Mars and the Mojave: Death Valley & NASA Announce Festival Dedicated to The Red Planet

Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park at sunset | Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

Audiences around the world were taken there in 1977. It was the home of a teenager named Luke, who lived with his aunt and uncle, both farmers. In the hills nearby, an old hermit by the name of Ben took residence. Of course, this is a story from "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," a story that beget a legion of fans of the Star Wars franchise. Luke Skywalker and Ben "Obi-Wan" Kenobe (as well as Jabba the Hut) were all residents of Tatooine. In real life, the area of the Mojave Desert that is now Death Valley National Park stood in for parts of this small planet (Tunisia was also used).

But what creator George Lucas saw as a stand-in for an alien planet is what scientists today see as a location for planetary analog research (analog as is in finding places where research on Earth could be applied to other planets) -- specifically Mars.

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As the National Park Service explains:

The barren landscape of Death Valley, almost devoid of vegetation, evokes the red planet's surface. The dry, but not completely rainless climate is similar to conditions on Mars three billion years ago. Other-worldly features like the Badwater salt flat and Ubehebe Crater embody the extreme environments in which scientists seek the building blocks of life on other planets.

For these reasons and others, scientists from NASA and universities have flocked to Death Valley for decades, testing equipment and hypotheses bound for rocky spheres beyond our earthly home. In other words, Death Valley is an ideal planetary analog site - a place on earth that mimics the conditions of places like Mars.

And with a rover named Curiosity scheduled to land on the planet in August to help determine if life can or has sustained life, there's no better time for a festival called Mars and the Mojave, a three-day event by the Park Service and NASA scheduled for the weekend of March 9.

Festival activities include telescope viewing, lectures and panels, and field trips to Badwater Basin, Mars Hill and Ubehebe Crater. The full schedule, which is currently in draft form (meaning more might be added and event times may switch), can be found here.

"Astronomy doesn't end when the sun comes up," explains Dr. Tyler Nordgren, author of "Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks," and a featured speaker at the festival. "This event is the perfect embodiment of that idea."

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