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The latest news on Mars from Business Insider

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    potato farm the martianSpoilers ahead if you haven't read "The Martian."

    In the bestselling sci-fi novel and upcoming movie "The Martian," astronaut and botanist Mark Watney survives on Mars for over a year, largely thanks to his ingenious potato crop.

    But is it possible to actually grow food in Martian soil? Yes, and not just potatoes, says Bruce Bugbee, a real-life botanist and NASA scientist.

    In "The Martian," Watney grows his own food by planting potato eyes in the ground. He fertilizes the plants with human waste and creates liquid water out of rocket fuel. There's no reason why this wouldn't work, says Bugbee, director of the crop physiology lab at Utah State University, with one critical caveat:

    "The book (and probably the movie) suggests that the human waste is put right on the plants," Bugbee told Tech Insider in an email. "This would be microbiologically dangerous and probably toxic to the plants. The waste has to be composted first – usually for several months in a rotating drum."

    Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA and a consultant on the film, said there's probably an easier method than the one used by Watney, played by Matt Damon in the upcoming movie (due out Friday, Oct. 2).

    We know that Mars has frozen water and the soil contains nitrate, which is "a great fertilizer," Green told Tech Insider. With so much nitrate, he may have not needed all that "homemade" fertilizer.

    Green also noted Watney also could have skipped the dangerous chemical reaction needed to transform rocket fuel into water. Instead, Watney could have figured out a way to extract water from below the surface — now more of a certainty, thanks to recent news of flowing water on Mars— or suck it right out of the air.

    In fact, NASA has already grown food in soil designed to mimic what we know so far about the pH and chemical makeup of real Martian dirt. Scientists have successfully grown over a dozen kinds of crops in the simulated grit.

    It's worth noting that a typical diet on Earth is the product of around 1,000 crops, Bugbee said. While we can't grow all those on Mars right away, it's a good start.

    And crops on Mars would have other uses beyond food. Mars' thin atmosphere has a lot of carbon dioxide, which plants use to store energy from the sun. Plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, so crops could be critical if humans ever attempt to transform Mars into a more hospitable planet — one with a breathable atmosphere.

    Maybe something similar to Watney's precious potato crop will get us started.

    DON'T MISS: All of the places scientists have found water flowing on Mars

    SEE ALSO: One of the most amazing sights from the historic Apollo 10 mission wasn't the moon

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: NASA just announced that 'liquid water has been found on Mars'

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    NASA announced last month that they found flowing water on Mars. The discovery is our best evidence yet that the planet supports life, but as science journalist Carl Zimmer explains, life on Mars could be a problem for our exploration of the planet.

    Zimmer is a columnist for The New York Times and the author of "A Planet of Viruses."

    Produced by Alex Kuzoian and Jessica Orwig.

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    the martian

    Warning: Spoilers ahead if you haven't seen "The Martian" movie or read the book.

    Stranded alone on a freezing planet 140 million miles away from Earth is not a situation you'd want to find yourself in, especially with no way to phone home.

    That is, of course, exactly what happens in the "The Martian" to fictional astronaut Mark Watney, who understands his survival depends on talking to people back on Earth.

    Luckily, Watney knows his NASA history — so he locates and digs up Mars Pathfinder, a spacecraft NASA actually launched back in 1996. After a little tweaking, he uses the robot to communicate with engineers through a replica of Pathfinder at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

    It turns out this plan would probably work in real life because NASA really does have a working replica of Pathfinder. The spacecraft would need to be "turned on and dusted off," NASA's director of planetary science Jim Green told Tech Insider, but it does exist.

    So NASA really could theoretically use it to communicate with a stranded Martian astronaut. He or she would, however, have to dig Pathfinder out of almost two decades' worth of grit blown around by wind and dust storms, then get it working again.


    It's not a one-off occurrence: NASA builds a working replica of every spacecraft it launches. That way, in case something goes wrong afterward, engineers can troubleshoot the problem on Earth, come up with a fix, and send a patch to the identical robot in space.

    The Pathfinder replica came in handy, for example, when NASA scientists discovered a bug in some of the computer code in the real thing, not long after it landed on Mars in 1997. They recreated the problem in the replica, and then worked out a way to debug it. The corrective instructions engineers sent to the Pathfinder on Mars fixed the bug.

    It goes to show that, while NASA scientists and engineers are some of the best in the business, they can't anticipate everything that can go wrong in space. It pays to have a spare that's not 140 million miles away.

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: The biggest science mistakes in 'The Martian'

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    the martian

    Andy Weir, author of the wildly popular novel "The Martian," is living the publishing dream.

    His fictional story, which is about astronaut Mark Watney's struggle to survive on Mars after being stranded there, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and counting, and Hollywood recently turned it into a blockbuster movie.

    But Weir's hit sci-fi book didn't start out so glamorously: The story began as a series of self-published chapters on a personal blog.

    His few readers loved the story for its attention to scientific accuracy. And that exhaustive research for the book is actually what drove the story forward, he wrote during a recent Reddit "ask me anything":

    My research created interesting plot points. Like when I researched potatoes and found out how much water he'd (Watney) need in the soil. Then I realized he'd have to make water. And that let [sic] to one of the coolest plots in the book.

    Weir is a self-described space nerd but says chemistry is not his area of expertise. So his science-minded readers offered their feedback.

    "Chemists actually pointed out some problems in early drafts," Weir said during a discussion of "The Martian" at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington D.C. earlier this year. Thanks to the feedback, he was able to go back and correct some of the chemistry that's crucial for Watney's survival.

