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]

NASA's First All-Female Spacewalk is Really Happening This Time

NASA astronaut Christina Koch is suited up in a U.S. spacesuit ahead of her history-making spacewalk.
NASA astronaut Christina Koch is suited up in a U.S. spacesuit ahead of her history-making spacewalk.
NASA

After a surprising cancellation in March, plans for NASA's first all-female spacewalk are back on track. Astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir are scheduled to make history on October 21, 2019.

Earlier this year, NASA canceled the first all-female spacewalk because of an issue with spacesuit sizing. Both astronauts originally scheduled for the walk needed medium-sized suits. At the time, the International Space Station had two—but only one was properly configured for a spacewalk. Preparing the other suit in time would have taken hours of crew labor, The New York Times reported, so NASA decided to switch out the astronauts.

“When you have the option of just switching the people, the mission becomes more important than a cool milestone,” NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz told The New York Times.

Still, the milestone is a significant one. Since 1961, nearly 550 people have been sent to space. Of those, only about 11 percent have been female.

“I think it’s important because of the historical nature of what we’re doing and in the past, women haven’t always been at the table,” Koch said on NASA TV. “There are a lot of people that derive motivation from inspiring stories from people who look like them, and I think it’s an important aspect of the story to tell.”

The mission itself is fairly routine—Koch and Meir are scheduled to swap out batteries on the station’s solar panels. Live video of the spacewalk (the 222nd spacewalk in history) will be available on NASA’s website.

A Huge Full Hunter’s Moon Will Light Up The Sky This Weekend

Chayanan/iStock via Getty Images
Chayanan/iStock via Getty Images

This weekend’s full moon will likely draw your eye even more than a regular one does.

Newsweek reports that what’s known as the full hunter’s moon—the first full moon after the harvest moon—will rise right around sunset, making it seem both much larger and more orange than usual. Though you’ll likely be able to spot it from Saturday, October 12 through the early morning hours of Tuesday, October 15, the best time to look up is Sunday night, October 13, when the moon reaches peak fullness.

According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, the hunter’s moon may seem so huge because of a simple trick our eyes play on us called the “moon illusion.” Usually, when the moon is high and far from the horizon, it’s the main thing we see in the sky. Because the sky itself is so unfathomably vast, the moon looks pretty small. The hunter’s moon, however, appears lower in the sky, giving us a chance to view it next to things like trees and buildings. Since the moon is so much larger than those objects, our brains may process it with a better sense of scale.

The reason the hunter’s moon often glows orange is also related to its lower position. The moon is actually closer to us when it’s higher in the sky, so the light it reflects has to travel a shorter distance to reach our eyes, leaving the shorter wavelengths of blue light intact. When the moon is low, the air scatters those short blue wavelengths before they get to us, and only the longer, reddish wavelengths make it through.

Though we don’t know for sure why it’s called a hunter’s moon, The Old Farmer’s Almanac suggests that it may have once indicated the beginning of prime hunting season, when hunters could easily spot animals in fields that harvesters had just cleared after the previous month’s harvest moon.

And, after the hunter’s moon has come and gone, be sure to catch the full beaver moon in November.

[h/t Newsweek]

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