Sunday, July 4, 2010

Other Worlds Right Here on Earth

Welcome back to What's Up?

Although it may often seem that the Earth is completely unique in the Solar System, this is often not the case. There are many locations on Earth where the conditions are almost identical to other worlds in the Solar System. These locations are called Earth-based analogs.

One of these locations can even be found in Canada.

The Haughton-Mars base on Devon Island, Canada.

Devin Island, the world's largest uninhabited island, is in the chilly Canadian arctic and has temperatures which can drop as low as -50°C. Haughton crater, on Devin Island, is considered one of the best Mars analog sites.

It is so similar to Mars because it is very isolated, has similar temperature ranges, receives very little precipitation, and for the most part, lacks any life larger than a microbe.

Since 1997, Haughton crater has been the location of the Haughton Mars Project. The project has featured many experiments on the types of life that can live there, what the geology is like, and remotely controlled greenhouses have been built as a test for future Mars missions.

The location is even being used for testing prototype Mars and Moon rovers for future missions.

Speaking of Moon missions, the Apollo astronauts trained for the first Moon missions using an Earth-based analog.

Mauna Kea has a very similar
landscape to that of the Moon.
In the 1960's, just before the historic moon landings, the astronauts trained in the volcanic ash deposits on top of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The dusty terrain was perfect for testing out the lunar rovers and other gear needed for a lunar landing.

Moving on from the Moon-like landscapes, we can find very dry Mars-like conditions on Earth.

In the middle of the Atacama desert are the driest conditions known on Earth. It has barely rained at all for the last 10 million years and in the driest areas there are no signs of life, not even a microbe.

On Mars, the majority of the surface is as dry or drier than the Atacama, but some areas experience small snowfalls and frost which could provide water for the toughest microbes that may be living in the soil or rocks.

Deep under the surface of the Atacama's parched terrain lies groundwater where life can easily flourish. It is hoped that groundwater exists on Mars underneath the vast expanses of desert.

While we're thinking water, let's dive to the deepest areas of the ocean. The water pressure is immense and the water is very dark and cold. What kind of worlds would have this much water?

Europa has more liquid water than
any other world in the solar system.
Two of the most promising places to find deep oceans are Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus. These are both ice covered moons with hidden oceans comparable to the Earth's.

It is quite possible that hydrothermal vents, also known as black smokers, might spew minerals and hot water that could support many diverse forms of life just like they do here on Earth.

Europa has large cracks in its smooth, icy surface, that are coloured suggesting the presence of bacteria making a living on or in the ice where it meets with the ocean beneath.

Before we slip into the deep ocean waters of the solar system's icy moons, let's see what's up this month.

The new Moon will be on July 11th while the full Moon will be on July 26th. Observers in South America and Easter Island will be treated to a full solar eclipse on July 11th.

Venus will be shining brightly, low in the west after sunset, with Mars and Saturn nearby. Mars will be a much dimmer red and Saturn will be yellow.

Jupiter will make its appearance a few hours later, rising in the East.

The Athena Community Astronomy Club will have its monthly meeting on July 25th, the last Sunday of the month. The meeting goes from 7pm to 9pm at the Athena Community Centre. Guests are always welcome.

The club will continue its weekly Summerside baywalk viewing sessions, next to the Fisherman's Market building every clear Wednesday around sunset.

Until next month, just look up!

Hey Kids...If you look up at the stars every clear night, they seem to stay still relative to each other, but they actually are constantly moving. Since the stars are so far away, they appear to move extremely slowly, just like when you're in a car and the distant surroundings move by very slowly. The fastest moving star in the sky is Barnard's star. This star is moving 140 kilometres every second relative to the sun! It's amazing what you can discover when you look at everyday things just a little bit closer.