Mar 04 2013
Scientists see possibilities and alternatives everywhere. Mars might just be the next new frontier of enterprise and innovation — a new world where humanity can renew itself
Mars is a veritable ‘temple’ of awe, also surprises — its mystery holds a special, surging charm.
When Pathfinder first soft-landed on Mars, scientists were in for a treat. Notwithstanding its basket of technical problems and final regression, so commonplace in an expedition of such a scientific magnitude, Pathfinder lent credence to the reasonably high probability that organisms could have been fossilised on Mars. It was a prospect that held a cosmic spell, or drama, encasing micro-organisms like a bug in amber. But, the big question is — if there was once life on Mars, where would it have gone, or regressed? There are no real good answers and no real bad answers too, although the master of unconventional theories and author Graham Hancock lays claim to a secret connection linking Earth’s ancient civilisation and the red planet. Hancock’s explosive investigation, The Mars Mystery, to cull one example, is a transfixing work of historical detection, even if controversial. It links Martian pyramids with the pyramids of Egypt and debates on the antiquity and origins of the human race itself — from a Martian perspective.
Hancock’s exploration is not just a journey into science, or possibility, it is also mythology from the Mayan, Egyptian and Indian contexts. It discusses a potential agenda for Mars with a cast of characters including Nasa scientists, professors, US government officials and also psychics. It delves into a paradox that is haunting modern science too — why scientists cannot explain how the world changed into a freeze-dried desert and much of the atmosphere escaped into space, over three billion years ago — a time, perforce, they contend, when Mars of long ago changed too. It’s all conjecture, yes. But, is there anything more to it than chasing a shadow in the dark? We don’t know yet.
Protagonists are excited with what is now labelled as ‘that famous chunk of Martian rock,’ which made news headlines the world over with unprecedented gusto. Others are sceptical. They argue that the chemicals in the rock are fuzzy. Their opinion — a host of reactions produces polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are evidence of a living organism’s decomposition. It is an old argument, with a new twist — a century after Percival Lowell focused his telescope on Mars and claimed he saw canals built by intelligent beings. Lowell’s ecstasy was scientific wishful thinking. The latest debate among scientists isn’t.
There are three major issues in the ‘life-on-Mars’ question. One scientific school of thought reckons that PAHs are not Martian and that they were deposited within the rock by melt-water from surrounding ice. The opposite view is that PAHs are Martian. Disagreement also dogs the theory on carbonates — of how they were formed. So is the lot of purported fossils of nanobacteria. Some sceptics say Martian nanofossils are too small to have been living organisms. Enthusiasts, however, contend that the smallest purported nanofossils could possibly be bacterial appendages rather than whole organisms. The heated debate is far from over. As one scientist put it, “Until we stop arguing, there’ll be no answers.”
Mars has brought in its wake a new message for several thinking minds. It has thrown ajar novel doors of scientific eventuality, not science fiction — the idea of ‘colonising’ the red planet. If evidence of Martian life is confirmed, human beings would have to go looking for fossils. This would also be the springboard for colonising the planet. The sojourn could take place sooner than later, but it would not be without formidable hassles — because Mars isn’t like Earth. It has no palpable gravity, a state that can cause heart and muscular dysfunction. Mars has no food and water. It has fierce dust storms. More than that, a spacecraft would make a journey to Mars and back, not only expensive, but too heavy. It will also have to carry all the fuel necessary to get there and back.
Indicative of the mood shift towards optimism, US astronautical engineer Robert Zubrin, along with Richard Wagner, has made a smart petition for proceeding directly to Mars, in the next 10-15 years. Zubrin writes, in The Case For Mars, that we should not wait for orbiting space factories, or stations, on the Moon and/or new technology, or the political will, to spend billions of dollars. His bottom line — travel light, and go now. He says that we should generate fuel on Mars for the exploration and return to Earth. In so doing, he says, you spend no more than $15-25 billion. He, however, admits that there will be a major drawback to his plan — public will.
