Earth in the constellation of Cygnus, and was first observed on May 12th, 2009, and then confirmed on Dec 5th, 2011. Based on all the data obtained, scientists believe that this world is roughly 2.4 times the radius of Earth, and is likely covered in oceans or has a liquid or gaseous outer shell.

Prior to the deployment of Kepler, the vast majority of confirmed exoplanets fell into the category of Jupiter-sized or larger. However, as of Sept. 18th, 2015, Kepler has identified 4,696 potential candidates, many of them falling into the categories of Earth-size or “Super-Earth” size. Many of these are located in the habitable zone of their parent stars, and some even around Sun-like stars.

And according to a recent study from NASA Ames Research Center, analysis of the Kepler mission data indicated that about 24% of M-class stars may harbor potentially habitable, Earth-size planets (i.e. those that are smaller than 1.6 times the radius of Earth’s). Based upon the number of M-class stars in the galaxy, that alone represents about 10 billion potentially habitable, Earth-like worlds.

Meanwhile, analyses of the K2 phase suggests that about one-quarter of the larger stars surveyed may also have Earth-size planet orbiting within their habitable zones. Taken together, the stars observed by Kepler make up about 70% of those found within the Milky Way. So one can estimate that there are literally tens of billions of potentially habitable planets in our galaxy alone.

Detection Methods:

While some exoplanets have been observed directly with telescopes (a process known as “Direct Imaging”), the vast majority have been detected through indirect methods such as the transit method and the radial-velocity method. In the case of the Transit Method, a planet is observed when crossing the path (i.e. transiting) in front of its parent star’s disk.

When this occurs, the observed brightness of the star drops by a small amount, which can be measured and used to determine the size of the planet. The transit method reveals the radius of a planet, and it has the benefit that it sometimes allows a planet’s atmosphere to be investigated through spectroscopy.

However, it also suffers from a substantial rate of false positives, and generally requires that part of the planet’s orbit intersect a line-of-sight between the host star and Earth. As a result, confirmation from another method is usually considered necessary. Nevertheless, it remains the most widely-used means of detection and is responsible for more exoplanet discoveries than all other methods combined. The Kepler telescope uses this method (see above).

The Radial Velocity (or Doppler Method) involves measuring the star’s radial velocity – i.e. the speed with which it moves towards or away from Earth. The is one means of detecting planets because, as planet’s orbit a star, they exert a gravitational influence that causes the star itself to move in its own small orbit around the system’s center of mass.

This method has the advantage of being applicable to stars with a wide range of characteristics. However, one of its disadvantages is that it cannot determine a planet’s true mass, but can only set a lower limit on that mass. It remains the second-most effective technique employed by exoplanet hunters.

Other methods include Transit Timing Variation (TTV) and Gravitational Microlensing. The former relies on measuring the variations in the times of transit for one planet to determine the existence of others. This method is effective in determining the existence of multiple transiting planets in one system, but requires that the existence of at least one already be confirmed.

In another form of the method, timing the eclipses in an eclipsing binary star can reveal an outer planet that orbits both stars. As of August 2013, a few planets have been found with this method while numerous more were confirmed.

Number of extrasolar planet discoveries per year through September 2014, with colors indicating method of detection - radial velocity (blue), transit (green), timing (yellow), direct imaging (red), microlensing (orange). Image Credit: Public domain
Number of extrasolar planet discoveries per year through September 2014, with colors indicating method of detection – radial velocity (blue), transit (green), timing (yellow), direct imaging (red), microlensing (orange). Image Credit: Public domain

In the case of Gravitational Microlensing, this refers to the effect a star’s gravitational field can have, acting like a lens to magnify the light of a distance background star. Planets orbiting this star can cause detectable anomalies in the magnification over time, thus indicating their presence. This technique is effective in detecting stars that have wider orbits (1-10 AUs) from Sun-like stars.

Other methods exist, and – alone or in combination – have allowed for the detection and confirmation of thousands of planets. As of May 2015, a total of 1921 planets in 1214 planetary systems have been confirmed, as well as 482 multiple planetary systems.