    The story became more popular, and some readers started asking for an e-reader copy. So Weir made all the individual chapters available in one file. He eventually put it on, and sold it for the lowest possible price — 99 cents.

    the martian 20th century fox

    That's when the floodgates opened. More people downloaded the 99-cent Amazon version than had ever downloaded the free version, Weir said at the summit, and readers started leaving positive reviews (and more factchecking) on the website.

    In just a few months it skyrocketed to the top of Amazon's best-selling science fiction list.

    Then a book agent got in touch with Weir. Shortly after that, the publishing company Random House called — it wanted to publish a hardcover. Four days later, Hollywood called for the movie rights, Weir said.

    So yes, Weir scored a book contract and a movie contract in the same week — both in the low- to mid-six figures, The Washington Post reports.

    "It all happened so fast that I really had a hard time believing it," Weir told Tech Insider. "I actually worried it could all be some big scam."

    More science, less fiction

    the martian spacesuits

    You only need to get a couple pages into "The Martian" before it becomes clear that Weir did his homework. He says he's the kind of person who enjoys researching rocket technology, orbital mechanics, and physics for fun.

    Creating such a science-heavy plot was a risky move on Weir's part.

    "I was afraid it was going to read like a Wikipedia article if I didn’t make it really interesting," Weir said during the conference.

    But he found a way to weave the heavy science into a gripping plot line with a funny, smart-aleck main character (who Weir says is modeled after his own personality). It strikes a perfect balance between science and fiction, and the fast-paced plot makes it hard to put down.

    His earlier attempts at writing pretty much flopped (though he has written some pretty fantastic fan fiction for "Doctor Who" and "Ready Player One"), but "The Martian" took off, partly because it captures Weir's enthusiasm for science and space exploration.

    Now he's living the space-nerd dream. Since the book's sudden success, Weir has toured NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and spent a week at NASA's Johnson Space Center where he got to meet NASA scientists and astronauts.

    Weir said he wasn't really involved with the film adaptation.

    "My job was basically to cash the check," Weir joked.

    However, the writers did send a Weir an early copy of the screenplay and invited him to send notes and feedback.

    We've seen the movie, and it definitely incorporates a lot of the hard science that made the book such a big success. And it sounds like Weir thinks so, too:

    "It's amazing!" he said during the Reddit AMA. "And it follows the book very closely. They had to pull some plot elements out or it would have been 10 hours long, but they removed the right stuff in my opinion."

    The movie is now in theaters everywhere.

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why he's so excited for 'The Martian'

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    NASA just released its latest report on the next steps that the agency plans to take on its journey to land the first humans on Mars.

    journey to mars

    In their report, the agency boldly states: "While far away, Mars is a goal within our reach. We are closer to sending humans to Mars than at any point in NASA’s history."

    Frankly, that goes without saying — their technology is more advanced than at any point in history, and since the Apollo missions, NASA has sent over a dozen orbiters and landers to the Red Planet in order to scope out its geography, atmosphere, chemical composition, and much more.

    Here's a diagram of all the NASA probes that have or will visit Mars, and how each new mission has brought us that much closer to sending humans:

    Screen Shot 2015 10 09 at 11.41.36 AM

    However obvious NASA'S bold statement may seem, it's one the agency is proud to make: This is the first time in over 45 years that the US — as well as humankind — has a chance to visit another world beyond Earth.

    Could it be that NASA will once again write history by sending the first humans to walk on the surface of Mars? Their plans certainly aim to do so.

    A long road

    Screen Shot 2015 10 09 at 11.31.56 AMSince the final three Apollo missions were canceled in 1970, NASA has missed the unparalleled governement funding it received throughout the '60s — funding to design the technology that could land the first human on the moon.

    To get the Apollo astronauts off the ground, the US federal government was pouring between 4% and 4.5% of its total budget into NASA. But by 1970, public interest was waning and the federal government was turning their sights from space and back to Earth.

    By the time the last Apollo mission to the moon was complete, NASA's funding had dropped from 4.5% to just above 1%. And by the turn of the century, that number was quickly dropping to less than 0.5%.

    So, to get the tools, technologies, and wherewithal to finally say that they are closer to sending humans to Mars than ever before is more of a testament to NASA's progress over the years than an obvious statement.

    Journey to Mars

    "The journey to Mars passes through three thresholds, each with increasing challenges as humans move farther from Earth," NASA state in their report.

    These thresholds are:

    1) Earth reliant: This involves scientific investigations currently being performed on board the International Space Station that examine the impacts of space on human health and plant and animal growth. It also includes testing technologies like 3D printing, extra-vehicular activities (EVA), and what they call in-situ resource utilization (ISRU).

    ISRU is NASA's push to learn how to utilize resources on exploration sites like the moon, asteroids, and Mars. Their Mars 2020 rover will be equipped with one of these new technologies — a machine that can turn the carbon dioxide in Mars' atmosphere into oxygen.

    2) Proving ground: In the near future, humans will begin traveling beyond low-Earth orbit and the ISS to explore deeper regions of space. By the 2020s, NASA hopes to have brought a small asteroid into orbit around the moon through their Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) where astronauts will visit the asteroid and collect samples for scientific analysis.

    Missions like these will test the latest spacecraft and technologies that NASA is building right now, including their Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft, designed for a crew of up to four and for deep-space missions like ARM and Mars landings.

    3) Earth independent: After that, it's onto Mars. Colonies on Mars will need to be fairly independent because it takes at least six months to get from Earth to the Red Planet. These first colonies on Mars will test how well humans can utilize the Red Planet's resources.