Zubrin expects people who would like to fly to Mars to opt for economic travel return plans. He contends that Mars will pave way, thanks to deuterium (heavy hydrogen), with inexpensive access to the vast mineral wealth of the asteroid belt, aside from the primal invigoration that a new frontier for humanity would bring with it. Mars, says Zubrin, is rich in resources, unlike the Moon. He points out: “Mars and Earth are the only two locations in the solar system where humans will be able to grow crops for export.”
It goes without saying that Mars is a spectacular planet. It has far elevated mountains and deeper canyons than any on Earth. It has about the same land area as Earth, but at one-tenth of the mass of Earth, it has one-third of its gravity, two Moons, and a weak magnetic field. Is there is a way out? Possibly, yes. To paraphrase Zubrin, “We have to make intelligent use of Mars’ local resources.”
Impediments, again, are a dime-a-dozen. As Zubrin explains, “The greatest obstacle to sending humans to Mars resides here on our home planet in the guise of earthly politics.” But, it can all happen with good intent. He details how spaceships would get to Mars; how they would come back; and, how we could search for possible life on the red planet. Last, but not the least, the astronautical engineer, who has worked on a host of Nasa projects, also tells us how we could transform the planet and make it liveable for large numbers of human beings.
Zubrin also believes Nasa has the capability to set up research bases on Mars and begin colonising within a decade. But, not with just pure robotic missions alone. Just robotic strategies, he says, may be counterproductive. Because, sophisticated robots would not be able to travel a boulder field, select a rock that looks scientifically promising and then hack away the outer layers to look for fossils. So, what is his solution? “Use a powerful rocket crafted largely from space shuttle components. It would propel a habitation module, an Earth-return craft and a small truck-sized rover to the Mars,” a few years before the first human travellers are given the ticket to ride to Mars.
Zubrin’s graph makes fascinating reading. It is, in part, history — a call for arms, a technical manual, sometimes bizarre and even prophetic. The first Martian homes, according to Zubrin, will be of brick made from Martian sand. He also discusses the possibility of thickening Mars’ atmosphere by melting the planet’s polar caps and permafrost — and, making it all the more habitable. His argument, “I would say that failure to ‘terra-form’ Mars constitutes failure to live up to our human nature and a betrayal of our responsibility as members of the community of life itself.” His is a clarion call to make things work. He sees possibilities everywhere. So, Mars, he contends, would be the next new frontier of enterprise and innovation — a new world where humanity can renew itself.
Exploring Mars would be an exciting and noble prospect. Who knows — there may be natives on Mars in the form of those microbes that became famous recently. It would also be quite a ‘Mars-shattering’ event if they were still making a living, under the red carpet. But, the big question is — do we have the right to colonise Mars, reprogramme its climate and kill Martian life, or its ET Martian intelligence — if at all it exists?
Whatever the odds, the big argument, again, is, a ‘case-for-Mars’ — a home away from home. The inference is also obvious, irrespective of whether you belong to the Mars’ school of ‘colonial’ thought, or neither, you could still grapple with huge possibilities science and technology can offer vis-à-vis a futuristic colony on Mars. Besides, you could be in for a revelation. This could in all probability be due to the fact that logic would have it that our mission to Mars would simply not lead to the abandonment of Earth, or its myriad, almost insoluble, problems. On the contrary, it would be a brave vision. Of will power, volition, human spirit, enterprise and ingenuity — to living a dream in reality. Or, may be, making friends with the Martians’ themselves — the greatest diplomatic ‘coup,’ or a new paradigm shift for peaceful co-existence and harmony, for all time to come.
The billion-dollar question, again, is — are the powers-to-be in the US and elsewhere game to ‘terra-form’ the red planet, set the ball rolling and alter the atmosphere of planets to pave the way for sustainable life, sooner than the most optimistic of scientists themselves envisage? Go figure. zz
(The writer is a wellness physician