Lure of the Red Planet

The New European - - Agenda -

Is, or in­deed was, there life on Mars? As NASA’S probe lands, cy­ber­net­ics ex­pert PAULO DE

SOUZA ex­plores an en­dur­ing ob­ses­sion

Amid joy­ous scenes back on Earth at mis­sion con­trol it is touch­down again on Mars, thanks to NASA’S In­sight probe.

This lat­est mis­sion will con­tinue our ex­plo­ration of the mighty Red Planet and hope­fully un­cover some of its most com­pelling mys­ter­ies.

As seen from Earth, the big red dot in the night sky has cer­tainly caught the at­ten­tion of hu­mans since we started con­tem­plat­ing the uni­verse.

The first ob­ser­va­tions with tele­scopes gave us a much clearer pic­ture of Mars, with the poles cov­ered in ice and dif­fer­ent tones of red and black in the trop­ics.

NASA’S In­sight (In­te­rior Ex­plo­ration us­ing Seis­mic In­ves­ti­ga­tions, Geodesy and Heat Trans­port) mis­sion should tell us more about the in­te­rior of Mars and how the planet formed.

Per­haps the most cu­ri­ous ac­count of Mars came from the Ital­ian astronomer Gio­vanni Schi­a­par­elli in 1877. He ob­served a dense net­work of lin­ear struc­tures on the sur­face of Mars which he called “canali” in Ital­ian, mean­ing “chan­nels”.

But the term was mis­in­ter­preted by some English-speak­ers as “canals”, which im­plied they were made by Mar­tians.

Our love and fear re­la­tion­ship with

Mars es­ca­lated to another level in 1938, when Or­son Welles broad­cast an all-too­real adap­tion of HG Wells’ clas­sic The War of the Worlds.

The Hal­loween night broad­cast of the in­va­sion of Mar­tians to Earth ap­par­ently lead some lis­ten­ers in the United States to panic, as they took the fiction as a fact (a story told in the 1975 movie, The Night That Pan­icked Amer­ica). How much panic is still open to ques­tion.

HG Wells’ 1898 novel has in­spired more than a few Hol­ly­wood movies, tele­vi­sion se­ries and a mu­si­cal telling since then, in­clud­ing Steven Spiel­berg’s 2005 ver­sion.

The first close-up im­ages from Mars came in 1965 with the Mariner 4 space­craft fly­ing by the planet, and then with

Mariner 9 en­ter­ing or­bit in 1971.

Both space­craft showed Mars as a cold, bar­ren, desert-like world. Be­fore these mis­sions we had only seen Mars through tele­scopes, and the ques­tion of whether the planet was hab­it­able (or in­hab­ited) was still open.

I still re­mem­ber when I was a child watch­ing a tele­vi­sion pro­gram show­ing im­ages of the Vik­ing mis­sion which landed two probes on Mars in 1976.

In­stead of talk­ing about our first suc­cess­ful space­craft to land on Mars and send­ing us im­ages and sci­en­tific data from the sur­face of another planet, the pro­gram talked for a long time about a fea­ture that looked like a face of a man on the sur­face of Mars, and struc­tures that re­sem­bled pyra­mids.

NASA’S Vik­ing 1 Or­biter space­craft pho­tographed this re­gion in the north­ern lat­i­tudes of Mars on July 25, 1976, while search­ing for a land­ing site for the Vik­ing 2 Lan­der.

Those im­ages cer­tainly af­fected me, and were key in my fas­ci­na­tion for Mars and space in gen­eral.

The legacy of the Vik­ing lan­ders was mostly their first geo­chem­i­cal char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion from the sur­face, and a de­tailed at­mo­spheric com­po­si­tion anal­y­sis from Mars.

Vik­ing’s re­sults were fan­tas­tic in many ways, but dis­ap­point­ing too as they in­di­cated a dry planet, full of pri­mary rocks that would have trans­formed into min­er­als if wa­ter was present.

Pic­tures from the sur­face showed no signs of life – no signs of lit­tle bushes, a bit of moss on some rocks, or a green man smil­ing to the cam­eras.

In a way we lost our in­ter­est for Mars un­til it at­tacked us with me­te­orites.

Rocks from plan­ets and the Moon, and me­te­ors, hold chem­i­cal hints of where they came from. So it’s pos­si­ble to tell if a me­te­orite is from our Moon, from Mars, or from else­where.

Mar­tian me­te­orites can be found on Earth be­cause a big me­te­orite prob­a­bly fell on Mars, and in the process ended up eject­ing pieces of the sur­face into space.

Some were big enough to en­ter our at­mos­phere and be found later. One – named ALH84001 – is made mostly of car­bon­ate: a min­eral that needs wa­ter to be formed. There­fore, in­di­rectly we can con­clude that Mars was once wet.

To make it even more in­ter­est­ing, this Mar­tian post­card has some minis­cule struc­tures that look like some bac­te­ria found on Earth.

Sci­en­tists are still de­bat­ing whether those struc­tures are Mar­tian fos­sils or not. But the dis­cov­ery and anal­y­sis of ALH84001 brought us back to Mars.

Now we know that there were once oceans on Mars as salty as the Dead Sea, plus there were hot springs and fresh wa­ter streams.

Wa­ter on Mars was not only present, but it was there in dif­fer­ent forms. Mars had per­fect con­di­tions for long enough for life to form and evolve. At least we can say Mars was hab­it­able.

The idea of hav­ing a fully-equipped Mar­tian lab­o­ra­tory prompted sci­en­tists to pro­pose a new mis­sion: Mars Sci­ence Lab­o­ra­tory with a much larger rover. It’s equipped with laser beams able to an­a­lyse rocks at dis­tance, rock grinders and anal­y­sers able to pro­vide a more de­tailed char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of Mars rocks, soil and at­mos­phere.

Per­chlo­rates were also found by the Cu­rios­ity rover, from the Mars Sci­ence Lab­o­ra­tory mis­sion, and also on a Mar­tian me­te­orite called EETA79001 which sug­gest a global dis­tri­bu­tion of these bac­te­ri­alkiller salts.

The past 50 years were full of dis­cov­er­ies about Mars’s sur­face, but lit­tle is known about its sub­soil or in­ner core. This is where the In­sight mis­sion that is about to land on Mars comes in to play.

It’s sup­ported by NASA’S Deep Space Net­work, in­clud­ing our sta­tion in Can­berra which is man­aged on NASA’S be­half by CSIRO. In­sight’s team hopes to learn how the deep in­te­rior of Mars was formed, and how sim­i­lar they would be to other rocky worlds such as Venus, Mer­cury, our Moon, Earth, or those ex­o­plan­ets from other so­lar sys­tems.

This is the first mis­sion that is de­signed to in­ves­ti­gate deep in­side of Mars. In­sight has a seis­mome­ter and tem­per­a­ture probe as part of its pay­load.

The fu­ture will be dom­i­nated by sam­ple re­turn mis­sions: those space­craft able to land on Mars and bring sam­ples back to Earth (sim­i­lar to what Rus­sians did on the Moon) and by our ef­fort to have astro­nauts ex­plor­ing Mars on their own feet.

We don’t yet have the tech­nol­ogy re­quired to make that hap­pen. An idea of the chal­lenge ahead is cap­tured by the CSIRO Space In­dus­try Roadmap, which out­lines some of the key tech­nolo­gies needed for fu­ture ex­plo­ration and the unique con­tri­bu­tions that Aus­tralian com­pa­nies and uni­ver­si­ties could of­fer in that pursuit.

The quest for un­der­stand­ing the evo­lu­tion of our So­lar Sys­tem con­tin­ues and I am still con­fronted by a large num­ber of ques­tions with­out an an­swer. Hope­fully In­sight will pro­vide some clues, but there is still much to learn about what lies far above us on Mars.

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