Friday, May 1, 2009

A traveler’s companion to Mars

In 1894 a wealthy Bostonian by the name Percival Lowell built an astronomical observatory in Arizona dedicated to learning more about enigmatic Mars. It was the time of canal-building on Earth, with the French having completed Suez a few years earlier and the Americans getting busy on cutting across the Isthmus of Panama. Lowell, saw canals on Mars too. Inspired by Darwin, he imagined life on Mars spawning and evolving over time into intelligent creatures who built planet-wide aqueducts to bring water from the poles to the equatorial deserts. He saw lush areas of cultivation, and he imagined cities and people not very much unlike us. Lowell’s ideas, published in his widely-read book Mars the Abode of Life, culminated humanity’s timeless fascination with the red planet with a profound conclusion: that we are not alone in the universe. Indeed, the intelligent beings who presumably constructed those irrigation marvels were but a relatively small leap across the dark sea of space. H.G Wells, penned The War of the Worlds by borrowing heavily on Lowell’s ideas, if only to illustrate what bad neighbors can do to each other. At the dawn of the 20th century Earth was abuzz with Mars excitement.

Lowell had put together a wonderful theory by drawing on the latest science. Alas, the theory was completely wrong. There are no Martians. Several fly-bys by spacecrafts, beginning with Mariner 4 in 1964, and not a few landings by robotic rovers, have ascertained that. There are no canals either. But there are plenty of fascinating and intriguing features to explore. There are dried riverbeds and meandering streams, wide landforms that resemble lakes, gullies that slope down mountainsides as if sculptured by torrential rains, volcanoes and underwater ice. There are telltale signs aplenty that once upon a time Mars was a completely different world. In fact, many scientists believe that Mars used to be covered with oceans and had an atmosphere and a benign climate similar to Earth’s. Then about 3.5 billion years ago a catastrophic event turned the planet into a cold and barren desert. That is why the quest for Martian life - albeit of a more humble, bacterial nature - has not ceased. It is possible that unicellular organisms still exist, buried deep under the surface. Their discovery would be of tremendous significance, for they would provide conclusive evidence that life is not a local, earthly phenomenon, but ubiquitous, something that might permeate the cosmos.
The list of enigmas that scientists draw each time they push the Mars exploration agenda is long. Our planetary neighbor is similar to Earth in many more interesting ways. Although half its size it has roughly the same land area. Martian days (called “sols”) are only a 37 minutes longer than our 24 hours. A tilted axis of rotation creates seasons; summers, falls, winters and springs follow each other in a year that is twice as long, as Mars takes 699 “sols” to journey once around the Sun. The Sun rises in the East and sets in the West. Both planetary siblings have polar icecaps. Why then has the Red Planet met such a disastrous fate? What catastrophe happened all those billion years ago? What can we learn about its climate that can help us understand the climate here on Earth?

Mars may be a must-go destination for other reasons too. On March 31st six volunteers locked themselves inside a hermetically living space in a laboratory in Moscow. For the ensuing 105 days, they will be eating dehydrated food and breathe recycled air. Their communication with the outside world will have a twenty-minute delay. Simulated emergencies (e.g. equipment failure), as well as real ones will keep them on their toes, as will a number of scientific experiments that they will have to perform. Their every move and vital sign will be monitored around the clock. It sounds like the ultimate version of “Big Brother” but is in fact a simulation experiment for a human mission to Mars. If a real mission ever sets off, the astronauts will have to deal with the physiological and psychological aspects of being confined in a tin can hurled into space, bombarded by cosmic radiation, and sailing towards another world at a pace very unlike the zapping speeds sci-fi films have us accustomed to. The trip to Mars may take up to eight long months.

Once those future space pioneers get there however, there will have little to celebrate for. Mars is not a friendly place. Temperatures may vary from -870C at night to a “balmy” -250C in the afternoon. The atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide and the air pressure less than 1% that of Earth’s. A space suit must be worn when walking about. But walking will be easy because the gravity is only one third that of our world. The sky would look bright pinkish because of the fine reddish dust blown aloft by Martial winds. Dustdevils roam the surface like wandering phantoms and kick up so much dust that visibility often gets close to zero. At sunset, with the winds subsiding, there may be some scattered clouds in the sky, and as our astronauts prepare for their night rest they may momentarily look up to the bright, tinkling stars, and easily recognize the same constellations, with one difference. Somewhere over the horizon a tiny bright blue ball of light will be gleaming: Earth.

There are many who doubt the usefulness, let alone wisdom, of such a risky and costly undertaking as a manned mission to Mars. To sustain a permanent base in Mars would be even more perilous. But as the Moscow experiment shows danger, and discomfort, seem to have a strange appeal to human nature, one not to be underestimated. There will always be people ready to take the challenge, no matter how impossible it may seem. The benefits are almost impossible to estimate. We will never know what there is to gain from landing humans on Mars unless we do it. For now we have at least two good reasons to attempt it. One has to do with pushing the technological envelope of space flight further. For the past sixty years very little progress has been made in space propulsion. A human mission to Mars will require a new generation of rockets and fuels; an eight-month trip is just too long and has to be cut back drastically. New technologies will have to be developed to ensure the safety of the mission. The second reason to send people instead of robots is space colonization, an agenda pushed forward by the Mars Society, a non-profit organization which has already designed the “planetary flag” of Mars, while undertaking some serious scientific work too. Establishing permanent human settlements on Mars will be a step-wise project which may take several centuries, unless an as-yet unimagined innovation comes along and revolutionizes space travel. And if living in a pressurized building and walking around in a spacesuit is not your idea of a good life, there is always terraforming. Scientists believe that given enough knowledge and time, we could pollinate the Martian atmosphere and soil with oxygen-producing organisms which will make Mars a more hospitable planet. For romantics and visionaries, it would be the “unwinding” of the ancient catastrophe and the making of a space Utopia, with canals and all. Perhaps then Lowell, as he peered into his telescope under the Arizona sky, he saw a revelation of the future. Perhaps, in that visionary future, the Martians will be our descendants.

Published in the Athens News on 24th April 2009

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