Why Mars Means Hope

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I am a child of the space age. I was born a few months before Apollo 11 and have extremely early memories of sitting on my father’s lap during Apollo 13 news coverage. One of the first films my father took me to see was Star Wars and as soon as I found Star Trek, I watched it. Herbert? Asimov? Dick? Yeah, I read them.

To me, space exploration means money well spent, time and intellectual energy well invested, and spiritual curiosity about our origins defined. It means hope, to me. Hope that we are not alone, that the universe is filled with life and possibilities beyond our imaginations.

It’s scary too though, because with our penchant for tribalism, war, and turfmongering, not to mention our desire for waste and consumption and general self interest as a short lived species I worry that if we found life and others out there it would wind up not going very well.

Science fiction has done a wonderful job outlining all the possibilities of interstellar connection. From Alien to Contact, it runs the gamut from dark, cold lonely space filled with soulless terror to a superhighway of intelligent life forms just waiting for us to catch up.

And of course, Men In Black, with aliens already here and humans just clueless enough not to really ever catch on.

I’m a fan of science, of putting our money where hope and adventure lie, and in discovery. I’m not a fan of the billions of dollars spent on war and death, or on producing things we all probably don’t need, but then again, all these things go hand and hand don’t they? Much money winds up perfecting technology that allows us to type on tiny phones (like Trek communicators) and use hand held ultrasounds to scan bodies (like Trek tricorders-something that is an actual project come to find out).

So of course I was inspired and excited by the Mars Landing. Just read the caption below for it’s overview.

“THE CURIOSITY ROVER’S MISSION ON MARS

The rover, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, is on a mission of robotic exploration of Mars, as part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Programme. The main purpose of the mission is to determine whether Mars ever had an environment conducive to microbial life; in other words to determine its habitability.
The rover carries some of the most advanced instruments for scientific studies ever sent to Mars. Curiosity will study the planet’s climate and geology by analysing samples taken from the soil and rocks in its onboard laboratory, looking for telltale signs of the chemical building blocks of life.

Curiosity is 900kg and nearly 100 times more massive than the first robot rover sent to Mars, the Mars Pathfinder, in 1997. The hi-res cameras on board can be used to ‘zap’ interesting rock features with an infrared laser to query the rock’s elemental composition. If something within that composition merits further inquiry, the rover will use its long arm to swing a microscope over that use an X-ray spectrometer for a closer look. If after that there’s still more to investigate in the sample, Curiosity can drill into the rock to get powdered samples for analysis by two high-spec analytical boxes inside its belly, to find out the rock’s exact make-up and formation conditions.

It has landed in a deep hole on Mars’ equator known as Gale Crater (pictured), which has in its centre a mound of rock rising 5 km from the crater floor known as Aeolis Mons, or Mount Sharp. From satellite pictures the mound appears to be made from ancient sediments, deposited when Mars still had water at its surface. Mount Sharp appears from orbit to have a shape like Australia; Gale is named after an Australian astronomer.

Now that the rover is on the surface, it is able to roll over obstacles 75 centimetres high and can travel up to 90 metres per hour; the rover will most likely travel around 30 metres per hour based on the terrain, power levels and other variables. It will drive to the base of Mount Sharp, looking for clay minerals (phyllosilicates) which only form when rock spends a lot of time in water. Mars is thought is thought to have been wet during the Noachian (between 4.1 and 3.7 billion years ago). Further up the mountain, it is hoped the rover will find sulphate salts, which would have formed in the Hesperian (around 3.7 to 3 billion years ago) when Mars was beginning to dry out.

Curiosity is powered by a radioisotope power system which generates power from the heat of plutonium’s radioactive decay, giving the mission an operating lifespan on Mars of at least a full Martian year (687 Earth days).”

Source, NASA

And watch this video on the complex engineering and communication feat that was the landing…

And this from an earlier mission, breathtaking panorama of Mars.

And hope. Hope that we’ll focus our powerful minds and energies on life and exploration, on amazing devices that save lives and heal people and animals, that help sustain the planet and the people on it, while looking outward (and frankly inward) at what lies all round and inside of us.

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