As we like to say at The Planetary Society: space brings us together. So if you're expecting to gather with extended family on Thanksgiving, avoid the politics. Here are some conversation starters to use at the dinner table that everyone can engage in.
There is a robot landing on Mars this Monday
Emily Lakdawalla for The Planetary Society
Mars InSight landing infographic
Advance predictions for the details of InSight's landing made several weeks beforehand. Adjustments to the trajectories of InSight or Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter may change these times by up to several seconds, as could weather on landing day. All times include 8.1 minutes of one-way light time delay (accounting for the time it takes signals to travel from Mars to Earth). Abbreviations used in the labels: EDL = entry, descent, and landing; E = entry; T = touchdown; h m s = hours, minutes, and seconds; UT = Universal Time (subtract 8 hours for Pacific, 5 for Eastern, add 1 for European time, add 8 for Japan). Revised 15 November 2018 to correct an error in InSight's atmospheric entry speed.
NASA's InSight mission will land on Mars—one way or another—on Monday, November 26th, aka "Cyber Monday.” This mission will listen for Marsquakes and probe the depths of the planet to determine its inner structure, revealing new insights on the formation of our solar system and Earth. Tell your family they can take a break from work and watch it live on NASA TV starting at noon PT/3pm ET.
InSight is the latest in a series of Mars missions launched by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Indian space agency that have revolutionized our understanding of Mars in the last 20 years. Nearly everyone at the Thanksgiving table will have lived through this scientific revolution of the Red Planet, the only other planet in the solar system that has its own satellite communications network and is occupied entirely by robots.
Mars is even up in the early evening sky right now, so take a look after dinner and see if you can spot the red dot where humanity's next mission of scientific discovery will land.
There are oceans of liquid water in our own solar system that could host life
NASA / JPL-Caltech
Artist's concept of Europa's ocean and plumes
Based on new evidence from Jupiter's moon Europa, astronomers hypothesize that chloride salts bubble up from the icy moon's global liquid ocean and reach the frozen surface where they are bombarded with sulfur from volcanoes on Jupiter's innermost large moon, Io. The new findings propose answers to questions that have been debated since the days of NASA's Voyager and Galileo missions. This illustration of Europa (foreground), Jupiter (right) and Io (middle) is an artist's concept.
What would it mean if we found life floating (or swimming?) around in the dark oceans of distant moons? How would it change our understanding of biology? Would it provide new insights into medicine? What would be the philosophical implications of discovering a "second genesis” of life in our own solar system, and of the likelihood life exists elsewhere?
How could we stop an asteroid coming to hit Earth?
But we have to find them first. NASA and amateur astronomers around the world are looking, but so far we have no dedicated space telescope searching for NEOs. Is that a worthy investment by the world? Who should look for asteroids and which countries should have responsibility for deflecting one if it's on a collision course for Earth? How much of our survival should depend on luck, and how much should we invest into ensuring we are safe from such disasters?
If you could afford it, would you take a trip to space?
View from SpaceShipTwo of its rocket firing
The view from SpaceShipTwo's tail as her rocket motor fires during her first supersonic flight on April 29, 2013.
Tourists have visited the International Space Station, though they paid on the order of $20 million per visit. Now there are private new companies preparing to launch paying customers on suborbital flights (think up and down) into space for a mere $250,000 (give or take) per seat.
While space is so big that, statistically speaking, there may be other intelligent life out there, it's very possible they could be so far away that we will never communicate with them, much less visit. It's also possible we humans are the only ones out here. While it may be an awful waste of space, there's no reason that the cosmos should bend to our desires. People are listening and looking for signals, but there is no data yet.
Either way, the only thing you know for sure is that you exist right here and right now. This moment is guaranteed, but that's it. When you share a meal with friends and family, they are the only humans in the entire universe like them, and you the only human in the universe like you. Why ruin that with politics? Take the cosmic perspective. Enjoy the meal.