The scientific, and increasingly popular, obsession with researching heavenly bodies may seem extremely puzzling. Here on Earth, we might seem isolated from the universe, the only connection between us and the planets, meteoroids, stars and other cosmic objects being the pretty lights in the sky. However (although I’m sure astrophysicists will tell you that a perk of their job is the fact that they can stargaze and not seem like romantic idiots), feeling disconnected from the universe is a complete illusion. The planets surrounding us in orbit around the Sun were all formed from the same clouds of hot gas left by the Sun’s formation. Expanding that thought, each star is made out of the same hydrogen gas originating from less than a nanosecond after the Big Bang. So clearly we are connected. This means that, in learning about the universe, we learn about Earth, the past of Earth and, most excitingly, Earth’s future.

curiosity rover
The Mars Curiosity rover

Out of all exotic matter, we seem most interested in the workings of the planet next door, Mars. Our neighbour is remarkably similar to Earth, in that it is a terrestrial planet, and once had a molten lava magnetic core and a thick gas atmosphere. Crucially, however, Mars is approximately half the volume of Earth, and the processes occurring in its core were therefore on a correspondingly smaller scale which meant that it cooled faster than Earth, resulting in its geologically dead state today.

The surface of Mars has an atmospheric pressure of 7 millibars compared to Earth’s average of 1000 millibars. This lack of pressure meant that for decades many scientists believed that any liquid water that might have existed on the surface would have evaporated. However, as of October 2013, scientists from the Mars Curiosity Rover have confirmed the existence of liquid water on the planet’s surface. The discovery of dry canyons in 1971 sparked a scientific battleground, finding polar ice caps in 1999 and finally to this, the discovery of an essential condition for life. Mudstones possessing minerals and calcium sulphate beds were found, which only form in the presence of water, and the rover discovered that “each cubic foot of soil has about two pints of water”.

Water is an essential chemical to develop life as we know it, so scientists researching extraterrestrial life narrow their search to planets which are able to possess it in liquid form. In practice, this means planets with an atmosphere. Even if we do not find an alien civilisation below the Red Planet’s surface, the discovery of even the most simplistic microbes would develop our understanding of the beginnings (and future) of life on Earth. And so the search continues…

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