The Cosmic Companion October 19, 2019

Did NASA find life on Mars in the 1970's? Farming in space takes another step forward, and rocky planets around other stars may be more plentiful than we thought, a new study reveals.

Hello everyone!

This was quite an interesting week in space and astronomy news, and not just because of the first-ever all-female spacewalk from Jessica Meir and Christina Koch. In 1976, the Viking landers from NASA had inconclusive results from their life detection experiment. Now, two of the primary investigators on that instrument are calling for a follow-up experiment to be sent to the Red Planet. Speaking of Mars, a new study shows several types of crops can grow in Martian soil, making growing food in space a real possibility. Lastly, a study looking at a type of dead star known as white dwarfs shows rocky planets with atmospheres around other stars may be plentiful, increasing the chances of finding life around other stars.

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Let’s take off!

The Week in Space

Did NASA Find Life on Mars in the 1970's?

When the Viking landers touched down on Mars in 1976, the search for life on the Red Planet was said to be inconclusive. Before human beings head to Mars, we should make sure we know if life is already there.

Famed science author Carl Sagan was a driving force behind the Viking missions to Mars, where a curious result from an experiment in 1976 could suggest that primitive life may still be eking out an existence on, or just underneath, the surface of Mars. Image credit: NASA

The idea of life on Mars has fascinated people since Percival Lowell first recorded features that he believed to be channels of water on the Red Planet. He named his perceived features canali, the Italian word for channel. These reports were badly translated by the media of the time as canals, suggesting that the astronomer had discovered an artificial system of manufactured waterways on the Red Planet.

In 1975, NASA sent the Viking mission, a pair of twin rovers, to Mars to examine the geology and environment of Mars, as well as to look for signs of microbial life. The Labeled Release (LR) experiment on the Viking mission, designed to look for signs of respiration, returned positive results, exciting researchers hoping to find the first-ever signs of extraterrestrial life.

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Planting the Seeds of Farming in Space

As humans colonize the Solar System, we will need to grow food in order to sustain a growing population in space. Now, a team of researchers have successfully grown crops in simulated lunar and Martian soil, potentially bringing the day we become an interplanetary species a little closer.

Mizuna lettuce growing aboard the International Space Station in 2010. The spinach was harvested and frozen before being returned to Earth. Crops produced for interplanetary colonies will, ideally, grow in micro-gravity, as well as in growing mediums created from local material. Image credit: NASA

If the future of the human race includes living on the Moon and Mars, then we will soon need to learn how to grow food in space. One option would be to produce crops in artificial hydroponic systems, but such a plan would involve transporting large quantities of equipment to the Moon and Mars, at significant expense. Growing food on Earth and transporting it to colonies in space provides another set of problems — the weight and expenses of launch — as well as the possibility of critical food shipments being lost during the journey. The easiest way to feed hungry interplanetary inhabitants would be to grow food using material which can easily be collected from the surfaces of the worlds we will inhabit.

A new experiment carried out in the Netherlands has successfully grown crops in simulated lunar and Martian soil (simulant) in their third attempt to simulate raising crops in space. During this latest experiment, researchers planted 10 different edible plants, including garden cress, rocket, tomato, radish, rye, quinoa, leek, chives, peas and spinach. Nine of these crops grew successfully in both types of alien soil, with spinach being the lone exception.

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Earth-like Planets may be Common, Study Reveals

By looking at rocky debris near small, cooled corpses of stars called white dwarfs, researchers have concluded that planets like ours may be common around other stars. The Cosmic Companion talks to lead researcher Alexandra Doyle.

Alexandra Doyle at UCLA, Image credit: Christelle Snow/UCLA

Earth-like planets may be common around alien stars, a new study from UCLA reports. This new finding answers one of the greatest questions in exoplanet research, and could help us better understand the future of our own solar system.

Alexandra Doyle, a graduate student of geochemistry and astrochemistry at UCLA, led a team which developed a new method to study the chemical makeup of planetary systems orbiting alien stars.

By examining fragments of rocky planets and asteroids orbiting white dwarf stars, her team was able to identify the composition of planets which were found (or still exist) within those systems. They found rocks and asteroids impacting these stellar corpses were affected by oxygen in a similar way to the manner many bodies in our own inner solar system react.

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Coming soon: The First Woman on the Moon: The Past and Future History of Women in Space by James Maynard

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