    Here's a schedule of NASA's plans over the next few years:

    Screen Shot 2015 10 09 at 11.39.37 AM

    CHECK OUT: History's best-known science satellites have grown to enormous proportions

    SEE ALSO: The best astronomy photos of the year have set a 'jaw-dropping standard'

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    NOW WATCH: If life exists on Mars, it could pose a problem for our exploration of the planet

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    When NASA recently announced the discovery of liquid water on Mars, the location of this water is what intrigued some scientists the most.

    These water flows are related to unique features on Mars called recurring slope linae (RSL) — identified in the photo to the right — that pop up in a handful of locations near and along the Martian equator.

    As it turns out, the Curiosity rover is within driving distance of a mountain called Mount Sharp, which might contain these RSLs — though their presence has not yet been confirmed at that spot. Even more exciting is that Curiosity could scoop up samples and analyze them in far greater detail than the satellites that scientists have been using so far.

    "If we decide it's safe to go up and touch one, basically the whole rover is full of equipment that is designed to figure out composition and mineralogy of materials on Mars," Ashwin Vasavada, who is the project scientist for Curiosity, told Business Insider. "We could do a nice job of understanding the chemistry of what's going on."

    There are still many questions about these RSLs that need answers. Perhaps the greatest one of them all is where this water is coming from. Is it groundwater, melting frost, or something else? The answer will shed light on how the water source's abundance and potential as a vital resource for future manned missions and colonies on Mars.

    While Curiosity could help answer some of these questions, there is a big problem that needs solving first.

    An unavoidable risk and a difficult challenge

    As Vasavada says, NASA must first decide if it's safe for the rover to approach these features for scientific analyses. However, it's not the rover's safety NASA is worried about — it's the planet Mars. And right now NASA's planetary protection officer, Cassie Conley, is trying to figure out if Mars and its flowing water is safe from contamination.

    curiosityConley's role as NASA's planetary protection officer is to safeguard Mars — and any other alien surface NASA chooses to visit — from contamination by Earth-based microorganisms. There is so much life on Earth that it is impossible to sterilize any lander completely, and it's Conley's job to figure out just how much contamination is acceptable.

    The problem is that Curiosity has been on the Martian surface for over 3 years, so no one knows if the small amount of bacteria that contaminated it on launch day are still alive. And because no one knows, that means Vasavada and the rest of the rover team can't go near these RSLs for risk of contaminating future searches for the potential for life— at least until the problem is solved.

    And it's going to be a difficult one to tackle because NASA can't simply swab Curiosity's instruments because, well, it's on Mars, and unfortunately no swab stick is that long. So, scientists will have to take the same types and amounts of bacteria that were on Curiosity when it launched and expose them to conditions akin to what's on Mars.

    "Curiosity has been on Mars now for more than 3 years and a lot of the rover has been exposed to ultraviolet light and the dryness of Mars," Vasavada told Business Insider. "It would be a pretty challenging study to work through how Curiosity may have been cleaned just by being in the harsh environment of Mars."

    What Curiosity can contribute right now

    Even if such an analysis proves that Curiosity is too dirty to approach these RSLs, the rover could still contribute to this area of research, Vasavada said, with its camera.

    marslakes"One thing that Curiosity can do is to image these potential RSLs," he said. "Even without going up to them super close, we have a telephoto lens camera that once we get a little closer than we are now, it will actually get higher resolution images than what we can do from orbiters."

    That's very important, because the features on Mount Sharp are too small for orbiters to see — which is why scientists haven't managed to confirm or disprove whether the features in question are RSLs or something else. Curiosity's camera could help solve that mystery.

    As for the potential for life and Curiosity's ability to detect it within these features, Vasavada is skeptical.

    "The water would be quite salty and perhaps too salty to offer a good environment for life," he said. Moreover, the instruments on board Curiosity can identify the chemistry of Martian soil but not necessarily the detection of living organisms, Vasavada said. NASA's Mars 2020 rover, however, will have instruments on board that can detect life.

    When it comes to hunting for evidence for life on Mars, Vasavada is more interested in the ancient lakes on Mars than these RSLs. Vasavada and the Curiosity team recently confirmed the existence of these ancient lakes in the region where Curiosity is currently located.

    "We can't forget that 3.5 billion years ago there were giant fresh water lakes that lasted millions of years," he said. "That is even a more fantastic environment to think of the possibility of life."

    READ MORE: History's best-known science satellites have evolved to enormous proportions

    SEE ALSO: NASA is recycling Space Shuttle engines for a very important purpose

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: If life exists on Mars, it could pose a problem for our exploration of the planet

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    Elon Musk

    In all the billions and billions of planets in our home galaxy, humanity happens to find itself on one perfectly suited for life.

    Earth isn't without its hazards though. The planet has seen five mass extinctions throughout its history, due to cataclysmic disasters like giant asteroids and massive volcanic eruptions.

    Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk is worried about the next apocalypse.

    He's so concerned that he thinks we need to get off Earth and become a multi-planet species as quickly as possible, according to a post written by blogger Tim Urban called "How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars."

    Musk's reasoning is straightforward. Maybe by the time the next giant asteroid heads our way, we'll have the technology to shield the planet or redirect the space rock. But if it's something more catastrophic, like a nearby star exploding, we may all get vaporized. Musk says we can't afford to wait around and find out.

