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Tribune T Magazine – The Express Tribune




Dr Moonis Ahmar

July 10, 2021


For the last decade or so, there seem to have been serious efforts by the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the scientific community in other countries to explore Mars and determine whether it can be liveable.

Known popularly as the ‘Red Planet’ on account of the colour its iron-oxide rich surface, Mars is roughly half the size of the Earth and has been a constant source of curiosity for scientists over the years. This is reflected in the amount of exploration and research that has gone towards the planet to ascertain whether it is possible to establish life there. Projects like the Mars Foundation based in the Netherlands and the Mars Space Mission project based in New York are composed of scientists and aerospace companies exploring how Mars can be liveable in the first half of 21st century.

After Venus, Mars is our closet planetary neighbour. In 2003, Mars was closest to earth with a distance of 56 million kilometres. If Mars and Earth are farthest from the sun, the two planets can be 401 million kilometres apart. Travel time between the two planets in a spacecraft with a speed of 58,000 kilometres per hour that uses the closest approach will take 39 days and with farthest approach with 289 days. On average, travel time between Mars and Earth will be 162 days. With these facts in mind, scientists engaged with NASA and elsewhere are researching the characteristics of Mars that can provide a ray of hope to those dreaming of colonising the Red Planet. It may be a wishful thinking and a utopian concept to send spaceships carrying humans to Mars, but human curiosity and innovation has no boundaries.

Mars can certainly be a source of anxiety for those who realise how in the last 200 hundred years scientific innovation and discoveries made it possible to drastically cut travel time from one continent to another, and enabled people to connect each other from telephone, telex, fax, e-mail and then online sources. But while it may seem an uphill task to develop a planet with a faint possibility of having water and oxygen, our history does lead one to expect scientific miracles.

In a 2014 conference at the NASA Ames Research Centre, Dr Chris McKay, a planetary scientist and founding member of ‘The Mars Society’, presented a list of Mars’ most important resources that early Martian colonists would exploit to make the planet habitable. According to him, under atmospheric CO2 is Mars’ most easily accessible resource, providing feedstock for manufacturing methane propellant. The chemistry involved in separating it is simple, low power, and has been employed on Earth for more than a century. Referring to H2O from the atmosphere and polar ice he further argued, “Mars is a dry planet compared to the Earth, but compared to other celestial bodies like the moon and asteroids, its water budget is quite generous. Mars has a polar cap composed of a mixture of water-ice and CO2 dry ice, and even at non-polar latitudes, water-ice is known to exist a few meters under the surface regolith. This water can be purified and consumed, or electrolyzed to produce O2 and hydrogen, which can be further combined with atmospheric CO2 to produce a range of useful plastics”.

Traces of glaciers, lakes and water in some of the regions of Mars and human ability to make use of minimum resources necessary for colonising the Red Planet is perhaps a single most important source of hope for NASA and the world’s scientists. If they are persistent, a day will come when human settlement in Mars be not be a dream but a reality. Instincts of lust for resources and power have remained two major characteristics among human beings that gave an impetus to the colonisation of Americas, Australia, Africa and parts of Asia. Similar instincts motivate human beings from scientifically developed nations to sustain their efforts to transform Mars as the second world for human beings. People may term the vision of some scientists that Mars can be liveable as weird but science has no limit and can strive to transform unthinkable as unthinkable. Life on moon was ruled out because it has neither air nor water, but in the case of Mars the scientific results of exploration done so far tend to make scientists and explorers double-minded about the possibility of life on Mars.

There are technical and various scientific terms, which are used to judge whether there can be life on Mars? According to Robin Wordsworth in his blog ( February 14, 2020) “It’s a very poorly kept secret in planetary science that many of us first got inspired to join the field by reading science fiction. For many of us who study Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1990s Mars trilogy, which describes the colonisation and eventual transforming of the Red Planet, was particularly influential. But rereading these books in 2019, I noted that much of what he imagined looks pretty far-fetched—we’re still a long way from landing the first human on Mars, and transforming the planet to make it habitable seems like a very distant dream”. Reinforcing his arguments about establishing life in Mars he further states that, “serious scientific ideas for transforming Mars into an Earth-like planet have been put forward before, but they require vast industrial capabilities and make assumptions about the total amount of accessible carbon dioxide (CO2) on the planet that have been criticised as unrealistic. When we started thinking about this problem a few years ago, therefore, we decided to take a different approach. One thing you learn quickly when you study Mars’s past climate, as we do in our usual research, is that while it was intermittently habitable in the past, it was never really like Earth—it has always been a unique and alien world. So when we’re thinking about how to make Mars habitable in the future, perhaps we should also be taking inspiration from the Red Planet itself”.

