Carrie Fisher and the Star Wars phenomenon

By David Walsh
29 December 2016

The death of actress Carrie Fisher on Tuesday at the relatively young age of 60, several days after suffering a heart attack aboard a flight from London to Los Angeles, has evoked expressions of grief from her many fans. The sadness over Fisher’s passing is compounded by the sudden death, just one day later, of her 84-year-old mother, the well-known actress Debbie Reynolds.

Carrie FIsher

Carrie Fisher achieved success not only as an actress but also as a writer and humorist. She was an appealing figure and personality. The daughter of actress Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, Fisher grew up in the entertainment business. When she was born in Beverly Hills in 1956, her mother was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Reynolds also had a successful recording career.

Carrie Fisher bore the numerous scars of this upbringing and this milieu, characterized by intense insecurity, instability and self-involvement. It is easy to scoff at the difficulties of someone who grows up in this affluent world, but the list of children of film, television and music stars who have done themselves in, one way or another, is tragically long. Fisher did not suffer that fate, but she certainly suffered. Her struggles with drugs and emotional problems are well-known.

At the age of 19, Fisher landed a leading role in the first Star Wars film (directed by George Lucas), as Princess Leia. She played the same role in two other films in the first series, and showed up again in one of the many sequels, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in 2015. She also appeared in several dozen other films, mostly in smaller parts.

Fisher also wrote several books, the best known of which is Postcards from the Edge (1987), a thinly and comically disguised portrait of her mother and herself. The novel was made into a mediocre film (1990) directed by Mike Nichols, with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. Reportedly, Fisher made a living in the 1990s as a “script doctor,” repairing or improving other people’s screenplays.

More recently, she adapted her memoir, Wishful Drinking (2008), into a one-woman show, which had some success in theaters in 2009-10. It was made into a television documentary and released by HBO in September 2011.

Fisher specialized, in her writings, in bringing out the surreal aspects of life as the child of “celebrities,” and then as a celebrity herself. There is a certain self-mocking and self-deprecating charm to her work. She could capture the desperation and absurdity of the pursuit of stardom, of those hoping “to get out of the anonymous frying pan and into the Hollywood fire”—and enumerate its tremendous psychic costs.

Fisher became an amused, skeptical observer of Hollywood, but not its mortal enemy. In another, more radicalized era perhaps, her insight and anger might have carried her much further to the left. As it was, in the stagnant 1980s and 90s, she didn’t travel terribly far. One has the sense that the overall social and artistic conditions never permitted Fisher to look with sufficiently objective and critical eyes at the milieu in which she grew up. She always remained tied to it by numerous strings.

In this age of celebrity worship, it comes as no surprise that the media coverage of Fisher’s death is out of all proportion to her actual achievements. No disrespect is intended here. But an honest evaluation of her career and talent could not avoid the conclusion that Fisher was not a major figure in the history of American cinema. Nevertheless, substantial portions of the national news have been devoted to her passing. In death, we discover, that she is an “icon,” a “legend,” and so forth. One suspects that Fisher herself would have laughed at this sort of media blather.

A.O. Scott, the New York Times film critic, enthused (in “Carrie Fisher, a Princess, a Rebel and a Brave Comic Voice”) that Fisher “entered popular culture as a princess in peril and endures as something much more complicated and interesting. Many things, really: a rebel commander; a witty internal critic of the celebrity machine; a teller of comic tales, true and embellished; an inspiring and cautionary avatar of excess and resilience; an emblem of the honesty we crave (and so rarely receive) from beloved purveyors of make-believe.” This is over the top, unnecessarily and substantially so.

The claims for Fisher are only partly inspired by her career, less than the individual writers and eulogizers may think. Much of the over-praise and flattery has to do with the Star Wars franchise itself and its enduring impact. The various commentators are pumping up this “legend” of a franchise as a means of elevating and legitimizing the last several decades of American filmmaking, without question the weakest decades in its history.

Whatever the intentions of George Lucas and others, and they may have been relatively innocent and light-hearted to begin with, there is no question but that Star Wars helped mark the transition in cinema terms to a period of banalization and decay.

The Oxford History of World Cinema explains: “The Hollywood film industry entered a new age in June 1975, with the release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Two years later, George Lucas’s Star Wars spectacularly confirmed that a single film could earn its studio hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, and convert a poor year into a triumph. The place of movies within the Hollywood production system changed: increasingly the focus was on high-cost, potentially highly lucrative ‘special attractions.’”

Walter Metz, in the Cambridge Companion to Modern American Culture, argues that “ Star Wars fundamentally changed Hollywood filmmaking at the aesthetic and narrative level but, in terms of the industry, merely returned the business toward the production of big-budget, mass audience blockbusters.”

Critic Robin Wood, discussing the “Lucas-Spielberg Syndrome,” notes that what was “worrying” about the phenomenon was the “enormous importance our society has conferred upon the [Star Wars] films.” The old serials made in the 1940s, which Star Wars was supposedly inspired by, had a “minor and marginal” role in the culture, Wood pointed out, and thus “they posed no threat to the co-existence of challenging, disturbing or genuinely distinguished Hollywood movies, which they often accompanied in their lowly capacity. Today it is becoming difficult for films that are not like Star Wars … to get made.”

This process is far more advanced today. Of course, the filmmakers were not responsible for the growing social indifference and turn to the right by substantial sections of the middle class. They merely reflected and carried forward the process. But there is no reason to mythologize Fisher’s Princess Leia, much less the Star Wars series as a whole.


Farewell, Carrie Fisher

…a woman whose words were a force for good in the universe

Princess Leia made her a symbol, but Fisher’s writing and unapologetic wit made her real in a way no film could

Farewell, Carrie Fisher, a woman whose words were a force for good in the universe
Carrie Fisher(Credit: Getty/Alberto E. Rodriguez)

Carrie Fisher is my icon. Literally. My Twitter account features graphic artist Leka’s rendering of Princess Leia with a David Bowie lightning bolt across her face, arms crossed and fixed heat gaze staring out at the world above the words “Rebel Rebel.”  To me, it represented a handy cross between two of my great loves, the Star Man and “Star Wars,” and more specifically, its princess who ruined me for all Disney princesses by teaching me that true rulers master their own destiny by saving themselves.