Future Missions:

With the winding down of Kepler’s mission, and so many discoveries made within a short period of time, NASA and other federal space agencies plan to continue in the hunt for extrasolar planets. Proposed NASA missions that will pick up where Kepler has left off include the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) – which is scheduled for launch sometime in 2017 – and the James Webb Space Telescope, which is to be deployed in October of 2018.

In addition, the European Space Agency (ESA) hopes to continue to map out a significant portion of the Milky Way Galaxy (including exoplanets) using its Gaia spacecraft – which commenced operations in 2013. The Herschel Space Observatory, and ESA mission with participation from NASA, has been in operation since 2009 and is also expected to make many interesting discoveries in the coming years.

There’s a an entire Universe of worlds out there to discover, and we’ve barely scratched the surface!

Universe Today has many interesting articles on exoplanets. Here’s What Does “Earthlike” Even Mean & Should It Apply To Proxima Centauri b?, Focusing On ‘Second-Earth’ Candidates In The Kepler Catalog, New Technique to Find Earth-like Exoplanets, Potentially Habitable Exoplanet Confirmed Around Nearest Star!, Planetary Habitability Index Proposes A Less “Earth-Centric” View In Search Of Life, Habitable Earth-Like Exoplanets Might Be Closer Than We Think.

For more information, check out Kepler’s home page at NASA. The Planetary Society’s page on Exoplanets is also interesting, as is NASA Exoplanet Archive – which is maintained with the help of Caltech.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on the subject –  Episode 2: In Search of Other Worlds.

Sources:

 

100,000 Galaxies, and No Obvious Signs of Life

Beam us up, Scotty. There’s no signs of intelligent life out there. At least, no obvious signs, according to a recent survey performed by researchers at Penn State University. After reviewing data taken by the NASA Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope of over 100,000 galaxies, there appears to be little evidence that advanced, spacefaring civilizations exist in any of them.

First deployed in 2009, the WISE mission has been able to identify thousands of asteroids in our solar system and previously undiscovered star clusters in our galaxy. However, Jason T. Wright, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State University, conceived of and initiated a new field of research – using the infrared data to assist in the search for signs of extra-terrestrial civilizations.

And while their first look did not yield much in the way of results, it is an exciting new area of research and provides some very useful information on one of the greatest questions ever asked: are we alone in the universe?

“The idea behind our research is that, if an entire galaxy had been colonized by an advanced spacefaring civilization, the energy produced by that civilization’s technologies would be detectable in mid-infrared wavelengths,” said Wright, “exactly the radiation that the WISE satellite was designed to detect for other astronomical purposes.”

This logic is in keeping with the theories of Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev and theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson. In 1964, Kardashev proposed that a civilization’s level of technological advancement could be measured based on the amount of energy that civilization is able to utilize.

Freemon Dyson theorized that eventually, a civilization would be able to build a megastructure around its star to capture all its energy. Credit: SentientDevelopments.com
Freemon Dyson theorized that eventually, a civilization would be able to enclose its star with a megastructure that would to capture and utilize its energy. Credit: sentientdevelopments.com

To characterize the level of extra-terrestrial development, Kardashev developed a three category system – Type I, II, and III civilizations –  known as the “Kardashev Scale”. A Type I civilization uses all available resources on its home planet, while a Type II is able to harness all the energy of its star. Type III civilizations are those that are advanced enough to harness the energy of their entire galaxy.

Similarly, Dyson proposed in 1960 that advanced alien civilizations beyond Earth could be detected by the telltale evidence of their mid-infrared emissions. Believing that a sufficiently advanced civilization would be able to enclose their parent star, he believed it would be possible to search for extraterrestrials by looking for large objects radiating in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum.

These thoughts were expressed in a short paper submitted to the journal Science, entitled “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation“. In it, Dyson proposed that an advanced species would use artificial structures – now referred to as “Dyson Spheres” (though he used the term “shell” in his paper) – to intercept electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths from visible light downwards and radiating waste heat outwards as infrared radiation.

“Whether an advanced spacefaring civilization uses the large amounts of energy from its galaxy’s stars to power computers, space flight, communication, or something we can’t yet imagine, fundamental thermodynamics tells us that this energy must be radiated away as heat in the mid-infrared wavelengths,” said Wright. “This same basic physics causes your computer to radiate heat while it is turned on.”

Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, will scan the entire sky in infrared light, picking up the glow of hundreds of millions of objects and producing millions of images
The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) scans the entire sky in infrared light, picking up the glow of hundreds of millions of objects and producing millions of images. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

However, it was not until space-based telescopes like WISE were deployed that it became possible to make sensitive measurements of this radiation. WISE is one of three infrared missions currently in space, the other two being NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the Herschel Space Observatory – a European Space Agency mission with important NASA participation.

WISE is different from these missions in that it surveys the entire sky and is designed to cast a net wide enough to catch all sorts of previously unseen cosmic interests. And there are few things more interesting than the prospect of advanced alien civilizations!

To search for them, Roger Griffith – a postbaccalaureate researcher at Penn State and the lead author of the paper – and colleagues scoured the entries in the WISE satellites database looking for evidence of a galaxy that was emitting too much mid-infrared radiation. He and his team then individually examined and categorized 100,000 of the most promising galaxy images.

And while they didn’t find any obvious signs of a Type II civilization or Dyson Spheres in any of them, they did find around 50 candidates that showed unusually high levels of mid-infrared radiation. The next step will be to confirm whether or not these signs are due to natural astronomical processes, or could be an indication of a highly advanced civilization tapping their parent star for energy.

WISE will find the most luminous galaxies in the universe -- incredibly energetic objects bursting with new stars. The infrared telescope can see the glow of dust that shrouds these galaxies, hiding them from visible-light telescopes. An example of a dusty, luminous galaxy is shown here in this infrared portrait of the "Cigar" galaxy taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Dust is color-coded red, and starlight blue. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Steward Observatory
WISE will take images of the most luminous galaxies in the universe, such as the “Cigar” galaxy shown here – taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Steward Observatory

In any case, the team’s findings were quite interesting and broke new ground in what is sure to be an ongoing area of research. The only previous study, according to the G-HAT team, surveyed only about 100 galaxies, and was unable to examine them in the infrared to see how much heat they emitted. What’s more, the research may help shed some light on the burning questions about the very existence of intelligent, extra-terrestrial life in our universe.

“Our results mean that, out of the 100,000 galaxies that WISE could see in sufficient detail, none of them is widely populated by an alien civilization using most of the starlight in its galaxy for its own purposes,” said Wright. “That’s interesting because these galaxies are billions of years old, which should have been plenty of time for them to have been filled with alien civilizations, if they exist. Either they don’t exist, or they don’t yet use enough energy for us to recognize them.”

Alas, it seems we are no closer to resolving the Fermi Paradox. But for the first time, it seems that investigations into the matter are moving beyond theoretical arguments. And given time, and further refinements in our detection methods, who knows what we might find lurking out there? The universe is very, very big place, after all.

The research team’s first research paper about their Glimpsing Heat from Alien Technologies Survey (G-HAT) survey appeared in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series on April 15, 2015.

Further Reading: Astrophysical Journal via EurekAlert, JPL-NASA

There Could Be Lava Tubes on the Moon, Large Enough for Whole Cities

Every year since 1970, astronomers, geologists, geophysicists, and a host of other specialists have come together to participate in the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPCS). Jointly sponsored by the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) and NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC), this annual event is a chance for scientists from all around the world to share and present the latest planetary research concerning Earth’s only moon.

This year, one of the biggest attention-grabbers was the findings presented on Tuesday, March 17th by a team of students from Purdue University. Led by a graduate student from the university’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, the study they shared indicates that there may be stable lava tubes on the moon, ones large enough to house entire cities.

In addition to being a target for future geological and geophysical studies, the existence of these tubes could also be a boon for future human space exploration. Basically, they argued, such large, stable underground tunnels could provide a home for human settlements, shielding them from harmful cosmic radiation and extremes in temperature.

The Hadley Rille, at the foot of the Apennine Mountains encircling the Mare Imbrium where Apollo 15 landed (NASA/JAXA)
The Hadley Rille, at the foot of the Apennine Mountains encircling the Mare Imbrium where Apollo 15 landed. Credit: NASA/JAXA

Lava tubes are natural conduits formed by flowing lava that is moving beneath the surface as a result of a volcanic eruption. As the lava moves, the outer edges of it cools, forming a hardened, channel-like crust which is left behind once the lava flow stops. For some time, Lunar scientists have been speculating as to whether or not lava flows happen on the Moon, as evidenced by the presence of sinuous rilles on the surface.