    In his blog post, Urban gives us another way to think about it: Imagine Earth as a hard drive, and every species is a word document saved on that hard drive. The hard drive has already crashed five times (those five mass extinctions), and each time it loses a huge chunk of those documents (species going extinct). So you can think of the human species as an incredibly valuable document created on that hard drive:

    Now—if you owned a hard drive with an extraordinarily important Excel doc on it, and you knew that the hard drive pretty reliably tended to crash every month or two, with the last crash happening five weeks ago—what’s the very obvious thing you’d do? You’d copy the document onto a second hard drive.

    That's exactly why Musk is so hell-bent on Mars — it could become humanity's backup drive.

    Musk doesn't want to send a handful of colonists, either; he'd like to launch 1 million people to the red planet. If we want anything resembling the industry and infrastructure here on Earth, and ample genetic diversity, then we'll need at least that many people to get things going. That's the only way we'll survive as a species on Mars, Musk reportedly told Urban.

    Later this year, via his rocket company SpaceX, Musk plans to reveal a spacecraft designed to carry as many as 100 people at a time to the red planet. In the meantime, he's teased the world with a vision of how he'd land humans on Mars in a capsule called Red Dragon:

    Touching down

    A photo posted by Elon Musk (@elonmusk) on Sep 14, 2015 at 2:59pm PDT on

    Read Urban's full series about Elon Musk and his grand plans at Wait But Why.

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    NOW WATCH: The internet's favorite astronaut tells us why we're not ready for Mars

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    the martian spacesuits

    Astronauts, engineers, and fans have praised the "The Martian," a bestselling sci-fi novel, for its scientific accuracy. So if you're making an equally realistic film adaptation, your spacesuits had better look good.

    That's why Janty Yates, a costume designer for Ridley Scott's movie "The Martian," worked directly with NASA to create spacesuits used in the film.

    "Of course we made a film rather than sending people to space," Yates joked to Tech Insider.

    The story follows Mark Watney, an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars. Matt Damon (who plays Watney) and other actors in the movie adaptation had to spend a lot of time dressed up in their suits to make the story come to life.

    As a result, Yates had to build spacesuits that clearly showed the actors' faces, were comfortable enough to wear during hours of filming (sometimes in the desert), and didn't look like hokey, unbelievable imitations. Real spacesuits are "marvelously practical for space travel, walking and working on Mars," she says, "but they're not practical from a visual sense."

    Keep scrolling to see how Yates and others designed two different types of futuristic-looking yet functional spacesuits used in "The Martian," due in theaters October 2.

    You'll see two different types of spacesuits in "The Martian." First are these bulky white suits that the actors wear for space travel scenes:

    Director Ridley Scott called these ones the "Mr. Dough Boy suits," according to Yates.

    Here's the real thing — NASA's external mobility unit spacesuit — for comparison. The costume suits look very similar.

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Last week NASA released Journey to Mars, an inspirational 36-page report that outlines the organization's plans to send people to Mars.

    The space agency seemed fairly proud of its report:

    The document includes plans to capture an asteroid, build a deep-space laboratory, develop new space-travel technologies, and learn how humans can live and work on the Martian surface.

    Despite its grand vision, however, NASA's Mars opus is missing two critical things: dollar signs and deadlines. And lawmakers in charge of government budgets have a big problem with that.

    The recent announcement of the discovery of liquid water on Mars and the sci-fi blockbuster "The Martian" have put NASA's ambitions to explore the red planet under a spotlight — and exposed some gaping holes in the space agency's plans. NASA has stated multiple times that it will send humans to Mars by the 2030s, but this latest report does little to show how it will actually accomplish that.

    Congress doesn't necessarily believe NASA's aloofness is its own fault, since the space agency's direction is largely handled by the President. So last week, during a House Subcommittee on Space hearing, members of Congress criticized both the report and the Obama Administration's lack of financial support for NASA.

    Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) wondered how a plan called "Journey to Mars" could fail to include a budget:

    "This sounds good, but it is actually a journey to nowhere until we have that budget and we have the schedule and we have the deadlines," Smith said during the hearing.

    He went on to slam the Obama Administration for cutting $440 million from NASA's Mars program, which includes the gigantic Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion space capsule— both of which are designed to ferry humans to Mars some day:

    "I hope the administration will change its posture ... [T]heir proposals to cut SLS and Orion every single year is not helping us achieve the great goals that most Americans want to achieve in space," Smith said.

    orion crew capsule diagram nasaDoug Cooke, former associate administrator of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, also said during the hearing that NASA's budget problems are largely coming from the administration, and not from Congress:

    "To advance these programs, Congress has consistently passed budgets each year that are significantly greater than the President's budget request," Cooke said during the hearing. "It has been clear Congress intends to follow through with this necessary funding, yet the administration continues to ask for less."

    The budget isn't the only problem we need to solve before we actually see a realistic Mars plan, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) pointed out during the hearing.

    "It’s not just a question of more money — it's giving NASA some predictability as to when that money will actually show up," Johnson said. "If this Congress is looking for reasons why NASA’s exploration program faces potential delays, we need look no further than ourselves.”

    If NASA never knows how much funding it will get year to year, she argued, it becomes nearly impossible to come up with a specific, long-term plan for a journey to Mars. Doing so will take decades of work and require a whole suite of new technology — and steady cash to fund its development.

    Earlier this year, NASA announced its decision to push back the first launch test of SLS from 2017 to 2018. It also delayed the first manned test flight of Orion from 2021 to 2023.

    Obama's 2016 budget request for NASA would cut funding even more if Congress approves it, according to The Hill.

