Today, we think of Mars as having a cold, dry, and desolate environment (because it does).
But that was not always the case. Four billion years ago, while our Sun was still in its infancy, Mars was covered with water.
Back then, it had a much thicker atmosphere, which kept the planet warm enough for water to exist in its liquid form. Some estimates say that at one point, up to 1640 ft (about half a kilometer) of water covered the whole planet.
When you think of strength in the animal kingdom, it’s natural to think of some of the massive majestic creatures we’re all so familiar with: lions, elephant, grizzlies, rhinos, hippos…
These animals are definitely powerful, but when you examine pound-for-pound strength, you quickly realize that it’s the smallest creatures who are really the most impressive lifters.
Take the leafcutter ant, for instance. These ants cut off and carry leaf segments that are sometimes up to 50 times heavier than they are.
But even the leafcutter ant is no match for the dung beetle when it comes to true strength.
Though their appetite for dung has given them a bit of a bad name in our society today, dung beetles (also known as scarabs) were actually worshipped in ancient Egypt.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the sun was rolled across the sky every day by a giant scarab god.
Dung beetles may not actually be gods, but they definitely have superhuman strength. The insects are able to drag dung balls up to 1,140 times their body weight- the equivalent of an average human pulling six double deckers buses full of passengers.
But there’s more to dung beetles than just eating poop.
For example, they’re actually pretty good parents. Dung beetles are one of only a few groups of insects that has been shown to actively care for their offspring. There is even a monogamous species of dung beetle that mates for life.
Even more interesting is the dung beetle’s navigation system. After rolling a fresh poop ball, the beetles will climb on top of it and dance around, orienting itself.
Scientists theorized that the beetles were actually using the Milky Way to orient themselves and navigate.
They tested this theory on one species of African dung beetle by putting little hats over them that covered their eyes.
The beetles still perched atop their poop balls to try and orient themselves, but only were able to wander around aimlessly without being able to see the stars, proving that they were using the heavens to navigate.
So give the dung beetle some credit- they’re probably much more intelligent and complex than you ever imagined.
NASA’s Opportunity rover landed on the surface of Mars in January of 2004. As of Sunday (July 26), the Opportunity rover had driven a total distance of 25 miles (40 kilometers).
Opportunity took the top spot in total off-world distance traveled by surpassing Russia’s Lunokhod 2 lunar rover, which traveled a total distance of 39 kilometers across the surface of the moon between January and May of 1973.
The Russian rover helped to bring about a golden age of space exploration in the 70s. As a sign of respect, the Opportunity rover’s operators decided to commemorate the Russian rover by naming one of the first craters they encountered after it.
The craziest part of this record is that the Opportunity rover was only expected to travel a short distance when it was first sent to Mars in 2004. Here’s John Callas, who manages the Mars Exploration Project at NASA’s Jet-Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California:
“This is so remarkable considering Opportunity was intended to drive about one kilometer and was never designed for distance. But what is really important is not how many miles the rover has racked up, but how much exploration and discovery we have accomplished over that distance.”
The Opportunity rover is collecting data on Mars as part of a long-term plan for a manned mission to the planet around the year 2030.
The infographic below compares the distances driven by different rovers throughout the years. Click to enlarge (courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech):
NASA is confident that underneath Jupiter’s moon Europa there could be more water than in our oceans here on Earth. So naturally, Europa has attracted a lot of attention, encouraging the curious to ask, “Could there be life on Europa?”.
Currently, NASA is aiming to send a new mission to Europa by 2025. The White House’s 2015 federal budget allocates $15 million towards making this Europa mission a reality.
Europa has recently become one of NASA’s main focuses because, out of all the other planetary bodies in our solar system, it has arguably the greatest chance of harboring life.
“Every 10 years, the U.S. National Research Council, a nonprofit organization that advises the government, issues a report that recommends a planetary exploration strategy for NASA and the National Science Foundation. The current report (which covers 2013 to 2022) ranks an exploration of Europa among the highest priority missions. According to the report, the future mission should focus on taking a closer look at the ocean that scientists suspect lies below the surface; characterizing its icy crust and looking for any subsurface liquid water; determining the surface composition and chemistry; examining surface features and identifying landing areas for future missions; and understanding the purpose of its magnetosphere — the magnetic field surrounding the celestial body. NASA officials said the instrument proposals should focus on at least one of these exploration goals. The announcement calls for instruments designed for a spacecraft that will orbit Europa or complete several flybys, since astronomers do not yet have enough data to pinpoint safe landing sites on the icy moon.”
The video below describes Europa in more detail.
NASA hopes that by providing monetary incentives to private parties, they will encourage competition and innovation, leading to affordable development processes for the instruments necessary for new missions like the upcoming one to Europa.
Two of the main challenges for teams developing instruments are overcoming Jupiter’s high levels of radiation and making sure that no organic material from Earth (like microorganisms, for example) is introduced to Europa’s potentially habitable surface.