Sinuous rilles are narrow depressions in the lunar surface that resemble channels, and have a curved paths that meanders across the landscape like a river valley. It is currently believed that these rilles are the remains of collapsed lava tubes or extinct lava flows, which is backed up by the fact they usually begin at the site of an extinct volcano.

Those that have been observed on the Moon in the past range in size of up to 10 kilometers in width and hundreds of kilometers in length. At that size, the existence of a stable tube – i.e. one which had not collapsed to form a sinuous rille – would be large enough to accommodate a major city.

For the sake of their study, the Purdue team explored whether lava tubes of the same scale could exist underground. What they found was that the stability of a lava tube depended on a number of variables- including width, roof thickness and the stress state of the cooled lava. he researchers also modeled lava tubes with walls created by lava placed in one thick layer and with lava placed in many thin layers.

The city of Philadelphia is shown inside a theoretical lunar lava tube. A Purdue University team of researchers explored whether lava tubes more than 1 kilometer wide could remain structurally stable on the moon. (Purdue University/courtesy of David Blair)
The inside of a theoretical lunar lava tube, with the city of Philadelphia shown for scale. Credit: Purdue University/David Blair

David Blair, a graduate student in Purdue’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, led the study that examined whether empty lava tubes more than 1 kilometer wide could remain structurally stable on the moon.

Our work is somewhat unique in that we’ve combined the talents of people from various Departments at Purdue,” Blair told Universe Today via email. “With guidance from Prof. Bobet (a civil engineering professor) we’ve been able to incorporate a modern understanding of rock mechanics into our computer models of lava tubes to see how they might actually fail and break under lunar gravity.”

For the sake of their research, the team constructed a number of models of lava tubes of different sizes and with different roof thicknesses to test for stability. This consisted of them checking each model to see if it predicted failure anywhere in the lava tube’s roof.

“What we found was surprising,” Blair continued, “in that much larger lava tubes are theoretically possible than what was previously thought. Even with a roof only a few meters thick, lava tubes a kilometer wide may be able to stay standing. The reason why, though, is a little less surprising. The last work we could find on the subject is from the Apollo era, and used a much simpler approximation of lava tube shape – a flat beam for a roof.

 Mons Rümker rise on the Oceanus Procellarum was taken from the Apollo 15 while in lunar orbit.
Mons Rümker, an extinct volcanic formation on the Moon’s surface, as imaged by the Apollo 15 spacecraft while in orbit. Credit: NASA

The study he refers to, “On the origin of lunar sinuous rilles“, was published in 1969 in the journal Modern Geology. In it, professors Greeley, Oberbeck and Quaide advanced the argument that sinuous rilles formation was tied to the collapse of lava flow tubes, and that stable ones might still exist. Calculating for a flat-beam roof, their work found a maximum lava tube size of just under 400 m.

“Our models use a geometry more similar to what’s seen in lava tubes on Earth,” Blair said, “a sort of half-elliptical shape with an arched roof. The fact that an arched roof lets a larger lava tube stay standing makes sense: humans have known since antiquity that arched roofs allow tunnels or bridges to stay standing with wider spans.”

The Purdue study also builds on previous studies conducted by JAXA and NASA where images of “skylights” on the Moon – i.e. holes in the lunar surface – confirmed the presence of caverns at least a few tens of meters across. The data from NASA’s lunar Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) – which showed big variations in the thickness of the Moon’s crust  is still being interpreted, but could also be an indication of large subsurface recesses.

As a result, Blair is confident that their work opens up new and feasible explanations for many different types of observations that have been made before. Previously, it was unfathomable that large, stable caverns could exist on the Moon. But thanks to his team’s theoretical study, it is now known that under the proper conditions, it is least possible.

The thickness of the moon's crust as calculated by NASA's GRAIL mission. The near side is on the left-hand side of the picture, and the far side on the right. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Miljkovic
NASA’s lunar Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission calculated the thickness of the moon’s crust. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Miljkovic

Another exciting aspect that this work is the implications it offers for future exploration and even colonization on the Moon. Already, the issue of protection against radiation is a big one. Given that the Moon has no atmosphere, colonists and agricultural operations will have no natural shielding from cosmic rays.