    You can watch some clips from the hearing below:

    Join the conversation about this story »

    NOW WATCH: If life exists on Mars, it could pose a problem for our exploration of the planet

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    Because of how they appear from afar, we call Mars the Red Planet and Earth the Blue Planet.

    But these two worlds don't look so different when you zoom in, which is what scientific satellites do to give researchers information on how different regions of each planet change over time.

    We've collected some of these satellites' spectacular images of Mars and Earth and juxtaposed them to test your skills.

    Can you tell which is the planet you call home and which is the desolate, lifeless wasteland more than 141 million miles away?

    LEARN MORE: Epically awesome photos of Mars

    SEE ALSO: The 12 most compelling scientific findings that suggest aliens are real

    Which photo is of Earth and which of Mars?

    Earth is on the right.

    During a recent pass over the Australian continent, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly snapped 17 photos from the International Space Station, and they all look insanely alien — almost like certain features on Mars.

    Mars is on the left.

    When temperatures heat up in the Martian spring, the carbon-dioxide ice in the polar caps sublimates, meaning it changes from its solid form directly to a gas, into the atmosphere, leaving behind these distinct starburst patterns. Why the melting process makes these characteristic patterns is a subject of ongoing research.

    All of the photos of Mars shown here were taken by the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Each Mars photo has false coloring that highlights distinct Martian features, like sand dunes.

    Which photo is of Earth and which of Mars?

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    NASA's Space Launch System's design has been completed and is ready for construction, bringing deep space flight into the present. The two boosters will be taller than The Statue of Liberty and will weigh over 1.6 million pounds each. NASA plans to launch humans near the moon in 2020 and then to Mars in the 2030s.

    Produced by Emma Fierberg. Original Reporting by Jessica Orwig.  Narration by Graham Flanagan

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    ngdt colbert

    Famed astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson went on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert Thursday night to chat about closet geekiness and searching for life elsewhere in the Solar System.

    When Colbert asked Tyson who his ideal guest on his National Geographic TV show StarTalk would be, Tyson said:

    "My perfect guest is someone who you would have had no idea had a tender geek underbelly."

    Tyson illustrated his point with a stroking gesture that Colbert immediately lampooned him for. "That's too tender!" he said.

    For example, this season Tyson had David Crosby, founder of the band Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, on the show, and found out the singer and guitarist was an avid science fiction fan when he was younger.

    Turns out, Colbert was too. "I read a lot of [Carl] Sagan when I was young," he said.

    Colbert and Tyson also talked about the recent finding of liquid water on Mars.

    "Follow the water is the mantra of NASA," Tyson said and continued that wherever there's water on Earth, we find life.

    Tyson cautioned that just because there's water on Mars, it shouldn't bias us toward thinking there's life. But why not look for it? he said.

    Europa, a moon of Jupiter with an icy, subsurface ocean, is another place Tyson said we might find life. According to Tyson, the gravity on Jupiter is stressing the shape of the moon, which may generate enough heat to melt ice. And Europa's had millions of years for life to develop.

    "I want to go ice fishing on Europa — see what swims up and licks the camera," Tyson said.

    If we found life on Europa, we'd have to call them Europeans, Tyson added.

    A new episode of StarTalk airs Sunday, Nov. 1 at 11 pm ET (10 pm CT).

    Watch the full segment here:

    CHECK OUT: 14 horrible things that could happen if we colonize Mars

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    NOW WATCH: Neil deGrasse Tyson: Here's How Long You Could Survive On Every Planet In Our Solar System

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    Buzz Aldrin

    Buzz Aldrin really, really wants us to go to Mars.

    Earlier this year, he outlined his proposal to get there by 2039, but not just brief missions like his own Apollo 11 - he wants us to colonize it, and create permanent settlements there, he explained in an exclusive interview with IFLScience.

    He is not alone in his ambition. Just last week, NASA unveiled their own plan to get humans to Mars, on the back of significant publicity from the recent movie The Martian.

    But Aldrin has been an outspoken proponent of missions to Mars for decades, almost since he returned from the Moon in July 1969 – and now, at the age of 85, he wants to inspire the next generations to reach for the Red Planet when he is no longer around.

    To galvanize the children of today who might make this possible, he has released a new book called “Welcome to Mars,” published by National Geographic Kids and co-written with author Marianne J. Dyson. It is essentially a guide to getting to and living on the Red Planet. Aldrin himself has several grandchildren – and he hopes they might one day be involved in a future mission to Mars.

    “We will colonize Mars,” Aldrin told IFLScience, confidently. “I wrote this book, Welcome to Mars, to inspire the young people, because they will be the ones who will carry out these missions to Mars, perhaps participating in them. Maybe they’ll become a violinist, a lawyer, an engineer, or a fighter pilot if they’re lucky. Or maybe they’ll become a crew member trained by world resources, billions and billions of dollars, to go into the preparation of human beings to be selected and trained, hopefully willing to commit themselves to be pioneers, to be settlers [on Mars].”

    Aldrin sees Mars as the logical next step to advancing America’s influence in space. “We have to rethink the requirements for being great in space, as a nation,” he said, “that will give America a further lasting heritage legacy in history books. And I want to be part of the planning for it.” He noted, though, that he hopes it is an international endeavor that includes nations such as China.

    Buzz Aldrin on Moon

    Aldrin’s plan calls for a “cycler” spacecraft to remain in orbit between Earth and Mars, with people using this habitat to make the trip to and from the Red Planet. They will join crews living on the surface of Mars, the first permanent settlers there, to provide humanity with another outpost to live on. “How many planets do we have? How many planets even come close to being habitable like Earth in our Solar System? The choice is ours,” said Aldrin.

