1. Ice on Mars — First direct detection of water on another world!
The Phoenix lander, which arrived on Mars this past May, has confirmed the presence of water ice in its samples. Although orbital data have previously provided strong evidence of ice on Mars, this represents the first direct detection of water on another world. Read the press release from NASA, or this article from the New York Times.
Classroom Discussion Points:
- What is the significance of establishing the presence of water on Mars? (Answer: Liquid water is considered to be a key requirement for Earth-like life. Although we’ve only found solid ice so far, the presence of ice suggests: (1) it could have been liquid in the past, as geological evidence suggests; (2) there could still be liquid water underground, where there may still be volcanic heat.)
- What’s next for our exploration of Mars? (Answer: Phoenix is still operating, as are the two rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and several orbiting spacecraft. All of these should continue to provide new data. The next major mission, the Mars Science Laboratory, is tentatively scheduled for launch in September 2009.)
2. Lakes on Titan confirmed
The Cassini mission continues to operate and Saturn orbit, where it periodically passes close by the amazing moon Titan. The mission earlier detected the presence of features that look like lakes on Titan’s surface, and recent observations confirm the presence of lakes on Titan. These are not lakes of liquid water — it is far too cold for water to be liquid on Titan — but rather lakes containing ethane (confirmed), methane, and other hydrocarbons.