With Perseverance about to land on Mars, our lead story asks the big question: What if there's nothing to find? But first, Inverse Daily Mars Week continues with a tribute to science fiction that has kept the planet alive in the minds of millions for over a century.
There are two eras: before and after Mariner 4, the 1964 NASA probe that changed the public perception of the planet. Before 1964, Mars was the setting for swashbuckling adventures like A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs or the home of would-be conquerers like the tripods from H.G Wells' The War of the Worlds.
But when Mariner 4 showed Mars to be a dry, lifeless planet, ideas of alien civilizations suddenly felt old-fashioned. While human settlements of Mars had been featured in fiction before Mariner 4, they quickly became the norm. Stories like Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars and TV shows like The Expanse showcase a Mars forced to deal with the same problem Earth has had for so long: humans.
Our question of the week is also Mars-based. You've somehow snagged the last ticket on a trip to Mars. What's one thing you would have to bring to the Red Planet? Be it sentimental or practical, we want to hear about it.
Respond in our Google form, and we'll post our favorite answers next week!
Bird's eye view — SpaceX Starlink: Photo shows how Falcon 9 missed birds with failed landing
Call off the barbecue. A million things could go wrong with any given launch into space, which is part of what makes the endeavor so difficult. SpaceX may have avoided a flame-grilled disaster with its latest launch.
On Monday at 10:59 p.m. Eastern time, the firm launched 60 satellites for its Starlink internet connectivity constellation. It was the sixth launch for this Falcon 9 booster, and the plan after Monday's launch was to land on the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship.
Unfortunately, the booster failed to land. Just as well, too, as the firm's live feed showed three birds perched on the ship's deck. The Falcon 9's Merlin engines, used to slow down the booster for a soft landing, could have charbroiled these feathered friends.
Want to know more about SpaceX's plans for Starlink? Subscribe to MUSK READS+ for exclusive interviews and analysis about all things Musk.
What they're saying: “Booster B1059 sacrificed itself when it saw birds. Rest in pieces.” —Ryan Herbison, YouTube commenter.
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Blast from the past — How does Neanderthal DNA affect Covid-19?
Covid-19 is still relatively new, but people have been getting sick for a long, long time. Even before there were people, our ancestors still got sick. So even though Covid is the new kid on the block, all that past experience could give us an important edge.
We've all heard about the risk factors associated with severe symptoms of Covid-19. Older individuals and people with certain comorbidities — such as lung disease or diabetes — face higher risks of hospitalization, and even death, from contracting SARS-CoV-2.
But two recent studies — one published last fall in Nature and another released this past week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — suggest we should look to a more evolutionary cause to explain why some people experience severe Covid and others don't.
The studies analyze two different Neanderthal chromosomes, finding that a haplotype — a group of genes inherited together — on one chromosome confers certain protections against severe symptoms of Covid-19, while a haplotype on another chromosome actually increases the risk of hospitalization associated with the virus.
What they're saying: “Our study highlights the evolutionary aspects of why some people get severely ill while others have experienced mild disease.” —Hugo Zeberg, one of the study co-authors from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, to Inverse.
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Woolly mammoths have a special place of wonder in the imagination. They're after the dinosaurs and co-existed with humans and they bear some similarities to animals we know today. But they're still so radically different than anything that currently exists. Finding new branches on the family tree is complicated when it comes to the ancient mammoths. You can't exactly send a spit sample to 23andMe.
The new finding is more than just the discovery of a long-lost family member. In one of three tusk samples discovered, scientists extracted the oldest DNA sample ever found. It's estimated to be 1.2 million years old.
What they're saying: “One of the big questions now is how far back in time we can go.” —Anders Götherström, a professor in molecular archaeology and joint research leader at the Center for Paleogenetics.
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Coming soon ...
If you drink coffee, you probably don't need to be convinced that you should drink more. But there's drinking coffee and then there's drinking coffee, if you catch my drift. Piping hot or ice cold, the drink has become a staple of work and pleasure around the world for decades. But coffee also comes with its own set of dangers.
Coming soon on Inverse, a look at five ways coffee can improve your life — if you use it wisely.
Road tripping — Tiny fossil reveals new truth about Neanderthal expansion
The ancient world is always keeping Inverse writers busy, and today is no exception. After spending decades tucked away in a private collection, a tiny, ancient relic has just transformed what scientists know about the southward expansion of Homo sapiens' best-known relative: Neanderthals.
Discovered close to 100 years ago, a tooth which likely belonged to a 9-year-old Neanderthal child has now been fully analyzed. Instead of upholding established beliefs about both Homo sapien tool use and Neanderthals' migration, the study's findings shatter a connection between these ancient peoples and their tools.
What they're saying: “We can't make a simple link between this technology and Homo sapiens.” —Jimbob Blinkhorn, the study's first author and a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
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Today, February 18, if everything goes as planned, an SUV-sized robot will touch down on the surface of Mars. After “seven minutes of terror,” NASA's Perseverance rover will begin on its quest to answer one of humanity's most pressing questions: Does life exist beyond Earth?
NASA's Perseverance rover is the first step in a campaign to bring back samples of dust and rock from the Red Planet to Earth. The reason: Mars is believed to have been habitable during its early history and the lasting signs of this habitability should still be visible in its rock.
But what if this free-wheeling astrobiology lab goes hunting for life and it's not actually there? If Perseverance's quest fails, scientists may have to rethink what causes life to bloom on a planet. All the signs suggest Mars once had the right conditions for habitability, but if the rover comes up empty, perhaps there is something scientists are missing: a “magic spark” needed for life to flourish.
What they're saying: “This is really the first opportunity to look for life.” —Jonathan Lunine, chair of the Department of Astronomy at Cornell University, to Inverse.
More like this:
- 7 minutes of terror: How NASA's Perseverance rover will land on Mars
- Perseverance rover: NASA's Mars explorer has an Earth twin
And if you're looking for more, check out the crucial superhero movie saga that's finally streaming on HBO Max.
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