    He admits, though, that the idea of sending people to live out the rest of their lives on Mars might not sit well with some members of the public. “That’s not what a lot of people think the future ought to be, that the U.S. government should not commit to one-way trips,” he said.

    “‘The U.S. government will never agree to send people to die on Mars,’ they say. "Well, come on. Think of history. Think of the opportunities that exist for young people in the future to become historic pioneers. Pilgrims on the Mayflower didn’t make it around Plymouth Rock for the return trip, they came here to settle America. And a lot of them lost their lives, but they pioneered what we have today. And as a military man among many, I pioneered the things that have kept our nation vibrant and alive, and optimistic. We need to instill optimism and excitement, for our children.”

    mars one colony

    Aside from the romantic idea of having humans living on another planet, one key benefit of a mission to Mars is the amount of science that could be performed. With the recent discovery that liquid water is still present on the surface today, albeit with some issues regarding actually visiting those locations due to the risk of contamination, settlers could greatly advance our understanding of Mars, far more than has been possible so far – and not just by going down to the surface themselves, but by controlling rovers on the ground in real-time from orbit. 

    “Right now the time delay of controlling [robots] on the surface is maybe 20 minutes one way,” said Aldrin. “So we send instructions one day ahead, conservative instructions. A program manager of many, many rovers said that, what rovers [like Spirit and Opportunity] did in five years could have been done in one week if we had human intelligence orbiting Mars giving them instructions with less than a second time-delay.”

    But while Mars has been receiving an enormous amount of attention recently, some have bemoaned the lack of missions to other destinations – including Europa, which is thought to harbor a vast ocean beneath its surface containing more water than is on Earth. “But are we gonna send scuba divers there so we can dig a hole in a couple of miles of ice and see what’s underneath?” said Aldrin.

    “There may be indications of life… it’d be nice to know that,” he continued. “But it isn’t essential. It shouldn’t be done at the expense of inspiring what is in front of us to do, that can return unimaginable benefits in terms of historic achievements that’ll be remembered hundreds of years into the future. The legacy of the president who makes the commitment [to go to Mars] will be far beyond his term. He doesn’t have to be around, his name will still be around, it’ll have the legacy for thousands of years, more than Queen Isabella, more than Columbus.” Indeed, JFK is still remembered more than 50 years on for delivering his powerful speech at Rice University in 1961 that committed the U.S. to landing on the Moon.

    As to whether Aldrin himself would have liked to have gone to Mars, he said his time has passed, although he would like to see virtual reality on Mars in the future so that everyone could experience it. “I’ve been looking at some [virtual reality devices] recently, and man, it looks like you’re there,” he said. “But will I be an outdoorsman, a boy scout on Mars? No, I’m an innovator, a creative guy. And besides, I won’t be alive when all that happens. But my great grandsons might be.”

    SEE ALSO: Mind-blowing photos of Mars and Earth reveal the miraculous wonders of our solar system

    CHECK OUT: 14 horrible things that could happen if we colonize Mars

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    NOW WATCH: This monster rocket that NASA is building to shuttle astronauts to Mars just passed a major milestone

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    mars, maven

    On Thursday, Nov. 5 at 2 pm ET, NASA began their presentation about the latest discovery of Mars and its mysterious atmosphere.

    Click here to learn more about the latest results.

    People asked NASA about the results on Twitter using #AskNASA. 

    This announcement was just the latest in a series of major discoveries about the Red Planet, including the strongest evidence yet of flowing, liquid water on the surface, reported last September.

    As of right now, NASA isn't providing many details about the announcement, except for saying that they'll present "key science findings" about Mars' atmosphere, which is still a major mystery.

    Scientists think that the Martian atmosphere was much thicker in the past than it is today and has slowly been thinning out over millions of years. Right now, Mars' atmosphere is less than 1% the thickness of Earth's.

    How thick the atmosphere used to be and how Mars lost most of it is still an ongoing subject of research. An answer to these questions could help scientists determine how habitable Mars was in the distant past and what our chances are of finding evidence of ancient life today.

    Last year, NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft began orbiting Mars for the sole purpose of examining its atmosphere in unprecedented detail.

    In particular, MAVEN is investigating how water and carbon dioxide molecules disassociate into their individual, atomic hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon components.

    Some of these atoms escape the Martian atmosphere, so by looking at their abundance changes over time, scientists can get a better idea of what's causing these elements to separate from their parent molecules and escape into space.

    Here's who presented:

    • Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters
    • Bruce Jakosky, Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) principal investigator at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder
    • Jasper Halekas, MAVEN Solar Wind Ion Analyzer instrument lead at the University of Iowa, Iowa City
    • Yaxue Dong, MAVEN science team member at LASP
    • Dave Brain, MAVEN co-investigator at LASP

    READ MORE: How scientists use a giant telescope in Antarctica to study the strangest particle in the universe

    SEE ALSO: There's a hidden message on this family portrait that an Apollo astronaut left on the moon

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    NOW WATCH: If life exists on Mars, it could pose a problem for our exploration of the planet

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    mars water

    Mars used to be a warm, breezy world covered in vast oceans. Today it is a cold desert wasteland.

    We've tried for decades to piece together what triggered such dramatic climate change, but scientists now think they may have solved the mystery of Mars' demise.