The competition ends in April 2015. NASA will select the top 20 proposals, rewarding $25 million to each of the selected teams to further advance their designs for their instruments. NASA will also select eight winners whose instruments will be developed and actually used in NASA’s mission to Europa.
This competition is included in NASA’s budget to get to Europa, according to Space.com…
“NASA is in the process of designing a mission that will cost less than $1 billion and will still meet as many of the exploration goals as possible.”
Check out NASA’s full guidelines for Europa mission science instrument ideas here.
You can also learn more about how Europa works in this infographic from Space.com (click to enlarge):
Tomorrow will not be your ordinary Friday. For starters, tomorrow is the 13th, making tomorrow a Friday the 13th.
There will also be a full moon in the sky when the clock strikes 12:01 a.m. tomorrow morning. The last time that happened? October 13, 2000. The next time it will happen? August 13, 2049.
I’m not one for superstitions, but there is one thing I haven’t mentioned yet. Our sun has been shooting off powerful solar flares the last few days, including this one captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory early Tuesday morning:
Solar flares are brief, high-radiation eruptions that happen on the surface of the Sun. The three flares emitted in the past two days (pictured above) have been X-flares, the most powerful classification of solar flare. X-flares emit radiation at virtually every wavelength, from radio waves, to the light we can see, to x-rays and gamma rays.
Because of all of the different electromagnetic waves that the flares emit, they can disrupt communications here on Earth. In fact, the flare in the video above caused a temporary radio blackout here on Earth, according to Space.com.
Did I mention CMEs? CME stands for coronal mass ejection. This occurs when a powerful solar flare emits a plasma burst along with the radiation. A plasma burst can cause polar geomagnetic storms which are capable of severely disrupting communications and satellite systems, including GPS.
Along with having the potential to cause low levels of radiation poisoning in humans, a strong CME would also create surges in electrical wires, destroying transformers and leaving millions without power.
Despite the scary stuff, CME’s are pretty fascinating. These plasma burst clouds actually compresses Earth’s own magnetic field, which is what causes so many of the potential issues.
At first, officials at the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Center didn’t think that the flare in the video above had emitted a CME, only to find later that it had actually produced two of them.
They are expected to give Earth a glancing blow when they reach Earth orbit…tomorrow, Friday the 13th.
Back in January of 2002, astronomers witnessed a huge explosion from the star V838 Monocerotis, a red variable star about 20,000 light years away from our Sun.
At first, they thought it was a typical supernova (the explosion of a dying star), but after watching the explosion dim then brighten twice over a period of only a few months (supernovas will usually only dim after the initial bright explosion), astronomers really weren’t sure what they were dealing with.
Check out a time-lapse of the explosion from 2002-2006 below (full screen highly suggested).
So what exactly is going on with this explosion? Well, there are five possibilities that have been proposed so far:
The explosion was a supernova, just a very unique one with a multi-outburst pattern, which would explain the multiple brightening and dimming events. Most scientists agree that the large size and young age of the stars in that region makes this explanation unlikely, however.
The explosion was a thermal pulse. When moderately-sized stars run out of fuel, they explode (in a supernova), leaving behind a dense core of hydrogen and helium. Sometimes this hydrogen and helium core can be re-ignited, illuminating the layers of ejected star material from the supernova explosion. Again, however, the star’s young age makes this possibility unlikely.
Another theory also proposes a helium flash, but one that occurred as a result of thermonuclear processes in a massive supergiant star. Supergiants can be large enough for an outer layer of helium to ignite and start the fusion process without the whole star being destroyed. This theory fits with the star’s age, but it doesn’t seem that V838 Monocerotis had enough mass for this process occur.
Planetary capture: when a star grows to large proportions, it can start consuming nearby planets. The friction generated when a very large planet gets pulled apart by the star’s gravity can produce enough energy to spark deuterium fusion, which releases massive amounts of energy (like what we see in the time-lapse).
The explosion was a result of a mergeburst. Sometimes, in clusters of younger stars (where orbits can be very unstable), two main-sequence stars can collide, creating an explosion similar to the one in the video. The relatively young age of the stars near V838 Monocerotis make this a reasonable possibility, and this hypothesis has also been supported by computer modeling.
It’s awesome to study the stars and find out exactly why they act the way they do, but sometimes explanations can be elusive. So while we search for answers, we should also make sure we take the time to simply enjoy watching this mesmerizing cosmic phenomenon.
Last month, NASA set out to create a “global selfie”. First, they asked people around the world to take pictures of themselves with a little NASA placard saying where they were. They then compiled the 36,422 selfies they got into a stunningly accurate mosaic of the Earth.
For Earth Day (April 22), NASA used social media to pose the question, “Where are you on Earth right now?”, encouraging fans and followers to take selfies and post them using the hashtag #GlobalSelfie.
Selfies were taken on every continent (including Antarctica), and 113 different countries and regions were represented. Each picture was used as a tile on the earth, creating a fully zoomable global mosaic that you can view by clicking the image below.
Everybody got in on the fun, including Elmo, a lego pilot, an astronaut and even a lazy cat. Check out some of the coolest selfie submissions below.