“Geologically stable lava tubes would absolutely be a boon to human space exploration,” Blair commented. “A cavern like that could be a really ideal place for building a lunar base, and generally for supporting a sustained human presence on the Moon. By going below the surface even a few meters, you suddenly mitigate a lot of the problems with trying to inhabit the lunar surface.”

Basically, in addition to protecting against radiation, a subsurface base would sidestep the problems of micrometeorites and the extreme changes in temperature that are common on the lunar surface. What’s more, stable, subsurface lava tubes could also make the task of pressurizing a base for human habitation easier.

“People have studied and talked about all of these things before,” Blair added, “but our work shows that those kinds of opportunities could potentially exist – now we just have to find them. Humans have been living in caves since the beginning, and it might make sense on the Moon, too!”

In addition to Melosh, Blair and Bobet, team members include Loic Chappaz and Rohan Sood, graduate students in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics; Kathleen Howell, Purdue’s Hsu Lo Professor of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering; Andy M. Freed, an associate professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences; and Colleen Milbury, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

Further Reading: Purdue News

The Orion’s Heat Shield Gets a Scorching on Re-entry

Yes, she’s a little worse for wear, isn’t she? But then again, that’s what atmospheric re-entry and 2200 °Celsius (4000 °Fahrenheit) worth of heat will do to you! Such was the state of the heat shield that protected NASA’s Orion Spaceship after it re-entered the atmosphere on Dec. 5th, 2014. Having successfully protected the craft during it’s test flight, the shield was removed and transported to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where it arrived on March. 9th.

Since that time, a steady stream of NASA employees have been coming by the facility to get a look at it while engineers collect data and work to repair it. In addition to being part of a mission that took human-rated equipment farther out into space than anything since the Apollo missions, the heat shield is also living proof that NASA is restoring indigenous space capability to the US.

First unveiled by NASA in May of 2011, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) was intrinsic to the Obama administration’s plan to send astronauts to a nearby asteroid by 2025 and going to Mars by the mid-2030’s. In addition to facilitating these long-range missions, the Orion spacecraft would also handle some of the routine tasks of spaceflight, such as providing a means of delivering and retrieving crew and supplies from the ISS.

NASA Orion spacecraft blasts off atop 1st  Space Launch System rocket in 2017 - attached to European provided service module – on an enhanced m mission to Deep Space where an asteroid could be relocated as early as 2021.   Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of the Orion spacecraft being sent into orbit atop the first Space Launch System (SLS) rocket in 2017. Credit: NASA

The uncrewed test flight that took place on December 5, 2014, known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), was intended to test various Orion systems, including separation events, avionics, heat shielding, parachutes, and recovery operations prior to its debut launch aboard the Space Launch System,

This design of this mission corresponded to the Apollo 4 mission of 1967, which demonstrated the effectiveness of the Apollo flight control systems and the heat shields ability to withstand re-entry conditions, as part of the spacecraft’s return from lunar missions.

After being retrieved, the heat shield was transported by land to the Marshall Space Flight Center, where it was offloaded and transferred to a large support structure so engineers could perform studies on it for the next three months.

This will consist of collecting samples from the shield to measure their char layers and degree of erosion and ablation, as well as extracting the various instruments embedded in the heat shield to assess their performance during re-entry.

The heat shield arrived March 9 at Marshall, where experts from the Center and NASA’s Ames Research Center will extract samples of the ablative material, or Avcoat. Image Credit:  NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given
The heat shield arriving at Marshall on March 9th, where experts from the Center and NASA’s Ames Research Center. Credit: NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given

After the analysis is complete, technicians will load the shield into the 7-axis milling machine and machining center, where it will be grind down to remove the remaining material covering. Known as Avcoat, this heat-retardant substance is similar to what the Apollo missions used, with the exception of toxic materials like asbestos.

This material is used to fill the 320,000 honeycomb-like cells that make up the outer layer of the shield. When heated, the material burns away (aka. ablates) in order to prevent heat being transferred into the crew module. This shield is placed over the craft’s titanium skeleton and carbon-fiber skin, providing both protection and insulation for the interior.

