Since the start of a new year often brings predictions, here are my space-related prognostications. These may not come true in 2014, but there's a good chance some or all will occur over the lifetime of readers of this column.
A NASA rover on Mars, or perhaps one from another country, will discover liquid water on or near the surface. We have lots of intriguing but inconclusive evidence of liquid water appearing seasonally in places on Mars where one might expect it. In the near future, a rover will land at one of those locations and verify it is water.
Also, we will find life elsewhere in our solar system. On Earth, almost without fail, where there is water, there is life. We know there is water on Jupiter's moon Europa, in an ocean below its frozen surface, perhaps 60 to 100 miles deep. Saturn's moon Enceladus sports geysers of salty, mineral-laden water shooting from its surface, a phenomenon also discovered on Europa last month.
Maybe 10 or 20 years from now, a comet bright enough to see with the unaided eye will appear in our sky. The Oort cloud, from whence fizzled Comet ISON originated, contains trillions of them. We only need one to pass close enough to the sun to vaporize a lot of its icy body, but without being consumed, for us to see it. We're due.
There are tens of thousands of objects baseball-size or larger in orbit around Earth. The stuff is debris from the launches of various satellite and space ships humans put into orbit each year. Most are small, but some are larger than a bus. Eventually, it all will come back to Earth. Two-thirds of our planet's surface is water, so most returning debris lands in the ocean. Much of the remaining surface is deserts, rain forests or other uninhabited land. Only one person, a woman in Tulsa, is known to have been hit by re-entering space junk; she was shaken but unharmed. But that will change. Maybe next month, maybe next century, a major piece of space junk will land on a populated area and cause destruction and human death.
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