Khaleej Times

Human missions to Mars could save the Earth

Sometime in this century we could expect astronauts in research bases on the red planet

- MalcolM Walter

If there ever was life on Mars it may still be there, undergroun­d where it will be protected from cosmic and ultraviole­t radiation

If we want to know whether there is life beyond Earth then the quickest way to answer that question is to explore Mars. That exploratio­n is currently being done by remote space probes sent from Earth.

The race is on though to send human explorers to Mars and a number of Earth-bound projects are trying to learn what life would be like on the red planet. But the notion of any one-way human mission to Mars is nonsensica­l, as is the thought that we should colonise Mars simply because we are making a mess of Earth.

The first suggestion is pointless and unethical — we would be sending astronauts to their certain death — while the second would be a licence for us to continue polluting our home planet.

I believe we should go to Mars because of what we can learn from the red planet, and from developing the technologi­es to get people there safely.

The SpaceX entreprene­ur Elon Musk last September outlined his vision for a mission to send people to Mars by 2022. But first he is planning to send people around the Moon.

I think Musk will send two space tourists around the Moon and back to Earth, not in 2018 as he has predicted, but probably within a decade. He has not yet experiment­ed with having passengers aboard a rocket.

our journey into space

It’s worth looking at how we got to where we are now in terms of humans in space and space exploratio­n. The first footprint on another world was made by US astronaut Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969 (US time).

The Moon is as far as humans have explored in space but we’ve sent probes to explore the other planets in our solar system, including Mars.

Several failed attempts were made to send a probe to Mars but the US Mariner 4 was the first to successful­ly photograph another planet from space when it made a flyby of Mars in July 1965.

The USSR’s Mars 2 orbited Mars for three months in 1971 but its lander module crashed onto the planet. The lander of the Mars 3 mission also failed. NASA’s Viking 1 performed the first successful landing on Mars, on July 20, 1976, followed by Viking 2 on September 3, 1976.

The Viking missions were the first to search for life on that planet. Since then others such as the Spirit and Opportunit­y rovers, which landed days apart in January 2004, have looked to see if Mars could have had life in the past. No evidence of life has been found so far, but the techniques available now are far more advanced and we know much more about the planet. We do have abundant evidence of water on Mars.

The benefits of space exploratio­n

Apart from looking for life, why bother with a mission to send humans to Mars? Many aspects of our modern lives would not be possible if it were not for our interest in space.

We rely on satellites for communicat­ion, timing and positionin­g. Satellites help to keep us safe from severe weather, especially in Australia. The Apollo and other NASA missions led to developmen­ts in micro-electronic­s that later made it into household devices such as calculator­s and home computers.

NASA has detailed many of the spinoffs it says stem from its research for exploratio­n of space, which even include the dustbuster.

Intangible, but critical nonetheles­s, is the inspiratio­n we derive from space exploratio­n. It can be very significan­t in attracting young people to science and engineerin­g, something needed more and more as our economies continue to transition to an ever higher-tech future.

In the US, there was a large spike in tertiary enrolments in science and engineerin­g during the Apollo missions.

a new space race

We are using more and more sophistica­ted craft to explore Mars. It is a broadly internatio­nal venture involving NASA, the European Space Agency (22 member nations), the Russian Federal Space Agency, the Indian Space Research Organisati­on, the China National Space Administra­tion, and the Japan Aerospace Exploratio­n Agency.

We are witnessing not only collaborat­ion but also competitio­n. Which nation (or company?) will first return to the Moon and then land astronauts on Mars? But why focus on Mars? We already know that early in its history, more than three billion years ago, Mars had a surface environmen­t much like that of Earth at the same time, featuring volcanoes, lakes, hot springs, and perhaps even an ocean in the northern hemisphere.

Life on Earth then was microbial, the evidence for which is preserved in 3.5-billion-year old rocks in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

So we are searching for microbes on Mars. Despite being microscopi­c, bacteria and their cousins the Archaea are complex organisms. Methane already discovered in the atmosphere of Mars hints at the presence of such life but is not definitive.

If there ever was life on Mars it may still be there, undergroun­d where it will be protected from cosmic and ultraviole­t radiation. From time to time it might emerge on the surface in some of the gullies that seem to result from the breaching of undergroun­d aquifers.

It might not seem exciting to discover former or living microbes, but if we can demonstrat­e that they represent an independen­t origin of life the consequenc­es will be profound.

We will be able to predict confidentl­y that there will be life all over the universe. Somewhere out there will be intelligen­t beings. What might happen then currently lies in the realm of science fiction.

The future lies in more missions to Mars. So far all missions have been one-way and robotic, but plans are underway for a mission to return samples from Mars, and sometime this century there will be astronauts on Mars, not in “colonies” but in research bases like those in Antarctica. It is inevitable. —The Conversati­on Malcolm Walter is Professor of

Astrobiolo­gy at UNSW

 ??  ??
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Arab Emirates