Once all the Avcoat is removed and only the skeletal frame remains, it will be shipped to the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, for more tests. Since the Orion was returning from a greater distance in space than anything since Apollo, it experienced far greater heat levels than anything in recent decades, reaching as high as 2200 °C (4000 °F).

During Orion's test flight the heat shield reached temperatures of about 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Instrumentation in the heat shield measured the rise of the surface and internal temperatures during re-entry as well as heating levels and pressures. Image Credit:  NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given
Instrumentation in the Orion heat shield (visible here) measured the rise of the surface and internal temperatures during re-entry. Credit: NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given

Instrumentation in the shield measured the rise of the surface and internal temperatures during re-entry as well as the ablation rate of the shield’s coating. Over the next few months, NASA experts will be pouring over this data to see just how well the Orion shield held up under extreme heat. But so far, the results look positive – with only 20% of the Avcoat burning away on the test-flight re-entry.

In the future, the Orion spacecraft will be launched on Space Launch System on missions that will take it to nearby asteroids and eventually Mars. The first mission to carry astronauts is not expected to take place until 2021 at the earliest.

Further Reading: NASA

A Red Moon – NOT a Sign of the Apocalypse!

On most evenings, the Moon will appear as a bright yellow or white color in the night sky. But on occasion, the Moon can turn a beautiful and dramatic red, coppery color. Naturally, there are a number of superstitions associated with this stellar event. But to modern astronomers, a Red Moon is just another fascinating phenomenon that has a scientific explanation.

Since the earliest days of recorded history, the Moon has been believed to have a powerful influence over human and animal behavior. To the Romans, staring at a full Moon was thought to drive a person crazy – hence the term “lunatic”. Farmers in the past would plant their crops “by the moon”, which meant sowing their seeds in accordance with the Moon’s phases in the hopes of getting a better harvest.

So naturally, when the Moon turned red, people became wary. According to various Biblical passages, a Blood Moon was thought to be a bad omen. But of course, the Moon turns red on a semi-regular basis, and the world has yet to drown in fire. So what really accounts for a “Red Moon?” What causes Earth’s only satellite to turn the color of blood?

Ordinarily, the Moon appears as it does because it is reflecting light from the Sun. But on occasion, it will darken and acquire either a golden, copper, or even rusty-red color.

There are few situations that can cause a red Moon. The most common way to see the Moon turn red is when the Moon is low in the sky, just after moonrise or before it’s about to set below the horizon. Just like the Sun, light from the Moon has to pass through a larger amount of atmosphere when it’s down near the horizon, compared to when it’s overhead.

The Earth’s atmosphere can scatter sunlight, and since moonlight is just scattered sunlight, it can scatter that too. Red light can pass through the atmosphere and not get scattered much, while light at the blue end of the spectrum is more easily scattered. When you see a red moon, you’re seeing the red light that wasn’t scattered, but the blue and green light have been scattered away. That’s why the Moon looks red.

The second reason for a red Moon is if there’s some kind of particle in the air. A forest fire or volcanic eruption can fill the air with tiny particles that partially obscure light from the Sun and Moon. Once again, these particles tend to scatter blue and green light away, while permitting red light to pass through more easily. When you see a red moon, high up in the sky, it’s probably because there’s a large amount of dust in the air.

Depiction of the Sun's rays turning the Moon red. Image Credit: NASA/Mars Exploration
Depiction of the Sun’s rays turning the Moon red. Image Credit: NASA/Mars Exploration

A third – and dramatic – way to get a red Moon is during a lunar eclipse. This happens when the Moon is full and passes into Earth’s shadow (also known as the umbra), which darkens it. At that point, the Moon is no longer being illuminated by the Sun. However, the red light passing through the Earth’s atmosphere does reach the Moon, and is thus reflected off of it.

For those observing from the ground, the change in color will again be most apparent when the Moon appears low in the night sky, just after moonrise or before it’s about to set below the horizon. Once again, this is because our heavy atmosphere will scatter away the blue/green light and let the red light go straight through.