Human quest for knowledge, exploration and discovery has no parallel. The West, on account of its edge in science and technology in the last four hundred years wouldn’t like to give up hope to make use of the opportunity to colonise Mars provided there are chances of some success. Investment on scientific missions to be sent to Mars will pay off as the West, particularly the United States will be first one to put its flag on the Red Planet and unleash the process of colonising Mars.

In his paper “A way to make Mars habitable” Robert Woodsworth in Harvard Gazette ( argues that “people have long dreamed of altering the Martian climate to make it liveable for humans. Carl Sagan was the first outside the realm of science fiction to propose terraforming. In a 1971 paper, Sagan suggested that vaporizing the northern polar ice caps would result in “yield ~103g cm-2 of atmosphere over the planet, higher global temperatures through the greenhouse effect, and a greatly increased likelihood of liquid water.” Based on the results of a pair of NASA-funded researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Northern Arizona University in 2018 found that processing all the sources available on Mars would only increase atmospheric pressure to about seven per cent that of Earth — far short of what is needed to make the planet habitable, scientists are now exploring the possibility of colonising not the entire Mars but some of its regions. Quoted by Robert Woodsworth, “the researchers suggest that regions of the Martian surface could be made habitable with a material — silica aerogel — that would mimic Earth’s atmospheric greenhouse effect. Through modeling and experiments, the researchers show that a two to three-centimetre thick shield of silica aerogel could transmit enough visible light for photosynthesis, block hazardous ultraviolet radiation, and raise temperatures underneath permanently above the melting point of water, all without the need for any internal heat source”.

Scientists are going an extra mile to probe how even a small percentage of available ice and CO2 can help start colonization process in Mars. Therefore, they agreed upon selecting some of the parts of mars so as to conduct engineering of environment that can at least lead to life in the red planet. According to Robin Wordsworth, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Department of Earth and Planetary Science “this regional approach to making Mars habitable is much more achievable than global atmospheric modification,” “Unlike the previous ideas to make Mars habitable, this is something that can be developed and tested systematically with materials and technology we already have.” “Mars is the most habitable planet in our solar system besides Earth,” said Laura Kerber, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “But it remains a hostile world for many kinds of life. A system for creating small islands of habitability would allow us to transform Mars in a controlled and scalable way.” Unlike Earth’s polar ice caps, which are made of frozen water, the ones on Mars are a combination of water ice and frozen CO2. Like its gaseous form, frozen CO2 allows sunlight to penetrate while trapping heat. In the summer, this solid-state greenhouse effect creates pockets of warming under the ice. “We started thinking about this solid-state greenhouse effect and how it could be invoked for creating habitable environments on Mars in the future,” Wordsworth said. “We started thinking about what kinds of materials could minimize thermal conductivity but still transmit as much light as possible.”

According to Chelsea Gohd in her paper, “Can we Terraform Mars to Make It Earth-Lie? Not anytime Soon” ( “while many researchers have devised ways we might use Mars’ carbon dioxide to terraform the planet and make it habitable, one new study suggests that the Red Planet simply doesn’t have enough carbon dioxide for this to be possible. Could we make Mars Earth-like? Not with existing technologies, one new paper suggests. For many years, Mars has existed as a hopeful “Planet B” — a secondary option if Earth can no longer support us as a species. From science-fiction stories to scientific investigations, humans have considered the possibilities of living on Mars for a long time. A main staple of many Mars-colonisation concepts is terraforming — a hypothetical process of changing the conditions on a planet to make it habitable for life that exists on Earth, including humans, without a need for life-support systems. Unfortunately, according to a new paper, with existing technologies, terraforming Mars is simply not possible”.

Scientists researching on Mars point out that several million years ago Mars was warm and wet and at that there was a large blue fresh water lake. Huge underground aquifers of liquid water exist, according to a group of scientists, who say they have found convincing evidence. The underground lake hasn’t been seen directly, but if it’s real, it’s a discovery that substantially increases the likelihood that the Red Planet might host life. Researchers detected the possible reservoir with the Mars Express Orbiter, a European spacecraft that’s been orbiting Mars since 2003. While scanning the ice cap at Mars’ south pole, the probe’s radar instrument, called MARSIS, detected a feature about a mile underneath the surface that was about 12.4 miles wide. The structure has a radar signature that matches that of buried liquid water here on Earth, leading the team to conclude that there’s a lake under the glacier. The researchers say they’ve ruled out all other possibilities for what they’re seeing.

