Tag Archives: Earth

Daydreaming about exploration wearing Mars-coloured glasses

29 Dec

The frontiers of exploration have had many faces throughout history. In ages past, what is today London, England would have been a striking, though desolate, find. Today it’s a central hub of the Western world.

Ditto my hometown of Toronto, Ontario. Just 300 years ago it was wilderness. And you don’t have to venture very far from the city limits to return to that untamed world.

And there are many places around the world that are still, in the truest sense of the word, frontiers of exploration.

Antarctica, the Amazon rainforest, the ocean floor (a massive ‘new world’ right here on Earth), Madagascar, the high Arctic – all places that most human will never venture and no doubt hold secrets that could both amaze and bewilder our understanding of the world and perhaps life itself.

Overlooking the frozen shores of Lake Nipissing in North Bay, Ontario

Overlooking the frozen shores of Lake Nipissing in North Bay, Ontario

Consider for example the extremophiles (life that exists in extreme environments) that live inside rocks many kilometers beneath the surface – far from any sunlight – that use the rock itself as an energy source.

Or the life that persists on volcanos.

Or the life that flourishes in Lake Vostok – an underground Antarctic lake that has been cut-off from the outside world for perhaps 15 million years beneath 4km of snow and ice.

These discoveries have changed how we think about life, and rightly so. We have learned that life can persist – and proliferate – in places that only a few years ago were considered too harsh.

The goldilocks zone right here on Earth has ballooned.

Places that were once thought of as too extreme in some way – too hot, too cold, too dry, too little sun – are now all environments where there is life.

And significantly, they’re not just places where life is theorized. It’s not just that someone says there ‘could be’ life there.

There really is life there. We have seen it. Measured it. Tested it. Compared it.

Our exploration has taught us an important lesson for Planet Earth: life finds a way.

And as I sit in my chair explore the ice world I see out the window of the house Ashley grew up in, those four words stick with me.

Life finds a way.

I know gazing out the window that my view is teeming with life.

In the sky, under the ice, in the snow.

Everywhere there is life, and it’s abundant. Our exploration of Earth has proven this to be true.

Then I put on my Mars-coloured glasses, and start to think…

When the first people arrive on Mars in the next decades, the view they’ll be faced with may be remarkably similar to what I see here, sitting in North Bay on the shore of Lake Nipissing.

A landscape shaped by the cold, by wind, by water – by weather.

It’s a landscape that is utterly beautiful, but also incredibly harsh.

Lake Nipissing or Mars?

Lake Nipissing or Mars?

The one I see is a present day lake and the one on Mars will be an ancient lake – one that has long since dried up. But I’d be willing to bet that the first people to visit Mars will touchdown at a place where we’re confident there used to be water (and maybe still is, just trapped under the surface in permafrost).

Our Martian explorers will lift the veil on some of the secrets of the Red Planet. They will walk and rove. They’ll set up camps and hunker down when dust storms approach. They will keep warm on the cold Martian nights.

And as I think about the incredibleness of discovery that awaits our pioneers, it occurs to me that we’ve been here before. This has already happened.

Dawrin.

Amundsen.

Shackleton.

Magellan.

Earth used to be the undiscovered country (and in a meaningful way, we’ve only scratched the surface of it).

We are born to explore, and now there is a new frontier that tugs at our souls – and our emissaries are already there. But they are only wetting our appetite.

Missions to Mars have been flying for five decades. They have answered some fundamental questions – about water, about canals (or lack thereof), about volcanos, about the atmosphere and ancient environment.

They have also raised poignant questions, the latest of which – the origin of methane spikes detected by MSL – often circle around the question of life.

Was it ever there? What was its nature? When did it emerge? How long did it survive? Is it still there today? Are we related?

The answers to these questions – significant in their own right as they help us to understand the history of Mars – are also fundamental in determining our place in the cosmos.

Are we alone? Does life jump from planet to planet on asteroids? Is the chemistry of life common?

Answering these questions – in either the affirmative or the negative – will have profound impacts.

Exploration in the 21st century will take us to new frontiers, but it will similarly be true to our history. Humans yearn to explore, and this is as true today as it was hundreds of years ago.

The names of the explorers may be different, the frontier’s further afield, and our ships different in appearance, but these are only superficial transformations.

