ROVING OVER MARS
Is there life on Mars? Nature has many secrets, but few excite earthlings more than this one. Movies, books, real time reports of people spotting Martians...we have done it all. Why is the red planet so irresistibly attractive?
Life on Mars – the water link
First solid evidence came in 1984 when a former NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) scientist found a potatolike meteorite in Antarctica. It was a rock chipped off from Mars, said NASA, and crashed into earth some 13,000 years ago. Life-supporting carbon compounds and magnetite were present in it. The meteorite was about 4-4.5 billion years old-- when Mars first came into existence. At that time, Mars was warmer and wetter, and had rivers and lakes. There was water.But was there life?
The first proof of life came in 1996. US Mars Global Surveyor sent pictures of an ancient riverbed below a wide canyon called “Nanedi Vallis” near the equator. These signs indicated the presence of a long-term water flow-- of a riverbed. Glaciers, snow packs and water-carved gullies were also found.
This dismissed what two Viking spacecrafts had recorded in 1974. That there was no sign of life in the Mars’ soil. The Pathfinder, Odyssey and the recent Spirit, Opportunity missions have found out more.That life had frozen on Mars...
Lessons from Mars?
In 1997, the US Pathfinder and the Sojourner rover startled everybody. There were signs of life-supporting systems in Mars that had stopped functioning!A rocky plain at the mouth of a channel, Ares Vallis, is apparently carved out by running liquid water. Geologists say that this deluge may have released 100 million cubic metres of water per second. But no oceans exist today. Only a cold desert. Then there are pebbles rounded by water, showing that Mars had a warm, thick atmosphere. Now there is permanent frost.
How did the Martians live and die? Can it happen to earthlings too? Any lessons for us to learn here? Mars may have been trapped in an ice age.Or there may have been an excessive generation of carbon dioxide to keep the water warm. In other words, a greenhouse effect. But how did Mars begin to produce such volumes of CO2? It was triggered by volcanic eruptions, say sceintists. And with Spirt finding volcanic ash on Martian surface, this seems to be the most viable explanation.
Of all the planets in the Solar System, Mars is the most Earth-like. It is the most travelled space destination because it is easy to reach. Comparatively. Here are some interesting tidbits about it:
If scientific research is the only goal behind the Mars missions, then why are countries going on separate, secretive trips? Have you noticed that the US, EU, and Japan never launch joint missions? (see race to Mars). Instead, they compete with each other. And the developing countries are never a part of Project Mars.
Planets like Mars are reported to have vast mineral and energy reserves. The one who reaches first, gets to colonise and will gain the most. The promise of wealth in space has attracted even private firms. This is the secret of space missions.
Space science is aimed to commercially exploit water and minerals for meeting human needs. The expeditions are hence very costly. The Pathfinder mission cost over US $266 and the Viking was worth US $3 billion! And every time there is a mission, scientists have to justify the money spent. So a story is spun and people listen.
Like the story of the Face on Mars, that was created out of the pictures taken by the Viking 1 Orbiter.
Face on Mars: pseudoscience.
Look closely at the face on Mars. The Viking pictures show rock formations, resembling a human face. Formed by shadows, it produces illusion of eyes, nose and mouth.
It really looks like a face! We humans are pattern seekers and find familiar things in unfamiliar places. Just as we look at the clouds and imagine horses, ships and dragons floating up there.
Space science is not about UFOs and aliens in fancy spacecrafts
But people take Mars visions far more seriously than these. So there are many who firmly believe that Unidentified Fliyng Objects (UFOs) exist, and that they are piloted by aliens from space. Well, I am not about to say UFOs are hogwash and deprive you of the thrills.
They may exist, but we have no scientific evidence to prove that. It is really a piece of pseudoscience. Or knowledge that is not based on or supported by scientfic methods. Mars, has, through the years, generated a fascinatingly colourful treasure trove of pseudoscience. Problem surfaces only when we try to include it in the realm of science...
So, you may ask--is science no fun? Why not? You see an object and ask why. Didn’t Issac Newton discover gravity after seeing an apple fall? You study and apply. Find out. Be a space scientist. Investigate.
It’s time we take space science seriously. Beyond the face of it.
RACE TO MARS
In the race to Mars, some failed and some made it. From 1960, when two unnamed Soviet spacecraft couldn’t fly past Mars to the 2004 landing of US Spirit, here’s the trail.
Nov’ 1964 US Mariner 4 launched. Flies past Mars in July ’65. Returns 21 photos.
Feb’ 1969 US Mariner 6 flies past Mars in July. 75 photos.
March 1969 US Mariner 7 launched. Aug’ ‘69. 126 photos. May 1971
Soviet Kosmos 419 orbits earth. Soviet Mars 2 lands in Nov’. Burns up.
November 1971 US Mariner 9 orbiter operates until 1972. 7, 329 photos.
July 1973 Soviet Mars 5 orbits. Operates for a few days.
June 1976 US Viking 1 orbiter and lander (July) arrive. Orbiter operates until ’80, lander till ’82.
November 1996 US Mars Global Surveyor orbits in ’97. 134, 000 photos. Still operates.
December 1996 US Mars Pathfinder lander and Sojourner rover land in July ’97. Last signal - September ’97.
March 2001 US Mars Odyssey arrives in October. Still operates.
June 2003 European Mars Express orbits in Dec’ 2003.
July 2003 US Spirit rover and lander Opportunity lands in Jan’ 2004