According to Loren Grush, in her article “Scientists detect giant underground aquifer on Mars, raising hope of life on the planet” ( “in 2015, the space agency announced that a bunch of bizarre dark streaks seen on Mars were likely made up of salty water. That was the first big confirmation that water exists as a liquid on Mars, which is remarkable when you consider that the planet has an average temperature of -80 degrees Fahrenheit. Salt in the water lowers its freezing point, allowing it to stay liquid in frigid conditions; scientists believe the salt probably comes from Martian rocks”.

Other players for exploring Mars like China and United Arab Emirates (UAE) are also active with a resolve to seek the possibility of starting human life on the red planet. Drive to colonize Mars will further get an impetus because of over population, diminishing food and energy resources and worsening of global environment which will make human living on earth very difficult.

(The writer is Meritorious Professor of International Relations and former Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi. E.Mail: [email protected]).

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See A Jaw-Dropping Crescent Moon, 50 Meteors And Hour And Our Billion-Star Milky Way: What You Can See In The Night Sky This Week – Forbes



Each Monday I pick out the northern hemisphere’s celestial highlights (mid-northern latitudes) for the week ahead, but be sure to check my main feed for more in-depth articles on stargazing, astronomy, eclipses and more.

What To See In The Night Sky This Week: June 27-July 3, 2022

It’s not easy going stargazing in summer at this time of year in the northern hemisphere. The nights are just so short. The best reason to stay up late and go somewhere dark is the sight of the spiral arms of our Milky Way galaxy arcing across the night sky. Look to the southeast and south for that this month—and this week in particular, which will be largely moonless.

When our satellite does emerge from its New Moon conjunction with the Sun expect lush views of a slender crescent Moon. Who said summer was no good for stargazing?

Monday, June 27, 2022: Boötids meteor shower and a crescent Moon meets Mercury

The June Boötids meteor shower—occasionally called the June Draconids or Boötid-Draconids meteor shower—runs annually between June 22 and July 2, but peaks in the early hours of June 27, 2020.

If you are out stargazing late tonight keep an eye out for the 50 or so “shooting stars” per hour expected. The shower’s radiant point—the apparent source of the shooting stars—is the constellation of Boötes.

If you’re still up before dawn you might just catch the planet Mercury just 3.9º from an incredibly slender 2.6% crescent Moon, but be very careful if you use binoculars to help you because the rising Sun is NOT something you want in your field of view.

Tuesday, June 30, 2022: A super-slim crescent Moon and ‘Asteroid Day’

Today is Asteroid Day. With any luck there won’t be anything to see hurtling towards (or even smashing into) our planet, but it’s a good chance to consider the threat posed to Earth of incoming space rocks. What’s really going to change everything is the Vera Rubin Observatory, which from 2022 will deploy a wide-angle camera to map the night sky in real-time—and identify many thousands of hitherto unfound asteroids.

Friday, July 1, 2022: ‘Earthshine’ on a crescent Moon

You should get a much clearer view of a crescent Moon today. Now 8% illuminated, in a clear sky it will be a stunning sight, not least because you’ll be able to see sunlight being reflected onto the Moon by the Earth as “Earthshine” or “planet-shine.” It’s a subtle sight, but once seen cannot be unseen; look at the Moon’s darkened limb with your eyes, or better still, with a pair of binoculars, to appreciate this fine sight.

As a bonus it will be just 3.5° from the Beehive Cluster, though you’ll need a pair of binoculars to see its 30 or so easily visible stars.

Saturday, July 2, 2022: ‘Earthshine’ on a crescent Moon and Regulus

Tonight just after sunset look west for a 14% crescent Moon, once again displaying Earthshine. The stars around it will be those of the “sickle” in the constellation of Leo. The brightest, about 5º left of the Moon, will be Leo’s brightest star, Regulus. It’s one of the brightest stars in the night sky and about 78 light-years distant.

Object of the week: noctilucent clouds

This time of year the twilight seems to last forever at northerly latitudes so consider looking for a “ghostly” display of noctilucent or “night shining” clouds (NLCs). At their best in northern twilight skies during June and July (at latitudes between 50° and 70° north and south of the equator), NLCs are very delicate high altitude clouds of icy dust that form about 50 miles/80 kilometres up. Because the Sun is never too far below the horizon at these latitudes they get subtly lit up for a short time. They’re best seen with the naked eye or a pair of binoculars.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.

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Astronomers Found a Crater From The Mystery Rocket That Smashed Into The Moon – ScienceAlert



The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) – NASA’s eye-in-the-sky in orbit around the Moon – has found the crash site of the mystery rocket booster that slammed into the far side of the Moon back on 4 March 2022.

The LRO images, taken May 25th, revealed not just a single crater, but a double crater formed by the rocket’s impact, posing a new mystery for astronomers to unravel.

