The Mars Rovers

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We may not have sent people to Mars yet, but in preparation, we have sent something else – Mars rovers.

Right now there are two rovers operating on the surface of Mars – the rover Opportunity, which launched in 2003, and the rover Curiosity, which launched in 2011.

Two rovers, built by humanity, are driving across the surface of another planet right now. It almost sounds like science fiction, or a prediction of the future, but it is real.

You can look up at the sky at night, find the red dot that is Mars, and know that at the very moment you are looking, there are two active human-built rovers driving around on that dot. It’s amazing to think about, especially when you realise that humanity only first learned how to build aircraft only just over 100 years ago.

These rovers are studying the Martian surface, analysing the ground, looking for signs of past water, analysing the atmosphere, and most importantly, looking for signs of past life.

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Any confirmation that forms of life used to exist on Mars in its ancient history would be tremendous news – the first discovery of life forms beyond Earth. Discovery of life on Mars would have huge consequences – if the planet next door also has life, then it is logical to assume that life must be teeming throughout the universe.

Alas, no signs of life have been detected yet. These rovers have helped to contribute to the discovery of water on Mars, however, which is a crucial ingredient for life.

The rovers have some good cameras on board, and regularly take photos of the Martian landscape. We have access to real images of a different planet right now. It sort of boggles the mind to think that we are looking at another planet when we look at these images.

What I find quite odd is just how familiar it all looks – for pretty much any of the images, you can say it was taken on Earth and that would be completely believable.

You can find a gallery of images here.

One of my favourite images is of a Martian sunset taken in 2005 – sunsets on Mars cause the sky to glow blue.

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It’s a nice flip from days on Earth – instead of blue days and red sunsets, Mars has red days and blue sunsets.

There are plans to launch a new rover to Mars in 2020. This rover will be more technologically advanced than any other rover sent, and will also look for signs of past life – as well as collecting samples of the Martian surface, which may in the future be returned to Earth for study in a new mission.

This mission may even include a small solar-powered helicopter drone – which could fly short distances to help pinpoint objects for study by the rover, and to map out a route for the rover. I hope this drone is included because I think it sounds so cool!

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There are a couple of rovers on Mars that are no longer operational. Communication can no longer be made with these, however we do know their approximate location.

I would not be surprised if in the future when manned travel to Mars is possible, these rovers may either be collected and displayed in museums, or have structures built around them to protect and showcase them. The same may happen to old Mars landers, and even lunar landers on the moon.

Rovers have not just been sent to Mars – there have been a few moon rovers as well, including some manned ones that were sent up during the Apollo moon landings. If you want to get technical, this means Elon Musk’s Telsa Roadster was not the first car sent to space!

Unmanned rovers in the future could be sent elsewhere in the solar system – we could have exploratory rovers on the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, perhaps Venus, and maybe even as far-flung as the moons of Uranus and Neptune, or Pluto.

We haven’t sent rovers to these places yet as the cost is much higher than sending one to Mars, and Mars is the most likely location in the solar system other than Earth to harbour signs of life.

But once this becomes easier in the future, sending rovers for lesser reasons, such as pure exploration, should become attainable. Photos of Jupiter from the surface of one of its moons would be incredible.

Imagine a rover landing on the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and taking images of the giant cryovolcanoes erupting material out into space with Saturn and its rings in the background!

I hope I am one day able to see things like this.

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The Bigfin Squid

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The deep ocean is home to some truly weird creatures. One such creature is the mysterious bigfin squid.

Almost nothing is known about this squid. All we really know about it is its appearance – it has incredibly long tentacles compared to the rest of its body, making it look sort of like an alien tripod from War of the Worlds.

We only have confirmation it exists from a few pieces of video footage, all accidentally captured by either exploration submersibles or oil tankers.

They exist deep below the surface – all sighted bigfins have been below 1.9km, with the deepest encountered so far being 4.7km below.

This video shows how truly long its tentacles are – and just how eerie and alien-looking this thing is.

The tentacles of a bigfin can be 15-20 times longer than its body. It is estimated that the bigfins observed have been around 8 meters long – though none have been measured directly, it has all been inferred from video footage.

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This does not make it the largest squid in the ocean – the giant squid and colossal squid are larger – but neither of those has such large tentacles in proportion to the rest of its body.

We don’t know how it mates, or eats. It is speculated that it may eat by dragging its tentacles slowly across the sea floor, scooping up edible food.

Imagine being a fish or some other creature chilling on the sea floor, only to have this horrific thing scoop you up with its tentacles!

It looks very different to other squids. The tentacles stick out of the side of its body before bending to dangle down – sort of like a spider with giant legs. It reminds me of a daddy long-legs, only huge, and underwater.

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It’s interesting to think of why exactly the bigfin has evolved in this way, to have such a long tentacle size compared to the rest of its body. What is the purpose? Why is it like that? We don’t know.

Something I like to think about is despite the fact we have only recently become aware of their existence, they have always been there – we just didn’t know about them. It’s fun to think that during the Stone Age, or the time of the Romans, or the Middle Ages, the bigfin squids were there, lurking around and being creepy.

Perhaps some washed ashore and were discovered, reinforcing the legends of sea monsters.

The deep ocean is the most unknown place on Earth. It is the only truly unexplored location left on this planet. We know so little about what is really down there. Are bigfins just the tip of the weird creatures that exist down there? How much is down there that we don’t yet know about?

Perhaps all the bigfins we have encountered were only babies, and there are much larger ones further below. We really have no idea!

The Colossal Squid

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You may have heard of the giant squid, the creature that battles with sperm whales in the deep, and may have served as the catalyst for the myth of the Kraken.

The giant squid is enormous. It is thought that they can grow to a size of 13 meters, one of the largest living creatures on Earth today.

But it is slightly topped by another creature that is not heard of as much – the colossal squid.

Continue reading “The Colossal Squid”

What would happen if a supervolcano erupted today?

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Perhaps one of the scariest things on Earth is the caldera of an ancient supervolcano. One of the most well-known is the Yellowstone Caldera at Yellowstone National Park in the United States.

This national park, one of the most beautiful places on Earth, was once the site of apocalyptic horror and destruction that affected the entire planet. This is the power of a supervolcano – and one day Yellowstone will erupt again.

Continue reading “What would happen if a supervolcano erupted today?”