The essence is the same.

We want to explore new challenges, new destinations, new landscapes, new people – new worlds.

What do those places feel like? How do they smell? Is there life? Are there resources that will help people survive and travel on further?

Mars, like Earth, is a place that offers endless possibilities of exploration.

I wonder what we’ll find.

North Bay, Ontario or Nipissing Landing, Mars?

North Bay, Ontario or Nipissing Landing, Mars?

A new photo of home: Earth as seen from Mars in January 2014

15 Feb

In March 2004, the Spirit rover on Mars captured the first image of Earth ever taken from the surface of another planet.

A couple weeks ago, NASA’s newest Mars rover accomplished the same feat, snapping a photo of the Earth and the Moon in the sky of another world.

The Mars Science Laboratory (aka Curiosity) captured this image on the evening of January 31, 2014 from inside the Gale Crater on Mars. The image was taken using the left eye camera of Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) about 80 minutes after sunset. Mars and Earth were 160 million kilometers apart when the photo was taken.

You, along with everyone you have ever known or heard of, is here. (click image for larger version)

You, along with everyone you have ever known or heard of, is here. (click image for larger version)

(Click here to download 18mb TIFF file)

If (when) a human is on Mars and looks up into the sky, they’ll see Earth and the Moon as two evening or morning stars – similarly to how Venus appears in the evening and morning sky here on Earth.

In this photo taken by Curiosity, the Moon appears just below the Earth as a fainter, though still distinct, object.

I particularly enjoy photos like this due to rare the perspective it affords us. To be able to see our entire world, our “vast” civilization, take up only a few pixels in an image from another world is an important reminder that we are apart of something much larger.

It makes our problems and petty differences here seem less significant.

It provides inspiration for us to aim for bigger, better things.

Keep ’em coming, NASA. We all need to see things like this more regularly.

Earth & Moon - the bright objects in the sky - as seen from Mars by the Curiosity Rover on January 31, 2014

Earth, as seen from Mars, by the Curiosity Rover on January 31, 2014

And not to be forgotten is the famous Pale Blue Dot image captured by Voyager 1 from a distance of six billion kilometers in 1990.

Summer on Mars versus winter in Canada

31 Dec


We all know that it gets cold in Canada in the winter. It was -30° in Winnipeg today (and reportedly touched -50°C with the windchill early in the morning). And it routinely gets even colder.

We also think of Mars as a cold, desolate world – and it is. But it is also a world of weather. It has wind, snow, and seasons.

And as we’re enjoying winter here in Canada, it’s actually warmer in the southern hemisphere on Mars where the Curiosity rover is roving around these days. It continues to trek towards Mount Sharp in the Gale Crater.

The best part of this: summer on Mars can actually get comfortably warm. Temperatures on Mars can reach 20°C. Though in the winters it drops as low as -150°C. (read more about Mars’ climate here)

All the same, it’s still fun to think about the times that it’s warmer on Mars than it is here on Earth.


(for those concerned, it’s a balmy -8°C here in Toronto today)

First view of Earth from space in October 1946

29 Oct

On October 24, 1946 – long before the cold war, space race, or even satellites – humanity gleaned its first view of home from orbital altitude:

The first photo from space was taken on October 24, 1946 atop a V2 rocket

The first photo from space was taken on October 24, 1946 atop a V2 rocket

This photo was taken using a 35mm television camera that was attached to a V2 rocket that was launched from New Mexico.

Following the end of World War 2, and the Allies capturing German technology, this rocket was used for science rather than destruction.

Here’s the original newsreel of this V2 flight from October 1946:

It’s important to note though that this image, while being the first from orbital altitude, is not the first image from orbit – since the V2 rocket in this flight never actually went into orbit. It simply went straight up – 105 km straight up – and then straight back down.

Nevertheless seeing our blue marble (or black and white marble, as the case may be) from such a perspective was an important milestone. Nowadays, a significant number of our satellites are actually pointed back down towards Earth, and astronauts aboard the International Space Station spend a significant amount of their time likewise observing Earth.

This perspective is a meaningful one and helps us to better understand how our planet actually works. For more on this, check out an awesome website: The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth, hosted by NASA’s Johnson Space Center.