But it’s also meant to be a shout of creative defiance in a world increasingly set on squelching artistic rebellion, an idea linked more to the actress herself than to the character for which she’s beloved. The Imperial Senator from Alderaan may have exposed the world to Carrie Fisher, but her extraordinary writing, represented in novels such as “Surrender the Pink” and “Postcards from the Edge,” and memoirs, including “Wishful Drinking” and her latest, “The Princess Diarist,” revealed a saber-sharp wit and fearless sense of humor no one but the woman herself could accurately script.

“If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true,” she famously wrote, “and that would be unacceptable.”

Although Fisher starred in a number of films — her debut was 1975’s “Shampoo,” and she also appeared in “The Blues Brothers,” “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “When Harry Met Sally” — and went on to ply her writing talents as a script doctor, Fisher is most closely associated with the image of Leia Organa in 1977’s “Star Wars.” She was 19 when she took on the role of a woman we met as a princess. Nearly four decades later, she was still playing Leia, only now as a general of the rebellion in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Where Leia Organa provided the visible pattern for girls who didn’t buy into the idea of waiting for a man’s rescue and validation, Fisher herself inspired writers to be unafraid of digging into the parts of us that ache, to give words and laughter to the universal truths that pain and circumstance can reveal. Writing her way through her life’s darker scenes, including periods marked by heartbreak, addiction and mental illness, made Fisher exist in a fundamentally raw and genuine way that no onscreen role could capture.

“If you have a life like mine, then these experiences eventually accumulate until you become known as ‘a survivor.’ This is a term that I loathe,” she wrote in 2008’s “Wishful Drinking,” which she transformed into a one-woman show and an HBO documentary.

“But the thing is,” she added, “that when you are a survivor, which fine, I reluctantly agree that I am — and who over 40 isn’t? — when you are a survivor, in order to be a really good one, you have to keep getting in trouble to show off your gift.”

The news of Fisher’s death at the age of 60 has shaken people on a number fronts as we take stock of the deep chomps this horrible, Satanic sociopath of a year has taken out of our lives. The loss of Fisher feels as profoundly personal as it does universal, an ugly bookend to a year marked by gigantic lights snuffing out, beginning with the death of David Bowie last January.

Bowie’s passing marked the close of a meticulously chronicled story that had countless chapters, parts and guises, one whose resonance would be felt and honored long after its creator’s departure. The artist knew he was in the last stages of succumbing to cancer, though. He carefully planned his farewell statement to the world in the form of “Blackstar,” his final album.

Fisher’s death represents the fragility of expectation.  The actress and author was known for her brash outspokenness, emphasizing the healing power humor and cleverness have over personal tragedy. And she departed suddenly, at the end of what should have been an ordinary flight home from London, where, according to Variety, she had been filming episodes of the Amazon/Channel 4 comedy “Catastrophe.”

Last week, while sailing through the clouds, she suffered a massive heart attack and spent several days on life support before dying on Tuesday morning.

From all appearances, including her final televised visit to “The Graham Norton Show” recorded while she was in Britain, Fisher seemed well and ready to get in a lot more trouble. Her appearances in upcoming “Star Wars” chapters Episode VIII and Episode IX were a given; her demise reminds us not to take anything for granted,

Until this terrible week, she even had a starring role on our short list of 2016’s joys, providing salve for a flaming sphincter of a 365-day span by confirming the fantasy so many nerd girls and boys had hoped for over the years. “Did they?” we wondered, and she let us know that yes, they did.

The actors who played Princess Leia and Han Solo (that would be Harrison Ford, for those of us living under a rock) enjoyed a torrid affair in 1976. Ford was married at the time, but bygones! The story created such delight at a time when so many of us wanted to celebrate something, anything, that very few “tsk-tsked” the revelation. Thank you for that, Carrie.

Fisher’s acceptance of Leia’s pop culture resiliency and that role’s impact on her life and career decades after her work in “A New Hope,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” was not merely an act of submission. In embracing Leia, Fisher also acknowledged her and her character’s role as a figure of feminist empowerment, an impact that shapes the “Star Wars” universe even now.

Had Fisher not given such an indelible performance as Leia (even before and after that awful “Return of the Jedi” gold bikini so popular on the convention cosplay circuit) we would not have gotten Daisy Ridley’s Rey as the inheritor to the Jedi line. Nor would we have Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) as the central hero of this season’s box office smash “Rogue One.”

The other side of that coin is that Leia’s enduring popularity forced to Fisher to turn into all the skids she encountered along the way. Between her parentage, her famously tumultuous marriage with Paul Simon, her  battles with substance abuse and her challenges living with bipolar disorder, Fisher’s life was well-chronicled by tabloids.

One might argue that she would have had to contend with paparazzi and prying even if she had never been associated with “Star Wars.” Fisher was born into a specific part that ensured her years would not be marked by privacy and quiet; she was the daughter of actress and performer Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, who died in 2010. Fisher described the duo in “Wishful Drinking” as “the Brad Pitt and the Jennifer Aniston of the last ‘50s, only slightly moreso — because they actually managed to procreate.”

“You’re not allowed to grow up with parents who are famous and then get into one of the biggest movies of all time and run around with famous people — it’s resented after a while,” Fisher observed in a 1983 Rolling Stone interview. “And I would always try to emphasize something really wrong with me, so that people wouldn’t be put off. There are a lot of epiphanies before you get to the satori, you know. And once it was proposed to me that it was all right to be like I am, I finally quit apologizing for it.”

For what? the interviewer, Carol Caldwell, asked. “For being something different. For being strong. Strength is a style. But this happens in acting a lot. If you pretend something over and over, sometimes it comes true.”

Fisher is survived by her brother, Todd Fisher, her mother and her daughter, actress Billie Lourd. Her legacy of strength, her incredible intellect, her emphasis on laughing in the face of despair and her rebelliousness survive her as well. All of that blends into our portrait of her as a heroine, both in a world that devastated by her departure, and the one that exists only in our imagination.

Socialism in one galaxy? Star Trek.