The reddish light projected on the Moon is much dimmer than the full white sunlight the Moon typically reflects back to us. That’s because the light is indirect and because the red-colored wavelengths are only a part of what makes up the white light from the sun that the Moon usually receives.

In other words, when you see a red Moon, you’re seeing the result of blue and green light that has been scattered away, and the red light remaining.

Path of the Moon through Earth's umbral and penumbral shadows during the Total Lunar Eclipse of April 15, 2014. Image Credit: NASA/Eclipse
Path of the Moon through Earth’s umbral and penumbral shadows during the Total Lunar Eclipse of April 15, 2014. Image Credit: NASA/Eclipse Website

And that’s the various ways how we get a Red Moon in the night sky. Needless to say, our ancient forebears were a little nervous about this celestial phenomenon occurrence.

For example, Revelations 6:12/13 says that a Red Moon is a sign of the apocalypse: “When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale.”

But rest assured that if you see one, it’s not the end of the world. The Sun and Moon will rise again. And be sure to check out this Weekly Space Hangout, where the April 4th eclipse is discussed:

We have covered lunar eclipses many times on Universe Today, and often explain the red Moon phenomenon. Here’s another good explanation of the science behind a Red Moon, and why the recent series of lunar eclipses in 2014 and 2015 (known as a tetrad) do not mean anything apocalyptic, and here’s another article about how to see a lunar eclipse. Here’s an article that includes a stunning array of images of the Moon during an eclipse in 2014.

Of course, NASA has some great explanations of the red Moon effect during a lunar eclipse. Here’s another one.

You can listen to a very interesting podcast about the formation of the Moon from Astronomy Cast, Episode 17: Where Did the Moon Come From?

Sources: NASA Science: Lunar Eclipse, NASA: Mars Exploration, Discovery News, NASA: Eclipse Website

What is Mars Made Of?

For thousands of years, human beings have stared up at the sky and wondered about the Red Planet. Easily seen from Earth with the naked eye, ancient astronomers have charted its course across the heavens with regularity. By the 19th century, with the development of powerful enough telescopes, scientists began to observe the planet’s surface and speculate about the possibility of life existing there.

However, it was not until the Space Age that research began to truly shine light on the planet’s deeper mysteries. Thanks to numerous space probes, orbiters and robot rovers, scientists have learned much about the planet’s surface, its history, and the many similarities it has to Earth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the composition of the planet itself.

Structure and Composition:

Like Earth, the interior of Mars has undergone a process known as differentiation. This is where a planet, due to its physical or chemical compositions, forms into layers, with denser materials concentrated at the center and less dense materials closer to the surface. In Mars’ case, this translates to a core that is between 1700 and 1850 km (1050 – 1150 mi) in radius and composed primarily of iron, nickel and sulfur.

This core is surrounded by a silicate mantle that clearly experienced tectonic and volcanic activity in the past, but which now appears to be dormant. Besides silicon and oxygen, the most abundant elements in the Martian crust are iron, magnesium, aluminum, calcium, and potassium. Oxidation of the iron dust is what gives the surface its reddish hue.

Composite image showing the size difference between Earth and Mars. Credit: NASA/Mars Exploration
Composite image showing the size difference between Earth and Mars. Credit: NASA/Mars Exploration

Magnetism and Geological Activity:

Beyond this, the similarities between Earth and Mars’ internal composition ends. Here on Earth, the core is entirely fluid, made up of molten metal and is in constant motion. The rotation of Earth’s inner core spins in a direction different from the outer core and the interaction of the two is what gives Earth it’s magnetic field. This in turn protects the surface of our planet from harmful solar radiation.

The Martian core, by contrast, is largely solid and does not move. As a result, the planet lacks a magnetic field and is constantly bombarded by radiation. It is speculated that this is one of the reasons why the surface has become lifeless in recent eons, despite the evidence of liquid, flowing water at one time.

Despite there being no magnetic field at present, there is evidence that Mars had a magnetic field at one time. According to data obtained by the Mars Global Surveyor, parts of the planet’s crust have been magnetized in the past. It also found evidence that would suggest that this magnetic field underwent polar reversals.

This observed paleomagnetism of minerals found on the Martian surface has properties that are similar to magnetic fields detected on some of Earth’s ocean floors. These findings led to a re-examination of a theory that was originally proposed in 1999 which postulated that Mars experienced plate tectonic activity four billion years ago. This activity has since ceased to function, causing the planet’s magnetic field to fade away.