    According to new research from the team behind the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, which orbits the red planet, frequent blasts of particles from the sun likely ruined Mars.

    Bruce Jakosky, a geologist at the University of Colorado, and a team of researchers figured this out by analyzing Martian atmospheric data. The MAVEN spacecraft was logging that information when a giant blast of plasma and magnetism from the sun, called a coronal mass ejection (CME), swung by Mars in March 2015.

    That CME slammed straight into Mars and the planet's weak magnetic field. The blast charged up some of Mars' thin atmosphere and yanked tendrils of the planet's magnetic field thousands of miles into space. The charged air particles then rode the magnetic tendrils into space, where they were lost forever.

    "So what happened to Mars? I'll quote Bob Dylan: 'The answer my friend is blowing in the wind,'" said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA, during a press conference on Thursday.

    sun coronal mass ejection solar flareThe loss of atmosphere seen by MAVEN was a measly quarter-of-a-pound per second during the blast, according to NASA.

    But the sun regularly shoots out CMEs during solar storms, and the particle blasts happened more often when the sun was billions of years younger. Enough CMEs could have swept away most of the Martian atmosphere over time.

    "The loss rate is relatively low, but still enough to remove the entire Mars atmosphere in a couple of billion years," Jakosky told Tech Insider in an email.

    Which is why Mars today has less than 1% the atmospheric pressure here on Earth.

    mars solar windThere's also evidence that Mars lost its water this way.

    In a related MAVEN study, researchers found that oxygen and hydrogen escape the Martian atmosphere more quickly than other gases. That piece evidence supports the idea that water — made of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms — also escaped through Mars's atmosphere over time, Steve Bougher, a planetary scientist at the University of Michigan who specializes in extraterrestrial atmospheres, told Tech Insider.

    Solar wind and CMEs are just one possible explanation for why oceans and air on Mars vanished before our time, but it's a promising theory, since the effect is still happening and observable today.

    It also gets us a step closer to figuring out if Mars was once capable of supporting life on the surface.

    "This doesn't tell us whether there was life on Mars," Jakosy wrote. "[B]ut it helps us to understand what makes a planet habitable by microbes and what changes a planet's environment to make it not habitable."

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    NOW WATCH: NASA just gave us the best look we've ever had of the sun — and it's incredible

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    Screen Shot 2015 11 05 at 2.47.47 PM

    Billions of years ago, Mars looked a lot like Earth, scientists suspect.

    But something happened 3.7 billion years ago that severely changed the Red Planet's climate and, over time, left the surface dry, desolate, and frozen — a lifeless shell of its former self.

    For years, planetary scientists have wondered where all the surface water and atmospheric carbon dioxide — important for possible plant growth — went.

    Now, these questions are one step closer to being answered thanks to NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, mission, which recently completed one year in orbit around Mars.

    Today, scientists announced that Mars is currently losing about one-quarter pound of atoms — the same weight of a quarter-pounder hamburger — in its atmosphere to space every second. One of the main causes of this extreme loss is the solar wind, fast-moving charged particles ejected from the sun.

    When the solar wind is especially dense — after a particularly powerful event like a solar flare or coronal mass ejection — the amount of atmospheric loss is 10 to 20 times more. Over time, this loss has thinned the Martian atmosphere to what it is today, which is less than 1% the thickness of Earth's.

    Here's a scary animation showing a cascade of atmospheric loss from Mars — but don't worry, Earth isn't in danger of this fate for reasons explained later:

    Nov 05, 2015 14:34

    "This is exciting to me to think that a [powerful solar] event like this increases escape because solar storms were more common and more intense earlier in solar-system history,"said David Brain, a co-investigator for MAVEN, during a NASA teleconference. "This immplies not only is Mars' atmosphere escaping today but much of that atmosphere was lost early on."


    These results will not only shed light on just how habitable Mars was in its distant past, but also the potential habitability of similar worlds in distant solar systems with a star much like our sun.

    solar system sun earth moon galaxy artist concept water feature full

    MAVEN is a school-bus-sized spacecraft equipped with eight instruments that study the different layers of the Martian atmosphere as well as the space weather that bombards it. It takes about 4.5 hours for MAVEN to complete one orbit around Mars.

    A panel of MAVEN scientists presented their results from four scientific papers, published Thursday in Science, about the data MAVEN has collected over the past year. Complimenting these results are 44 additional scientific papers about the mission published Thursday in Geophysical Research Letters.

    A diagram of MAVEN's eight instruments is below. Some of them measure space weather while others sniff out different molecules in the Martian atmosphere, especially during deep dips just 78 miles above Mars' surface — three times closer than the International Space Station floats above Earth.


    In order to figure out what happened to Mars' luscious, potentially life-giving climate, MAVEN had three science goals, explained Stephen Bougher, a co-investigator on the MAVEN team and lead author of one of the Science papers:

    1. Find out what Mars' upper atmosphere looks like today and what forces control it.
    2. Determine how fast the atoms in Mars' atmosphere are currently leaving the planet and escaping into space.
    3. Use the current rate of atmospheric loss to calculate how much atmosphere Mars had in the past.

    "We can't actually go back in time,"Bougher said during a presentation at the University of Michigan last year. "As you lose hydrogen and oxygen, you'll eventually lose water. As you measure that in the current time and get those loss rates ... you can integrate that loss over time ... and figure out what might be the volume and depth of water covering the whole surface of Mars that might have been lost over its history."

