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An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Night Sky
 

Enjoy the starry night skies
Be a considerate neighbor. Reduce nighttime glare. Shield your outside lights downward. Let the stars light up the night.

August 2013 night sky

—Charlie Christmann

Missing Ingredients

Mars hangs in the eastern morning sky the month of August. This pale red planet has been the source of “Little Green Men” stories for centuries since the time Percival Lowell wrote his widely read books including Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908). Lowell was so convinced his observations showed an advanced civilization on our neighboring planet, he founded and funded one of the world’s great observatories on a 7,200-foot mountain peak he named Mars Hill, near Flagstaff, Arizona.

[As an aside, New Mexican Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930 using the Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill.]

For decades, space scientists had searched the Red Planet for any hint of water. None was ever found, at least not on the surface. Even though Percival’s canals were a figment of his imagination, Lowell’s name remains honored in the annals of astronomy.

Robotic rovers sent from Earth have found no evidence of civilizations, current or past, on Mars; but they have found evidence of water—perhaps Lowell was onto something after all. The more we study Mars, the more convinced scientists are that Mars once had oceans and flowing water. So, where did the water go? Perhaps we are finally solving that mystery.

Today, Mars’ thin veil of carbon dioxide does not let liquid water stay on the surface very long; it simply boils away in the extremely low pressures. The atmosphere there is very thin, less than one percent of Earth’s. Planetary scientists think that Mars once had a thick atmosphere similar to early Venus, with clouds of water and rain feeding rivers, lakes, and oceans. The great mystery has been where did the atmosphere and water go, and when?

Information gathered by our rovers seems to show the atmosphere left rather quickly more than three billion years ago. Gas samples from meteorites found on Earth, and thought to be from Mars, show the planet once had an oxygen-rich atmosphere more than a billion years before Earth. Does this all mean that Mars may have been life-friendly for a short time? Could life have adapted to the low pressures and radiation now found on the surface? The rover Curiosity is searching for those answers.

But for today, the reasons for the loss of atmosphere is still filled with conjecture. Some contributing factors include large amounts of carbonates on the surface, the lack of volcanism to replenish the carbon dioxide, the lack of a magnetic field allowing the solar wind to strip away gasses, and Mars’ low gravity that just cannot hold on to the air very well.

NASA’s next mission to Mars will include an instrument designed to study how fast Mars’s air is disappearing. Perhaps, if humans plan to go there and terraform the planet, we can find a way to slow or stop the loss of atmosphere, and even create a new thick blanket capable of sustaining liquid water and people.


Monthly meeting of the Rio Rancho Astronomical Society

On August 9, at 8:00 p.m., the Rio Rancho Astronomical Society will host its monthly meeting at Coronado State Monument. A stargaze will follow the meeting, weather permitting. Telescopes provided by members of the Rio Rancho Astronomical Society will show views of Saturn, various nebula, star clusters, and galaxies.

The public is invited to attend both events. For more information, go to: www.rrastro.org or call 220-5492.


 
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