Map from the Mars Global Surveyor of the current magnetic fields on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL
Map from the Mars Global Surveyor of the current magnetic fields on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL

Much like the core, the mantle is also dormant, with no tectonic plate action to reshape the surface or assist in removing carbon from the atmosphere. The average thickness of the planet’s crust is about 50 km (31 mi), with a maximum thickness of 125 km (78 mi). By contrast, Earth’s crust averages 40 km (25 mi) and is only one third as thick as Mars’s, relative to the sizes of the two planets.

The crust is mainly basalt from the volcanic activity that occurred billions of years ago. Given the lightness of the dust and the high speed of the Martian winds, features on the surface can be obliterated in a relatively short time frame.

Formation and Evolution:

Much of Mars’ composition is attributed to its position relative to the Sun. Elements with comparatively low boiling points, such as chlorine, phosphorus, and sulphur, are much more common on Mars than Earth. Scientists believe that these elements were probably removed from areas closer to the Sun by the young star’s energetic solar wind.

After its formation, Mars, like all the planets in the Solar System, was subjected to the so-called “Late Heavy Bombardment.” About 60% of the surface of Mars shows a record of impacts from that era, whereas much of the remaining surface is probably underlain by immense impact basins caused by those events.

The North Polar Basin is the large blue low-lying area at the northern end of this topographical map of Mars. Its elliptical shape is partially obscured by volcanic eruptions (red, center left). Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS
The North Polar Basin is the large blue low-lying area at the northern end of this topographical map of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

These craters are so well preserved because of the slow rate of erosion that happens on Mars. Hellas Planitia, also called the Hellas impact basin, is the largest crater on Mars. Its circumference is approximately 2,300 kilometers, and it is nine kilometers deep.

The largest impact event on Mars is believed to have occurred in the northern hemisphere. This area, known as the North Polar Basin, measures some 10,600 km by 8,500 km, or roughly four times larger than the Moon’s South Pole – Aitken basin, the largest impact crater yet discovered.

Though not yet confirmed to be an impact event, the current theory is that this basin was created when a Pluto-sized body collided with Mars about four billion years ago. This is thought to have been responsible for the Martian hemispheric dichotomy and created the smooth Borealis basin that now covers 40% of the planet.

Scientists are currently unclear on whether or not a huge impact may be responsible for the core and tectonic activity having become dormant. The InSight Lander, which is planned for 2018, is expected to shed some light on this and other mysteries – using a seismometer to better constrain the models of the interior.

Hellas Planitia extends across about 50° in longitude and more than 20° in latitude. From data from the Mars Orbiter LaserAltimeter (MOLA). Credit: NASA

Other theories claim that Mars lower mass and chemical composition caused it to cool more rapidly than Earth. This cooling process is therefore believed to be what arrested convection within the planet’s outer core, thus causing its magnetic field to disappear.

Mars also has discernible gullies and channels on its surface, and many scientists believe that liquid water used to flow through them. By comparing them to similar features on Earth, it is believed these were were at least partially formed by water erosion.  Some of these channels are quite large, reaching 2,000 kilometers in length and 100 kilometers in width.

Yes, Mars is much like Earth in many respects. It’s a rocky planet, has a crust, mantle, and core, and is composed of roughly the same elements. As our exploration of the Red Planet continues, we are learning more and more about its history and evolution. Someday, we may find ourselves settling on that rock, and relying on its similarities to create a “backup location” for humanity.

We have many interesting articles on the subject of Mars here at Universe Today. Here’s How Long Does it Take to Get to Mars?, How Far is Mars from Earth?, How Strong is the Gravity on Mars?, What is the Weather like on Mars?, The Orbit of Mars. How Long is a Year on Mars?, How Do We Colonize Mars?, and How Do We Terraform Mars?

Ask a Scientist answered the question about the composition of Mars, and here’s some general information about Mars from Nine Planets.

Finally, if you’d like to learn more about Mars in general, we have done several podcast episodes about the Red Planet at Astronomy Cast. Episode 52: Mars, and Episode 91: The Search for Water on Mars.

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