Over the past few days, spectacular images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope have shown the scene of a vast impact - roughly twice the length of Europe - which has scarred the surface of Jupiter, making this the second time in 15 years that such an event has taken place there. Spotted by Anthony Wesley, a '44-year-old computer programmer from a village north of Canberra', the impact of what is thought to have been a block of ice or small comet, left a 5,000 mile gash in the gaseous surface, described elsewhere as a massive black eye.
When Comet P Shoemaker-Levy 9 blasted its fragmentary self into the Jovian atmosphere between July 16th and 22nd, 1994, the world witnessed a shattering impact hundreds of millions of miles away that would surely have destroyed much of the biosphere including our civilisation had it occurred on here on Earth. Although such events were considered rare, the fact that almost 15 years to the day there has been a similar and completely unexpected impact, implies that not only that such occurrences are more frequent, but that we are vulnerable to even a small strike - the object that recently hit Jupiter is described as being 'twice the size of several football pitches', and the resulting explosion was thousands of times more powerful than the object that is thought to have exploded over Tunguska on June 30th, 1908.
Jupiter has in the past been described as acting as a cosmic shield for Earth, because its massive size and gravitational strength are thought to pull in large objects that might instead travel further into the solar system, where we currently reside. However, we cannot sit idly by and hope that Jupiter will catch everything hurtling through space on a trajectory with Earth, and there will certainly come a day when as in 1770, Jupiter actually diverts a comet in our direction, and quite possibly, directly at us.
By a fortuitous coincidence, this latest impact comes in the same month that Apollo astronauts have called for a manned mission to Mars, whilst President Obama has called for a rethink at NASA, and Tom Wolfe has commented on how the original plans to put humans on Mars have continually been put on hold over the past 40 years and Rand Simberg looks at the way in which NASA might change policy direction.
Apart from the fact that exploration of Mars by humans in the near future is not only technologically already possible (and would be of great interest to us all) it is becoming crystal clear that we need to have at least back-up system of human and other life somewhere away from this planet, and at the moment, by far the best candidate is Mars.
As far as we know, we are the only sentient beings alive in the Universe today - granted, many believe that the sheer scale and numbers of other galaxies makes it very likely that complex and intelligent life abounds across the Universe, but until we encounter it, we're on our own.
Elsewhere comes news of technologies which could be developed that would allow for a 39-day trip to Mars, significantly shorter than the marathon 6 months it would take using conventional hardware that's currently available.It remains to be seen which space agency spearheads a manned mission to Mars, there is the distinct possibility that ESA and NASA will join forces and send a joint expedition - not only would such a venture help to share costs, but underline the importance of sending various nationalities into space, to at least give the impression that this is an effort on behalf of humantiy in general rather than one nation in particular.
image from Wired