Fifty years after it debuted on network television, Nicole Colson considers the legacy of Star Trek–and the idea of a society that meets the needs of the many, not just the few.

Uhura and Kirk during the classic Star Trek episode "Plato's Stepchildren"

Uhura and Kirk during the classic Star Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”

ON SEPTEMBER 8, 1966, a new show debuted on American television.

Billed by creator Gene Roddenberry as “Wagon Train in space,” for its loyal viewers–and legions more to come over the following five decades–the voyage of the starship Enterprise and its 23rd century crew, as it carried out its mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no [one] has gone before,” would permanently alter the landscape of popular culture.

Star Trek‘s cultural staying power came despite its failure to last on television. The “five-year mission” of the Enterprise lasted just three years–until 1969, when the show was canceled by NBC because of low ratings after 79 episodes.

In fact, the show barely made it to the air at all: In 1964, NBC passed on the first attempt at a pilot, declaring it “too cerebral.” A second attempt was filmed in 1965 when comedy legend Lucille Ball, who owned the studio that employed creator Rodenberry as a producer, personally intervened to persuade NBC to give the series another shot.

Despite its cancelation, the series–which was worked on by some of the premiere science fiction writers of the day–became a hit in broadcast syndication, firing the imagination of a wide audience.

Today, the original series continues to inspire legions of Trekkers, one of the most rabidly loyal fandoms in all of popular culture. It has spawned four syndicated spin-offs (with a fifth planned for next year)–and endless debates about the relative merits of each show’s captain in comparison to William Shatner’s James Tiberius Kirk.

Along with 13 movies (and counting), a complete language, and a rather unique brand of fan fiction, Star Trek stands as a testament to the desire of people for a vision of the future which is both recognizable to them, and better than the present.

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STAR TREK’S vision of the future was, in a word, cool. Geek toys and tech like tricorders, replicators and transporters suggest a future where technology has been harnessed to make life vastly better for the majority of people.

But as noted, the reason Star Trek continues to inspire such devotion 50 years after its premiere is because of what it says about people, not technology:

The original show’s most visionary aspects were social, not scientific, and that had everything to do with the times. The country was in turmoil, embroiled in Vietnam and the growing civil rights movement. Roddenberry said later that these events influenced many of the themes, as well as the multicultural makeup of the crew.

For a 1960s audience, the 23rd century world envisioned aboard the Enterprise was immediately notable for the fact that it was multiracial and included women in positions of importance among the crew.

In the original series, despite the roles for women being somewhat limited–with the exception of Lt. Uhura, they are primarily nurses, junior officers and scantily clad alien and human love interests for Kirk–a vision of the future in which women are defined primarily through their work as opposed to their husbands, children or home-making abilities was rare on television.

(It has to be admitted, however, that the female crewmembers’ uniforms were utterly sexist, as even Roddenberry’s partner Majel Barrett would later concede.)

At the height of the civil rights movement and the Cold War, the fact that a show could assert that a superior, advanced human society was one in which white Americans lived and worked side by side on a mission of peaceful exploration with not only aliens, but Russians (Chekov) and people of Japanese descent (Sulu), as well as African Americans (Uhura), mattered in the larger cultural context.

According to Whoopi Goldberg, who would later play Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the impact of being able to see Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura was life-changing. “[W]hen I was 9 years old, Star Trek came on,” Goldberg said. “I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a Black lady on television, and she ain’t no maid!”

Martin Luther King himself considered Nichols’ Uhura to be “the first non-stereotypical role portrayed by a Black woman in television history.” When Nichols was thinking of leaving the show for Broadway, it was King who convinced her to stay with Star Trek. As Nichols recounted:

Dr. Martin Luther King, quite some time after I’d first met him, approached me and said something along the lines of “Nichelle, whether you like it or not, you have become a symbol. If you leave, they can replace you with a blonde-haired white girl, and it will be like you were never there. What you’ve accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay.”…I saw that this was bigger than just me.

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ONLY THE willfully ignorant could pretend not to see the message Roddenberry was intent on sending, as he frequently and gleefully pushed buttons. In “Plato’s Stepchildren,” an episode broadcast in 1968, Nichols and Shatner shared what is widely cited (though the matter is hotly debated) as the first interracial kiss on U.S. television.

Skittish network executives worried about the audience reaction and tried to squash the kiss, but Shatner hilariously ruined all of the alternative takes with his famous! punctuated! delivery! and even, in one take, crossed his eyes to ruin the shot. Nichols recounted in her autobiography:

Knowing that Gene was determined to air the real kiss, Bill shook me and hissed menacingly in his best ham-fisted Kirkian staccato delivery, “I! WON’T! KISS! YOU! I! WON’T! KISS! YOU!”

It was absolutely awful, and we were hysterical and ecstatic. The director was beside himself, and still determined to get the kissless shot…

The last shot, which looked okay on the set, actually had Bill wildly crossing his eyes. It was so corny and just plain bad it was unusable…I guess they figured we were going to be canceled in a few months anyway. And so the kiss stayed.

Critics today sometimes declare the scene a “cop out”–since the kiss isn’t a result of genuine desire, but of aliens telepathically forcing Kirk and Uhura to kiss against their will. But that misses the larger context of what it took to even get it on the air at a time when the Supreme Court decision striking down bans on interracial marriage had only just been handed down the year before.

Other episodes, like “Space Seed,” which introduced the character of Khan Noonien Singh–a genetically engineered “ubermensch” who, the show tells us, was part of “Eugenics wars” that broke out on Earth in the late 20th century–raise the specter of racism as a threat to the continued existence of humanity.

(While Kirk fails the “of course you should kill Hitler if you have the chance, you dummy” test, since Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan gifted us with one of the best moments of scenery-chewing ever committed to film, however, he can perhaps be forgiven.)

Another episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” famously featured Frank Gorshin (the Riddler on TV’s Batman) in a story about a species divided into two races–and mortal enemies–by skin color. Resembling alien black-and-white cookies, one race has a left side that is white and a right side that is black. The colors are reversed for the other race.

As Roddenberry explained, “Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.”

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BUT IF Star Trek’s vision of an inclusive society, in which various races live and work side by side without the specter of racism, is one of its main strengths, its conception of race overall is, paradoxically, sometimes also a weakness. Often, Star Trek–not only the original series, but spinoff series as well–slips dangerously close to essentialist notions of race.

In the 23rd century, racism no longer exists in the advanced civilization of the United Federation of Planets–yet time and again, species like the Klingons are portrayed as “naturally” warlike and violent; the Ferengi are “naturally” greedy; Romulans are “naturally” calculating and contemptuous of difference.

These species-wide characteristics are then used to set the species up as villains–and, more troubling, the audience is told in several instances that such “differences,” whether culturally ingrained or biological, should be respected.

This is where the contradictions at the heart of the Star Trek universe become most pronounced. (Though in the case of Deep Space Nine series, later seasons did at least examine this when it came to the characterization of the Ferengi and the Klingons.)

If Star Wars movies are essentially about the threat of space fascism and the resistance to it, then Star Trek is, at heart, about the hope for a sort of “space socialism”–a liberal, military-style socialism, but nevertheless one in which society is so technologically advanced that the material needs of the Federation’s inhabitants are met, allowing for the free and full development of individuals.

In the world of Star Trek, the availability of replicator technology generally means that anything you need can be beamed into existence. Yet because of the “Prime Directive”–the guiding principle of the Federation, which prohibits its members from interfering in the development of technologically backward alien societies–the Federation ostensibly ignores oppression, slavery and other horrors in less-developed societies, on the theory that working through these processes is part of a society’s internal development.

Since our heroes would never actually condone such oppressions, episodes often hinge on finding a way to skirt the letter of the Prime Directive–or in some cases, to justify inaction when individuals and even entire races, societies or planets face extinction.

The various Star Trek series broadly offer a critique of war and militarism even as they extol the Federation’s brand of liberal military intervention–a kind of United Nations in space. (In fact, the Charter of the United Federation of Planets actually drew text and inspiration from the UN Charter, as well as other sources.)

Though its internal logic is often convoluted or inconsistent–while replication technology has eliminated the need for money, there still are outposts, like that depicted in Deep Space Nine, which are run on a partially capitalist basis and where small businesses thrive, for example–Star Trek presents a vision of the future that is hopeful in its inclusivity and its suggestion of the possibility of a society free of deprivation and want.

As Captain Picard of The Next Generation series explains to several cryogenically frozen survivors of the 20th century when they are awoken onboard the Enterprise in the 24th century: “A lot has changed in the past 300 years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy…We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

In the Star Trek universe, without capitalist class relations to put the same kinds of strictures on people, individuals are free to develop themselves as they see fit. It’s one reason why the Borg–the most compelling villain from the Picard-era series–are so frightening. The Borg also provides for the material needs of its collective component worker members–but extinguishes all individuality among them. Individuals are assimilated, reduced to their work function as part of the hive–and nothing more.

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AS RODDENBERRY once explained, the show’s creators resisted the idea that TV audiences were too stupid or backward to appreciate the show’s message:

We believed that the often ridiculed mass audience is sick of this world’s petty nationalism and all its old ways and old hatreds, and that people are not only willing but anxious to think beyond most petty beliefs that have for so long kept mankind divided. So you see that the formula, the magic ingredient that many people keep seeking and many of them keep missing is really not in Star Trek. It is in the audience. There is an intelligent life form out on the other side of that television, too…

What Star Trek proves, as faulty as individual episodes could be, is that the much-maligned common man and common woman has an enormous hunger for brotherhood. They are ready for the 23rd century now, and they are light years ahead of their petty governments and their visionless leaders.

But that creates a problem: How to create compelling characters and stories when the foundation of so much drama is precisely the kind of petty conflict that supposedly doesn’t have a place in the Star Trek universe?

As Manu Saadia, author of the recent book Trekonomics, explained to Wired’s “Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy” podcast:

[The characters] are consistent with the economic circumstances in which they live. Imagine yourself growing up in a society where there is never any want or need or financial insecurity of any sort. You will be a very different person. You will be absolutely uninterested in conspicuous consumption…You will probably be interested in things of a higher nature–the cultivation of the mind, education, love, art and discovery. And so these people are very stoic in that sense, because they have no worldly interests that we today could relate to…

I usually say that they’re all aliens, in a way. My friend Chris [Black], who wrote on [The Next Generation], said it was really hard for the writers, because it’s a workplace drama, but there’s no drama.

That’s similar to what Karl Marx wrote in The German Ideology about the ways in which capitalism constrains human activity by alienating workers from their labor:

For as soon as the distribution of labor comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society…society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

In the Star Trek universe, I can be a ship’s captain in the morning, a detective in the afternoon, a winemaker in the evening, and a flute player after dinner (assuming my ship doesn’t get attacked by hostile Romulans that day, that is).

As the eminently logical Mr. Spock might have put it, the Star Trek universe is one in which humanity has determined that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one” (percent, that is).

“The human race is a remarkable creature, one with great potential,” Gene Roddenberry said, “and I hope that Star Trek has helped to show us what we can be if we believe in ourselves and our abilities.”

It’s up to the audience to go boldly–and make it so.

Potentially Earth-like planet found in habitable zone of nearest star

By Don Barrett
27 August 2016

A team of 31 astronomers from 13 institutions around the globe have announced the discovery of a planet slightly more massive than Earth orbiting in the habitable zone of the nearest star to our Solar System. The results were published in Nature on 25 August.

The planet, Proxima b, was discovered by ground-based observations using what is known as the radial velocity method. This method takes advantage of the fact that starlight is a composite of a whole spectrum of colors and that the gravitational tug of a planet on a parent star produces distinct fingerprints in the emitted light that can be observed from Earth. Essentially, one can watch how the motion of a star is influenced by an orbiting planet. (See: Earth-sized planet in a star’s habitable zone confirmed)

Proxima Centauri in the sky of the Southern hemisphere. Credit: European Southern Observatory

This method is different from how the Kepler spacecraft discovers exoplanets, which instead looks at periodic drops in the intensity of light coming from a star to infer the existence of a planet, which passes between the star and the observer in its orbit, blocking some of the light. However, the two techniques are complementary. While Kepler indicates roughly an exoplanet’s size, a study of the changing spectrum of a star tells us the lower limit of an exoplanet’s mass.

As a result of this, the astronomers calculated that Proxima b is at least 1.3 times the Earth’s mass, though we have no knowledge yet of its size, its composition or the nature of its atmosphere (if any). Our limited knowledge of solar systems suggests that such a planet would be of rocky composition and retain some sort of atmosphere.

What makes this system most unlike the Earth and Sun is the parent star. Proxima Centauri is a star only 12 percent the mass of the Sun, a “red dwarf”, and this low mass is reflected in vastly different physical characteristics. The star is about 12 percent the Sun’s size, half its temperature and a fraction of its brightness. Despite the fact that it is the nearest star to our Solar System, Proxima Centauri is 100 times too faint to see with the naked eye.

Since Proxima Centauri is so dim, its habitable zone, the orbit where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface, is much closer to the star than the Sun’s. Proxima b, which orbits its star at 5 percent the distance between the Earth and Sun, about 4.6 million miles, falls within that zone. It receives about 60 percent of the radiation that Earth does.

Such a close world would find its rotation locked to its orbit over a timescale short compared to the life of the system—just as Mercury is locked to our Sun and the Moon to the Earth. Depending on the nature of the lock, it could be that only one hemisphere is illuminated, the other remaining in perpetual darkness, just as the Moon shows only one face to the Earth.

A comparison of the Proxima Centauri system to our own Solar System. Credit: European Southern Observatory

Another possibility is that the orbit and rotation are intertwined such that the same face of the planet is aligned to the star during the planet’s closest approach. This would mean that if liquid water exists, it may occur only near the Equator or towards the center of a perpetually sunlit hemisphere.

The close orbit produces another challenge to potential habitability: while the star, even so near, provides less heat than the Sun, it can irradiate the planet’s surface irregularly with ultraviolet and x-ray bursts 400 times that delivered by the Sun to Earth. The impact on the planet’s atmosphere over the long term is unknown.

If human beings set foot on Proxima b, they will find the view of the sky considerably different from that on Earth. Proxima would appear three times the Sun’s size in the sky. The nearby binary components of Alpha Centauri A and B would outshine our own Venus by a factor of 10, and appear to the eye as a barely resolvable star-like pair. Other stars would be invisible from the star-lit side of the planet.

The discovery of Proxima b comes 21 years after the first detection of a planet around another ordinary star. In that time, over 3,500 such planets have been found. Nearly 1 billion stars have now been cataloged, but detection of the smaller, lighter and immensely fainter planets around them represents a considerable technical challenge. This is true for all methods of finding exoplanets.

The nearness of Proxima b means it stands as a sterling target for further inquiry toward an understanding of Earth-like worlds. It has also ignited the imagination of millions of people around the world as they wonder at a planet potentially like Earth that is, with some esoteric but feasible ideas for space travel, not so far away.

Astronomers detect gravitational waves predicted by Einstein

By Will Morrow
12 February 2016

Astronomers from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) Collaboration have published the first detection of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space and time. The announcement comes almost exactly a century after Albert Einstein, in mid-1916, predicted the existence of the waves on the basis of his Theory of General Relativity.

The findings were announced at a press conference at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. on Thursday morning. They open up a new era in humanity’s efforts to investigate the universal laws of the motion of matter. Until now, there has been no way to directly detect the subtle gravitational vibrations which pass continuously through Earth as they do throughout the Universe. Now, however, a new spectrum of gravitational wave astronomy has begun, allowing scientists to examine regions of the cosmos previously excluded from study.

The detected wave was generated by the merger of two black holes more than one billion light years from Earth. Today’s announcement, therefore, contains two separate discoveries: the detection of gravitational waves and the first-ever observation of a black-hole binary merger, an event which had been theoretically predicted, but never seen. Black holes are so gravitationally strong that even light cannot escape their pull, which has prevented us from directly observing them until now.

The three stages of the collision of two black holes – inspiral, merger and ringdown – illustrated above. The signal detected by the two LIGO instruments is superimposed across the bottom. Credit: LIGO, NSF, Aurore Simonnet (Sonoma State U.)

The paper published today in the journal Physical Review Letters is titled, “Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger.” It is jointly authored by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and another gravitational wave detector team, the VIRGO Collaboration. A second paper has also been published outlining the astrophysical implications of the discovery. In total, twelve publications have resulted from this discovery with many more to come.

According to the first paper, the wave passed through Earth on September 14, 2015, at 09:50:45 UTC. This was just two days into the first three-month run by the LIGO detectors after they had received a major upgrade over the previous five years. The two detectors are located in Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington, both in the United States. The wave was observed at both detectors, with a seven millisecond delay between the two.

The most intense part of the wave passed in a fleeting quarter of a second. In this time, the wave frequency increased from 35 to 150 Hz, as the relative velocity of the black holes sped up to half the speed of light. Just before merging, they were orbiting each other seventy five times per second and separated by just 350 kilometres. Nothing other than black holes would be compact enough to reach such speeds at this proximity.

The two black holes weighed approximately 29 and 36 times the mass of our Sun before the merger. But the final black hole weighs just 62 solar masses—three less than the sum of its constituents. The missing three solar masses were radiated away as energy in gravitational waves, distorting and bending the surrounding spacetime.

Put another way, in the last moments of the collision, the power radiated away by gravitational waves peaked at more than fifty times greater than the combined visible radiation of every star and gas cloud in the Universe. It is the most energetic event ever detected.

A computer simulation of the collision of two black holes. Time has been slowed down one hundred times to more clearly observe the inspiral, merger and ringdown. Credit: SXS Project

When speaking about gravitational waves, the obvious question is: what is “waving?”

The existence of these waves flowed from the new equations of gravity which Einstein developed in 1915. The classical theory of gravity, which had been established by Isaac Newton, described it as a force acting instantaneously at a distance between any two objects with mass. Moreover, gravitational interactions were seen to take place against a completely fixed backdrop of space and time, itself completely independent from the motion of matter.

With Einstein’s theory, space and time were seen as a unified, dynamic entity. Gravity is the result of the warping of spacetime by the local presence of mass and energy. Moreover, while mass/energy warps spacetime, the curvature of spacetime itself tells matter how to move. (A more comprehensive review of the development and theory of General Relativity can be read here.)

A classic analogy is to consider the four-dimensional spacetime as a two-dimensional flat elastic sheet. Placing a mass on the sheet causes it to bend, and alters the motion of other nearby bodies. Gravitational waves can also be understood with this analogy. Wiggling a very heavy mass very quickly on the sheet will generate ripples, as the membrane seeks to overcome the local build-up of stress by releasing tension outwards. In the case of gravitational waves, what is “wiggling” is the lengths of spacetime.

Albert Einstein in 1921

Before yesterday’s announcement, there had already been strong indirect evidence for gravity waves. Two orbiting neutron stars, discovered in 1974 by Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor, were seen to slowly approach one another at the rate predicted by their expected gravitational wave emission.

Direct detection of gravitational waves is far more challenging. Gravity is by far the weakest force, and only enormous masses changing their orientation rapidly can make appreciable waves in spacetime. Why gravity is much weaker than the other fundamental forces in nature remains a central question in physics.

To detect these waves, LIGO uses two lasers shooting down two four-kilometre tracks that are at right angles to each other. As a gravitational wave passes across the tracks, one track lengthens and one track contracts. This is revealed in the interference of the two lasers when they meet at the base of the tracks. But the change is exceedingly small: the detected gravitational wave made each four-kilometre track change in length by less than one thousandth of the width of a proton.

This means the apparatus effectively had to measure the distance between Earth and the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, to the accuracy of the width of a human hair. The experiment is the most precise humans have ever conducted.

The gravitational waves of the inspiraling black holes converted to sound. The lower pitched ‘chirps’ exactly match the frequencies of the gravitational waves. The higher pitched chirps have been generated to better fit human hearing. Credit: LIGO Collaboration

To reach the sensitivity required, the scientists had to develop novel means of suppressing “noise” caused by vibrations of the mirrors from other sources. The detector is sensitive to the crashing of waves on the shore hundreds of kilometres away, wind outside the facility, and thermal vibrations due to heating of the mirrors by the laser itself. As well as using a complicated system of pulleys and magnetic vibrational suppressors, and placing the detectors in a vacuum, the LIGO team also requires that any signal on one detector is seen on the other, to rule out the possibility of a local event being falsely reported as a gravitational wave originating in deep space.

The success of this experiment is the product of more than two decades of scientific collaboration involving researchers from all over the world. The LIGO Scientific Collaboration includes more than 1,000 scientists, including contributors from Japan, Germany, India, Italy, Russia, China and Australia, as well as the United States.

The recently upgraded “Advanced” LIGO detector is the most sophisticated of a new generation of gravity interferometers. The original LIGO was first proposed in 1989 and gained funding in 1992, with the aim of demonstrating the feasibility of the experiment. New upgrades, based on technologies that would be developed later, were planned from the outset.

Over the same period, increased computational power and techniques have opened up the field of numerical relativity, which was not previously possible due to the enormous computational complexity of Einstein’s equations. These simulations allowed the LIGO team to compare their detection with the theoretically predicted signal from a black hole binary merger.

The binary black hole merger that created GW150914 happened in Earth’s southern hemisphere approximately 1.3 billion light years away. The colored lines are regions where the signal likely originated. The exact location cannot be determined with the data of only two detectors. A third will enter service later this year. Credit: LIGO Collaboration

Other detectors already exist, and are being upgraded or built. These include the VIRGO detector in Italy and the KAGRA detector in Japan. There are also plans for another LIGO detector in India. Earlier this year, the LISA Pathfinder mission was launched into space, with the aim of testing the technologies for a space-based gravitational wave detector. Having an array of detectors will allow astronomers to triangulate the wave signal and pinpoint the source location, meaning astronomers using conventional electromagnetic telescopes can be notified of where to point their detectors.

The opening up of gravitational wave astronomy has vast implications. It will provide for tests of the validity of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity in the domain of very strong fields and high speeds, such as around black holes. It also allows us to look into the interior of neutron stars, whose incredible densities offer a physical laboratory that could not be replicated on Earth. Moreover, while dust and other matter obscure our observation of the distant universe using light, gravitational waves—because they interact so weakly with matter—reach us relatively unimpeded.

But as well as providing some answers, the introduction of an entirely new, gravitational spectrum will undoubtedly raise new, and entirely unexpected, questions. As Kip Thorne, a LIGO co-founder and a world expert in relativity theory, commented to Physics World: “LIGO has opened a new window on the universe—a gravitational-wave window. Each time a new window has opened up there have been big surprises—LIGO is just the beginning. Until now, we as scientists have only seen warped space-time, when it’s very calm. It’s as though we’d only seen the surface of the ocean on a very calm day when it’s quite glassy. We had never seen the ocean in a storm, with crashing waves. All of that changed on 14 September 2015. The colliding black holes that produced these gravitational waves created a violent storm in the fabric of space and time. A storm in which time speeded up and slowed down, speeded up again.”

The Martian: A modern Robinson Crusoe

By David Walsh
7 October 2015

Directed by Ridley Scott, written by Drew Goddard, based on the novel by Andy Weir

Veteran director Ridley Scott’s science fiction film The Martian is based on the 2011 novel by American author Andy Weir. In the movie’s opening scene the crew of the Ares III manned mission to Mars is forced to abandon their plans and leave the planet when a severe, hurricane-like sandstorm descends on them. Unavoidably left behind is crew member Mark Watney (Matt Damon), presumed to be dead after being struck by communications equipment and separated from the others during the storm.

Matt Damon in The Martian

Watney, in fact, survives the disaster and is able to treat his injuries. He finds the living and working quarters the crew had set up (“the Hab”) intact and has enough food for several hundred Martian days, or sols (each sol is some 24 hours, 40 minutes). However, he is alone on the desolate planet, tens of millions of kilometers from home. Watney has no means of communicating with Earth, because of the destruction of the communication gear in the tempest, and the next manned mission is not scheduled for another four years. How can he survive that long and how can he travel to the location of that mission’s landing, some 3,200 kilometers away?

A botanist (and a mechanical engineer, at least in the Weir novel), Watney sets about solving his various problems. He grows potatoes inside the habitat’s artificial environment and begins to modify his only vehicle, a rover, to make possible much longer trips.

Meanwhile, on Earth, satellite photos of Mars make clear to NASA engineers in Houston, Texas that Watney is alive and moving around. NASA director Terry Sanders (Jeff Daniels) orders his staff not to inform the surviving members of the Ares mission, now on board the Hermes spacecraft heading home, that Watney is alive, for fear of distracting them. Watney cleverly locates and digs up the Pathfinder probe, inactive since 1997 and uses it to begin communicating with NASA.

NASA officials and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California debate various plans for rescuing the stranded astronaut. They agree to send a probe to Mars to resupply Watney so he can last another several years on the planet. In their efforts to speed up the process, however, they take shortcuts that result in disaster. Watney experiences his own disaster on Mars, which wipes out his potato crop.

Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor

Now what? The Chinese space program then enters the picture, as does a young, brilliant astrodynamicist. The Ares III crew itself has a life-and-death decision to make …

Although The Martian grows tedious from time to time in the course of its two hours and 20 minutes, its central motif—the massive effort, which is eventually followed by masses of people all over the globe, to save one man—is a humane and intriguing one. A large number of people cooperate, and not in pursuit of money or celebrity, to save a single life.

In his novel, Weir writes: “If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception.”

It is moving when the film reaches its denouement and Watney’s fate, along with the fate of the rest of the Ares III crew, is decided. One certainly feels for his situation and emphatically hopes for his safe return.

As opposed to Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón), with its quasi-religious imagery, andInterstellar (Christopher Nolan), with its murky dystopianism, The Martian(aside from one brief flirtation with a crucifix) aspires to be an eminently practical film, with its paean to “Yankee ingenuity” and stick-to-itiveness. Having decided that “I am not going to die on this planet,” Watney sets out his various tasks and performs them, one by one.

Jessica Chastain

The scientific-technical challenges and solutions are interesting, occasionally fascinating: Watney’s agricultural experiments, his discovery of a method to create water, his transformation of his rover vehicle, his retrieval of the Pathfinder probe and his re-establishing of communication with Earth, NASA’s various rescue plans, the final effort to intercept him in space. (The decision to paint the Chinese space program and officials in a positive light, given current US government policies, has to be considered almost an act of bravery.)

Unfortunately, when the film goes beyond the limits of depicting those practical tasks, it falters badly. One of the considerable difficulties The Martian faces is its literary-intellectual source. Weir, the son of an accelerator physicist and an electrical engineer, is a capable organizer-summarizer of materials and problems, and apparently knows his science (according to various publications), but he is not an artistically gifted writer.

Much of the novel consists of descriptions of various physical and chemical processes and Watney’s interventions in those processes, a sort of “How-to” manual for surviving in an enormously hostile environment, interspersed with essentially puerile monologues (Watney’s) or dialogue. The labored “jokiness” is particularly grating.

A few examples:

“Problem is (follow me closely here, the science is pretty complicated), if I cut a hole in the Hab, the air won’t stay inside anymore.”

“I tested the brackets by hitting them with rocks. This kind of sophistication is what we interplanetary scientists are known for.”

“But in the end, if everything goes to plan, I’ll have 92 square meters of crop-able soil. Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!”

“Back on Earth, universities and governments are willing to pay millions to get their hands on Mars rocks. I’m using them as ballast.”

This sort of wittiness, which is genuinely amusing one-tenth of the time, goes on ad infinitum. Along with references to disco music, Star Wars, Iron Man,The Dukes of Hazzard and Three’s Company. Reading the novel is too much like spending a number of hours with a precocious and especially self-approving undergraduate science student who aspires to be a stand-up comic.

It is hard to believe that any human being could go through the terrifying and life-altering experiences Weir describes and remain so unrelentingly shallow. The various astronauts and cosmonauts to date may not have always been the most articulate or cultured individuals, but one has the impression that they responded with considerable seriousness to the immensity of space and the significance of their own activities.

Jeff Daniels

Why the heavy-handed humor in the original novel? Perhaps Weir felt that only through such an approach could he “make the medicine go down,” i.e., render palatable to the public a complex story about the science of space travel and space survival. If that is the case, then he underestimated his audience.

Perhaps more to the point, the contrast between the remarkable scientific achievements, on the one hand, and the unserious depiction of the human interactions, on the other, speaks to an American malaise at present: technological abundance combined with a terrible cultural and intellectual deficiency.

Although Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard, to their credit, have dropped a good deal of the juvenilia and their work has a generally more sober tone than the novel, a portion of the book’s flippancy makes its way into the film too (including at certain critical moments!). Fortunately for the filmmakers, Matt Damon is appealing enough to render some of the silliness unobjectionable.

The screenplay, unhappily, has retained the general flatness of the scenes on Earth, or added its own. Scott has a number of talented performers at his disposal, who struggle to make something of the oddly colorless and often drama-less dialogue and sequences, including Daniels as the NASA chief, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean as NASA mission directors and Kristen Wiig as the agency’s spokesperson. Wiig has almost nothing to do, except occasionally shoot a quizzical or bemused glance at one character or another, in a seeming reference to the comic films she is normally in, but which has nothing to do with The Martian.

In two small parts, Mackenzie Davis (as a satellite planner in NASA’s Mission Control Center) and Donald Glover (as the NASA astrodynamicist) are least touched by the “canned,” bureaucratic character of the NASA-JPL scenes.

Scott has now been making feature films long enough, since the late 1970s, that he is referred to in some quarters as a great director. Such a characterization confuses artistic greatness with canniness and box office success. Scott’s films are essentially products of the Hollywood blockbuster era that began in 1975, albeit seasoned with a somewhat “outsider” (British), quasi-artistic sensibility. Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Hannibal, American Gangster and The Counselor are distinguished by their “dark” and “edgy” visual flair, and often excessive brutality, but not by any important thematic confrontation with contemporary life.

In any event, Scott’s new film portrays a manned mission to Mars some time in the not too distant future. Science fiction indeed! No critic or anyone involved in the production has referred to the fact that the US shut down its manned space effort in 2011 for an indefinite period of time, thanks in large part to budget cuts, an event, as the WSWS noted at the time, of “considerable historical significance.”

Shortly after coming to office, the Obama administration cancelled a project that envisioned a return to the Moon by 2020, followed by a Mars mission using the Moon as a jumping-off point. The WSWS commented that the administration “proposed a manned mission to the asteroid belt by 2025, followed by a Mars flight, but pushed out so far into the future that it amounted to the tacit abandonment of any serious effort at manned space flight.”

The Christian Science Monitor, in July 2014, asked: “Will the US ever have [a] manned space program again?” The article noted that with its Space Launch System, a rocket system designed for launches into deep space, “NASA hopes to take a giant leap into deep space, but the US Government Accountability Office says that the space agency may not have enough money. According to a GAO estimate released Wednesday, NASA may be $400 million short to complete the project.” Billions and billions for the destruction of peoples and societies around the world, but not hundreds of millions for the exploration of space.

New discoveries show that Mars may have once been habitable

By Bryan Dyne
28 March 2015

A recent study using data from NASA’s Curiosity rover and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences present data showing the presence of nitrates on Mars. This molecule, composed of one nitrogen and three oxygen atoms, may indicate that there was once a nitrogen cycle on ancient Mars, one of the necessary mechanisms on a planet to sustain terrestrial-like life.

The Mars rover Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The research was undertaken with an international team led by Jennifer Stern using Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite. In earlier studies of Martian soils and rocks at Gale crater, nitrogen was detected in both scooped and drilled sediment samples. However, it was not clear whether the nitrogen detected was from the surrounding atmosphere, indicating molecular nitrogen, or from the rocks themselves, indicating nitrates. Using SAM and subtracting out the known sources of nitrogen within the instrument, Stern’s team was able to show that there were still up to 1100 parts per million (ppm) of nitrogen remaining, depending on the sample analyzed. From this, Stern’s team concluded that the nitrogen originated from the sediments and thus from nitrates.

Whether nitrogen is found in the atmosphere or in other forms plays an important role in biochemistry on Earth. While the majority of terrestrial nitrogen is in the atmosphere, making up 78 percent of the air we breath, it is in the inert form of molecular hydrogen (N2). To incorporate nitrogen into more complex molecules—such as nucleobases, amino acids, DNA, RNA and proteins—it must be in more accessible forms. The nitrate molecule (NO3) is one of the most prevalent and useful molecules seen on Earth for this purpose.

As such, the strong evidence of nitrates in a variety of different rocks and sediments on the Martian surface implies that, at a very early point in the planet’s history, there could have been large amounts of biologically useful nitrogen on the Red Planet.

Stern’s research complements a report released three weeks ago in Sciencewhich provides strong support for the existence of an ocean of liquid water on the surface of Mars during the planet’s early life. The ocean is estimated to have held more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean. That is enough water to cover the entire surface of Mars in liquid 137 meters deep. More likely, the ocean covered almost half Mars’ northern hemisphere and reached depths greater than 1.6 kilometers.

This is much larger than previous estimates of a primordial Martian ocean, meaning that the planet’s surface could have been wetter for much longer than estimated, perhaps 900 million years. Combined with a thicker, warmer atmosphere, volcanism on the surface and the presence of nitrates, this likely led to rich reservoirs containing the diverse chemical elements needed for life.

Artist conception of the primitive ocean the NASA suspects once existed on Mars

This second discovery was made by a team led Geronimo Villanueva, working with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the W.M. Keck Observatory and NASA Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii. Using detailed maps of the Martian atmosphere, the scientists were able to distinguish the chemical signatures of two slightly different isotopes of water. The first is the familiar H2O. The second is the more exotic form HDO, in which one hydrogen atom is replaced by one its more massive forms, deuterium.

By taking the ratio of H2O and HDO in Mars’ atmosphere and comparing it to those values found in water trapped in a 4.5 billion-year-old Martian meteorite, Villanueva’s team was able to measure the atmospheric change in the intervening time span and determine how much water escaped to space. The forthcoming MAVEN probe will take similar measurements.

These maps were made over the course of three Martian years, amounting to six years on Earth. Beyond showing that Mars once housed a massive ocean, the research also revealed seasonal changes and local weather patterns across what was previously thought to be a mostly homogenous desert climate.

Mars’ polar ice caps were also studied, using the same H2O and HDO ratio, as they are suspected to contain a more direct record of water on Mars from 3.7 billion years ago to the present. The researchers found that Mars once had at least 6.5 times the amount of water currently contained in the ice caps, meaning a volume of water on ancient Mars of at least 20 million cubic kilometers. This is in general agreement with the atmospheric study.

Both the nitrogen amounts and water levels now thought to have existed on ancient Mars lead to the question: Where did this all go? Mars today is a barren world with an atmosphere that is 96 percent carbon dioxide and less than 1 percent as thick as Earth’s. There is no liquid water on its surface and one has to dig before finding any indication of biologically useable material.

It is suspected that Mars lost its atmosphere to space. The results gathered by the Curiosity rover as a whole are in agreement with in situ atmospheric measurements made by the Viking landers from 1976 to 1982, when this idea first gained traction. The three main mechanisms for losing atmosphere include interactions between the atmosphere and the solar wind, a massive impact by an asteroid or other body, and/or the atmosphere escaping as a result of thermal motion and the planet’s relatively low gravity. It is not clear which of these mechanisms (if any) is primary.

The loss of the ocean is somewhat more mysterious. Neither the solar wind nor low Martian gravity can account for the loss of liquid water. As the planet cooled and the water froze, one way for the ocean to have disappeared is for the frozen water to sublime into water vapor in the atmosphere and then into space. A more interesting hypothesis is that the ocean didn’t go anywhere at all, but was covered up by sediment and dirt as it froze. If so, this would mean that a great deal of water ice is under the northern lowlands of Mars, the Vastitas Borealis basin. It is unknown how far down a probe would need to drill in order to test this idea.

A further question is posed: What is the possibility that life developed on early Mars?

While a great deal more research needs to be done on this subject, these two results are further evidence that at the very least, the conditions once existed on Mars for a life cycle to begin.