Why a double crater? While somewhat unusual – none of the Apollo S-IVBs that hit the Moon created double craters – they’re not impossible to create, especially if an object hits at a low angle. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

Astronomer Bill Gray, who first discovered the object and predicted its lunar demise back in January, explains that the booster “came in at about 15 degrees from vertical. So that’s not the explanation for this one.”

The impact site consists of an 18-meter-wide eastern crater superimposed on a 16-meter-wide western crater. Mark Robinson, Principal Investigator of the LRO Camera team, proposes that this double crater formation might result from an object with distinct, large masses at each end.

Before (2022-02-28) and after image (2022-05-21) of the Moon. (NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

“Typically a spent rocket has mass concentrated at the motor end; the rest of the rocket stage mainly consists of an empty fuel tank. Since the origin of the rocket body remains uncertain, the double nature of the crater may help to indicate its identity,” he said.

So what is it?

It’s a long story. The unidentified rocket first came to astronomers’ attention earlier this year when it was identified as a SpaceX upper stage, which had launched NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) to the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange Point in 2015.

Gray, who designs software that tracks space debris, was alerted to the object when his software pinged an error. He told The Washington Post on January 26 that “my software complained because it couldn’t project the orbit past March 4, and it couldn’t do it because the rocket had hit the Moon.”

Gray spread the word, and the story made the rounds in late January – but a few weeks later, he received an email from Jon Giorgini at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL).

Giorgini pointed out that DSCOVR’s trajectory shouldn’t have taken the booster anywhere near the Moon. In an effort to reconcile the conflicting trajectories, Gray began to dig back into his data, where he discovered that he had misidentified the DSCOVR booster way back in 2015.

SpaceX wasn’t the culprit after all. But there was definitely still an object hurtling towards the Moon. So what was it?

A bit of detective work led Gray to determine it was actually the upper stage of China’s Chang’e 5-T1 mission, a 2014 technology demonstration mission that lay the groundwork for Chang’e 5, which successfully returned a lunar sample to Earth in 2020 (incidentally, China recently announced it would follow up this sample return mission with a more ambitious Mars sample return project later this decade). 

Jonathan McDowell offered some corroborating evidence that seemed to bolster this new theory for the object’s identity.

The mystery was solved.

Except, days later, China’s Foreign Minister claimed it was not their booster: it had deorbited and crashed into the ocean shortly after launch.

As it stands now, Gray remains convinced it was the Change 5-T1 booster that hit the Moon, proposing that the Foreign Minister made an honest mistake, confusing Chang’e 5-T1 with the similarly named Chang’e 5 (whose booster did indeed sink into the ocean).

As for the new double crater on the Moon, the fact that the LRO team was able to find the impact site so quickly is an impressive feat in itself. It was discovered mere months after impact, with a little help from Gray and JPL, who each independently narrowed the search area down to a few dozen kilometers.

For comparison, The Apollo 16 S-IVB impact site took more than six years of careful searching to find.

Bill Gray’s account of the booster identification saga is here, as well as his take on the double crater impact. The LRO images can be found here.

This article was originally published by Universe Today. Read the original article.

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New Zealand Says It's Set to 'Star' in NASA's Return to the Moon – BNN



(Bloomberg) — New Zealand is trumpeting its role in a plan to return humans to the Moon, saying it is set to star in NASA’s Capstone mission that will test the orbit for a lunar space station.

Rocket Lab has announced it will launch a satellite from Mahia, New Zealand, to test the lunar orbit for Gateway, a planned Moon-orbiting outpost that will provide astronauts with access to the lunar surface. Separately, New Zealand’s government said Monday it has signed an agreement with NASA to conduct new research to track spacecraft approaching and orbiting the Moon.

“The New Zealand space sector is set to star in NASA’s Capstone Moon mission,” said Andrew Johnson, manager of the New Zealand Space Agency. Launching into lunar orbit from New Zealand is “a significant milestone,” while the new research “will be increasingly important as more countries and private actors send spacecraft to the Moon,” he said.

NASA’s Artemis Program plans to return humans to the lunar surface as early as 2025, renewing human exploration of the Moon and progressing toward the exploration of Mars. It plans to land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon and explore more of the lunar surface than ever before.

Rocket Lab said it could launch the CubeSat satellite as soon as Tuesday, with the launch window open through July 27.  

New Zealand’s agreement with NASA will see a University of Canterbury-led research team, which includes contributors from the University of Auckland and the University of New South Wales in Australia, attempt to track spacecraft from observatories in Tekapo and Canberra. 

The scientists intend to validate their observations and algorithms to predict spacecraft trajectories enroute to the Moon and within their lunar orbits against NASA’s Capstone mission data.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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