Why the Curiosity Rover is Forbidden From Collecting Water on Mars

In 2015 NASA announced that they found definitive evidence of liquid water on Mars. But while obtaining a physical sample would revolutionize science, it’s forbidden by international law. 

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prevents every nation on Earth from sending a mission, robot or human, close to a water source in the fear of contaminating it with life from Earth [PDF]. In its 140-million-mile journey from Earth to Mars, it’s possible that Curiosity has carried harmful microbes all the way from home. Even though NASA tries its best to sterilize all space-traveling equipment before launch by subjecting it to intense ultraviolet light, it still might harbor microbial hitchhikers.

In theory, NASA could turn up the heat and radiation to a level pretty much guaranteed to destroy any microbial life—but that could also end up wiping out the rover’s internal systems. "In order to be completely sterile, they'd have to use really powerful ionizing radiation or heat, both of which would damage the electronics,” University of New South Wales astrobiologist Malcolm Walter told Fairfax Media. "So they go as far as they dare."

Another issue that would prevent Curiosity from investigating the water source is the terrain itself. The slopes where the streaks formed are steep and therefore difficult to navigate. Future Mars rovers could be designed with this hurdle in mind, and they could also come equipped with DNA sequencers to test for life or 3D-printing capabilities to build smaller bots with little to no chance of being contaminated.



NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Unfortunately, it’s too late for NASA modify the next generation of Mars rovers, which is set to launch in 2020. The European Space Agency says it plans to send an organic molecule analyzer on its 2018 ExoMars mission, though they still wouldn’t be able to test Martian water unless they could guarantee 100 percent sterilization.

[h/t: Science Alert]

How to See Venus and the Moon Share a ‘Kiss’ in a Rare Astronomical Event This Week

Mike Hewitt/iStock via Getty Images
Mike Hewitt/iStock via Getty Images

Venus is visible in the evening or morning sky for most of the year, but this Thursday, the second planet from the sun won't be alone in its spot above the horizon. As Travel + Leisure reports, Venus, also known as the "evening star," will appear right next to a crescent moon following the sunset on February 27, resulting in a rare celestial "kiss."

Why will Venus be close to the moon?

Venus is often among the first "stars" to become visible at twilight (though it's really a planet), and it's the brightest object in the night sky aside from the moon. Between January 1 and May 24, it shines brightly above the western horizon. For a few weeks in early May and late June, Venus is washed out by the light of the sun, and from June 13 to December 31, it's easiest to see in the eastern sky around sunrise.

This week, Venus will be in the perfect position to share a "kiss" with the night's brightest object. All the planets, including Venus, appear to traverse the same path across the night sky called the ecliptic. The moon follows a similar trajectory, and on some nights, the celestial body seems to come very close to the planets that also occupy the plane. This effect is just an illusion; while they will appear to be nearly touching on Thursday, the moon will actually be 249,892 miles from Earth on February 27, while Venus will be 84 million miles away.

The Moon just entered its "new" phase on Sunday, and it will only be partially illuminated by the time it meets up with Venus. The waxing crescent moon will rise in the perfect position in the western sky on Thursday to create a joint spectacle with our planetary neighbor.

When to see Venus and the moon "kiss"

The kiss between the moon and Venus can be spotted in the hours after sunset on Thursday, February 27. When you notice it getting dark, head outside and look to the southwest horizon if you live in the Northern Hemisphere. That will give you your best chance at catching the special event. If you miss it this week, you won't have to wait long for your next opportunity to see the Moon kiss Venus: The two bodies will return to a similar position on March 28, 2020.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

Katherine Johnson, the NASA Legend Who Inspired 'Hidden Figures,' Dies at Age 101

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Mathematician and NASA legend Katherine Johnson has died at age 101, The New York Times reports. The inspiration for the 2016 movie Hidden Figures, Johnson was best known for calculating the equations that sent the first astronauts to the moon and breaking barriers in science and technology as a black woman in the civil rights era.

Katherine Johnson's knack for numbers was apparent from a young age. She was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, on August 26, 1918, and she enrolled directly into the second grade as soon as she was old enough to go to school. She graduated college summa cum laude at age 18 after taking every math class that was available to her.

In the 1950s, NASA hired Johnson to be one of the women "computers" tasked with crunching the numbers that were vital to getting missions off the ground. She was personally responsible for confirming the equations that sent astronaut John Glenn into orbit in 1962. After requesting that Johnson double-check the computer's math by hand, he reportedly said, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.”

Her biggest job was working on the Apollo 11 mission. Johnson worked closely with NASA's engineers to calculate when and where to launch the first manned shuttle to the moon, fully aware that even a tiny error could lead to a national tragedy. On July 20, 1969, the first astronauts landed on the moon, thanks in part to her computing power.

As a black woman working in a primarily white male-dominated field in the 1960s, Johnson's contributions to space history went unrecognized for years. She lived long enough to become one of the few marginalized figures in science to receive some much-deserved, albeit overdue, accolades. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2016, her work at NASA was depicted in the Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures. Johnson also nurtured a love of knowledge throughout her life, earning an honorary doctorate degree from West Virginia University more than 75 years after dropping out of graduate school.

Johnson died on the morning of Monday, February 24, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine shared on Twitter. He said in the announcement, "She was an American hero and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten."

[h/t The New York Times]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER