By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor
Roughly every two years, Mars makes its closest approach to Earth as the planets trace their orbital dance around the sun. The event not only makes the red planet a stunning sky-watching target, it affords space agencies their most efficient window for launching new Martian missions. This year brings one such fortuitous alignment, and it’s especially exciting because we should see a whopping three rovers from multiple countries set out on quests to find signs of life on Mars.
In July, NASA is slated to launch its Mars 2020 rover (artist’s rendition above), which will not only look for life, it will also collect rock samples for eventual return to Earth. Around the same time, The European Space Agency and the Russian Roscosmos will send up their Rosalind Franklin rover, which should drill into the red planet and hunt for microbial traces. Rounding out the trio, China’s space agency will attempt its first Martian landing with the launch of the rover-orbiter combo pack Huoxing-1, which will also be geared up to search for biosignatures.
Assuming everything goes to plan, these three missions will arrive at Mars in the spring of 2021. Who knows what, if anything, their various hunts might reveal, but I will be on pins and needles as the missions progress, eagerly anticipating the prospect of answering that most profound question: Are we alone in the solar system?
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Australia update: Now it's firestorms
Long tail: The wildfires devastating huge chunks of Australia are generating thunderstorms that produce lightning and winds that can carry dangerous embers for miles, Nat Geo’s Sarah Gibbens reports. Australia, which this year experienced its driest spring and hottest year, is seeing increasingly dangerous wildfires. Scientists say the firestorms there may increase as well. “With climate change, we should see higher-intensity fires, and with higher-intensity fires, one would expect to see more of these storms,” says Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta.
Today in a minute
The squeeze is on: Shallow and intensifying quakes have been occurring since Dec. 28 along three faults in Puerto Rico’s southwest region: Lajas Valley, Montalva Point, and the Guayanilla Canyon. The strongest so far, at 6.4 magnitude, happened early Tuesday just off the U.S. commonwealth's south coast, wrecking homes and a church and temporarily downing one of the island's main power plants. The quakes reflect a squeezing of the island by the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates, Nat Geo’s Maya Wei-Haas explains. Says the USGS's Susan Hough: "The entire island is an active plate boundary zone, just like California—earthquakes are fair game everywhere.”
Stopped: In a rare victory, Solomon Islanders got a company that was ruining the landscape in an illegal logging operation to leave. Despite fertile soil and plentiful irrigation, the recovery of mountainsides and streams will be slow, John Beck reports for Nat Geo.
Dinosaur Jr.: Most people are familiar with the mighty, fearsome T. rex. Now, thanks to a recent study, we know more about the juvenile version of the predator—sleek, speedy, and seemingly able to slow its growth when food was scarce, Nat Geo’s Michael Greshko writes. Paleontologist Holly Woodward is encouraged by the new discoveries. “I remember growing up, reading all these books on dinosaurs and thinking: Man, I really want to study dinosaurs, but by the time I’m old enough, there’s nothing left to study. I’m so glad I’m wrong about that.”
Counting whales from space: That’s the name of a project aiming to track the population of endangered North American right whales. An engineering firm and an aquarium are partnering to use sonar, radar, and satellite data to keep track of the 400 or so of these whales that remain, the Associated Press reports.
Your Instagram photo of the day
Before the firestorms: New Zealand’s skies now have clouded with the drift from Australia’s firestorms, but just weeks ago, Lake Tekapo on the South Island of New Zealand was a pristine place to view the night sky. “On this 10-second single exposure, the Southern Cross and Coalsack dark nebula are on the right, and the Carina Nebula hangs above the iconic Church of the Good Shepherd,” says photographer Babak Tafreshi.
Related: Our nights are getting brighter, and the Earth is paying a price
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The big takeaway
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Come back tomorrow for Rachael Bale on the latest in animal news. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up here to also get Whitney Johnson on photography, Debra Adams Simmons on history, and George Stone on travel.
The last glimpse
Built for stargazing: Centuries ago, the Anasazi people built the kiva of Casa Rinconada, a round ceremonial place where celestial figures and the movements of the sun and moon were tracked for rituals and planting. It is part of New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park and is an International Dark-Sky Park, a natural darkness zone with no permanent outdoor lighting.
Related: Top ancient sites for stargazing