Space

ESA have just signed a letter of intent to co-operate with NASA on a Mars sample return mission (see Agencies aim to bring back rocks from Mars). I hope this does not mean a change of focus for ESA, from in situ searches, to a sample return. This expensive NASA program is more of a geological sample return and technology demo than an astrobiology mission. It's not likely to resolve any of the central questions in astrobiology. Yet there is so much involved in ensuring that Earth's environment is protected, both legally and technically, that  it is unlikely that they are ready to return an unsterilized sample to Earth before 2040.

The reason we know so little about the polar regions is not lack of interest. The polar regions are of great interest, for instance the Martian dry ice geysers in Richardson crater, one of the most interesting dynamic processes on Mars and the polar regions also have astrobiological interest too. There are potential habitats there that might even have fresh liquid water within 7 cms of the surface, beneath clear ice - of all the unexpected things to find on Mars with its near vacuum atmosphere!

One of the most fundamental predictions of Einstein's theory of relativity is the existence of black holes.

Although gravitational waves from binary black holes have been detected, direct evidence using electromagnetic waves hasn't happened and astronomers are searching for it with radio telescopes.  But then how can you tell them apart? Radio images have a limited resolution and image fidelity and at realistic image resolutions, even highly non-Einsteinian black holes seem like normal black holes.

Lisa Pratt, the new planetary protection officer for NASA takes up her job at a challenging time for astrobiology. We are approaching a major decision point for Mars. If Elon Musk succeeds in his ambitious plans, then some time in the next couple of decades we may introduce trillions of hardy microbial spores to the planet. Not deliberately, but just because we can't help but take them with us wherever we go.

Lisa Pratt, the new planetary protection officer for NASA takes up her job at a challenging time for astrobiology. We are approaching a major decision point for Mars. If Elon Musk succeeds in his ambitious plans, then some time in the next couple of decades we may introduce trillions of hardy microbial spores to the planet. Not deliberately, but just because we can't help but take them with us wherever we go. This is a major quandary for astrobiology. But not just for astrobiologists. 

I think almost anyone would be saddened if we had this headline news story in the 2030s:

Titan might seem an unlikely place to for humans to build settlements, and maybe eventually colonize. After all, it is so far from the sun, and extraordinarily cold, and it's a long journey to get there (at present). But actually, if you set aside the difficulty of getting there, which we should overcome as our technology improves - it's got more going for it than you might think. This is an idea originally developed in some detail by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda Hendrix, authors of Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets

I think we should build our first offworld backup on the Moon. We can start by storing seeds there, similar to the Svalbard seed vault in Norway. Within a few years we should have easy access to the Moon, and then it will be easy to do. The lunar caves are naturally at the right temperature. Add a vacuum sealed packet of dried seeds to a rover that explores a suitable lunar cave, and leave it there at the end of the mission, inside the rover, and that's it.That's the start of a future seed vault. From small beginnings ... 

Elon Musk says there are two futures, to stay on Earth and eventually go extinct, or to become a "multi-planetary species". He says Mars is our "plan B". But there is a third possibility. 

SpaceX have a striking video showing Mars spinning faster and faster, transforming from the current red Mars to a planet with a small ocean and with the deserts tinged with green in seven revolutions.

Of course that is poetic exaggeration - it wouldn't terraform in a week. So how long would it take? Science fiction enthusiasts who have read Kim Stanley Robinson's "Mars Trilogy" may remember that in his book, it is terraformed in a couple of centuries. But that's science fiction, not a terraforming blue print.

We have been sending missions to Mars since the Mariner 4 flyby in 1964, and our first successful landing was Viking 1 in 1976, So, why can't astrobiologists answer the question definitively, when you ask them if there is life on Mars? 

 Well, perhaps it's because we haven’t looked.

You might think,