    Bougher and his team published their paper on how a powerful solar event, like the one shown below, affected these loss rates. In fact, it was the most powerful solar event ever recorded around Mars, the team reported.

    solar flare

    On March 8, a giant mass of magnetically charged gas from the sun — an interplanetary coronal mass ejection, or ICME — struck Mars. These solar events are the most energetic explosions in the solar system and threaten not just Mars, but Earth as well.

    Luckily, Earth's magnetic field shields us from this high-energy radiation — what does penetrate our magnetic field we usually see as the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. But Mars' magnetic field is weak and can only deflect a small amount of the CME compared to Earth.

    Yes, that means that Mars can have spectacular auroras, like in the illustration below. And, in fact, another Science paper published today discusses results from MAVEN when it dipped down near the surface during one of these auroras. They found evidence to suggest that the auroras are likely the result of interactions between the solar wind and the remnant magnetic field of Mars' crust.


    A weak magnetic field also means that more of these high-energy particles from the ICME strike the Red Planet at a given time and, as Bougher and his team reported, increase the speed at which Mars loses particles in its atmosphere to space.

    "The observations and the model results suggest there are substantial enhancements in the ion [charged particles] loss rates during ICME events," the team stated in their paper.

    The team's results contradict another paper, published earlier this year in the Journal of Geophysical Research, that used data from the European Space Agency's Mars Express satellite to measure a decrease in overall atmospheric ion loss rates when the solar wind, generated by solar activity, is especially dense.

    The reason could be different data sets or different instruments, the team wrote, or it could be that different kinds of events induce a different response in Mars' atmosphere. More data will be needed to constrain "how ICME events influence ion escape, [which] is an important component for understanding escape rate from early Mars," Bougher and his team concluded.

    Check out the video below, which shows more of how Mars lost most of its atmosphere:

    SEE ALSO: Germany is about to start a monster machine that could revolutionize the way we use energy

    DON'T MISS: How scientists use a giant telescope in Antarctica to study the strangest particle in the universe

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    aurora space green red nasa scott kelly

    Earth's beautiful auroras aren't unique to this planet.

    Scientists have observed a completely unique type of aurora on the red planet using the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft, according to new research published on November 5 in the journal Science.

    "It's possible the new type of aurora lights up the whole night sky over the planet," Dave Brain, a MAVEN researcher, said during a NASA press conference on Thursday.

    Auroras happen when high-speed, electrically charged particles from the sun slam into a planet's atmosphere. The air molecules absorb that energy and quickly release it as photos of light.

    Oxygen molecules emit greenish-yellow light or red light, and sometimes ultraviolet (UV) light — which is invisible to the naked eye. Nitrogen, the most common gas in Earth's atmosphere, can emit blueish light. These dazzling light shows happen only around the northern and southern poles on Earth, since the shape of its magnetic field pulls the charged particles into those regions.

    Auroras on Mars are unique because the planet doesn't have a concentrated, polar magnetic field like Earth's. Instead, the Martian magnetic field is weak and diffuse, likely because a strong, ancient, and Earth-like magnetic field imprinted itself in metallic Martian rocks before it faded away eons ago.

    "Given minimal magnetic fields over most of the planet, Mars is likely to exhibit auroras more globally than Earth," the researchers write in the paper.

    The illustration below shows how auroras (purple) concentrate around Earth's poles compared to auroras on Mars, which are spread out:

    magnetic field aurora maps

    So why haven't we detected Martian auroras until now?

    The study suggests most of the light is UV and invisible to our eyes. Instruments on Earth that can detect UV probably haven't seen it, either, because the ozone layer absorbs most UV light. Mars also has 1% the atmospheric pressure of Earth, so there is less air for solar particles to slam into — the diffuse aurora appeared fairly dim to MAVEN, which can detect UV light.

    Auroras on Mars probably emit some visible light but likely too little to see from Earth. Perhaps the first person on Mars could look up at the night sky there and tell us for certain.

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    NOW WATCH: NASA just gave us the best look we've ever had of the sun — and it's incredible

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    NASA and its team behind the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft have found hard evidence of what turned Mars into a cold desert wasteland.

    Produced by Will Wei. Reporting by Kelly Dickerson.

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    Temple of Quechula, underwater church chiapas mexico

    As per usual, a lot happened in science news this week.

    President Obama finally killed the Keystone XL pipeline, and we celebrated the 15th anniversary of the International Space Station.

    We also found out what it takes to become an astronaut, and looked at what life is like in the Amazon rainforest — before mankind destroys it entirely.

    And many of the stories also had beautiful images to show us the beauty in the science that's happening all around us.

    Here are some of our favorites:

    NASA announced this week that frequent blasts of particles from the sun turned Mars from a warm, breezy world covered in vast oceans into a cold, desert wasteland.

    And they found that the red planet has auroras, just like Earth >

    See the full story here >

    As the drought in Mexico caused the Nezahualcoyotl reservoir to drop over 80 feet, a mid-16th century church emerged. The Temple of Quechula has been submerged for nearly 50 years, and will disappear again soon as the waters rise.

    See original photos from in and around the church on Tech Insider here >

    This fallstreak hole formed over eastern Victoria, Australia. Airplanes passing through the cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds freeze the water droplets inside, punching a hole that can look like this.

    See the original image here >

    Check out this explanation from boingboing >

    More on fallstreak holes in Wired >

    See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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    Recent scientific discoveries increasingly point to signs of extraterrestrial life. And now, many believe the question is no longer "Is there life beyond Earth?" but rather "Will we ever find it?"

    Produced by Jenner Deal. Original Reporting by Jessica Orwig.

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