Life On Mars – Milestones

by: Chris Thompson

Across the Margin once again cranks up the voltage and points its high-powered antennas towards Mars…. 

Marstones

September has been a busy month for our sister planet Mars. As humanity continues to define and explore this complex and dynamic celestial body, the sands below and the space above Mars are becoming busy with the work of mighty robotic explorers. Firstly, two important milestones were reached this month by NASA, with its SUV-sized rover Curiosity arriving at the base of Mount Sharp, and the newly-arrived orbiter MAVEN, parking into high-orbit above the Red Planet. Secondly, India, with its nascent space exploration program and its patriotic zeal for success, yesterday inserted its own spacecraft, Mars Orbiter Mission (or MOM), into Martian orbit for a fraction of the price that NASA spent on MAVEN. Any of these accomplishments alone could be considered both historical and technological achievements, but taken together, they illustrate the fact that Mars is very much within our sights, and it’s only a matter of time before she finally relinquishes all of her closely-held secrets.

Curiosity 

A nuclear-powered rolling science lab, Curiosity has spent the last two years1 traversing the broken and wind-swept lands of Gale Crater. Having already discovered an ancient riverbed that contained running water and the essential ingredients for life, and after sniffing out traces of methane gas that could at one time have been biological in origin, Curiosity now sets its sights on the ninety-six mile wide crater’s main feature, Mount Sharp. At over three miles tall, Mount Sharp is no meager hill. In fact, it’s larger than any of the mountains found in the contiguous United States. This is a complex geographical feature that conceivably represents a window into the dynamic history of the landscape surrounding Curiosity. Like looking back two billion years in time, those layers of sediment and rock represent a rich geological record of the Red Planet’s past. If there was at one time life on Mars, then these successive layers of once-wet muds and sands that make up Mount Sharp is where it could be found. And with its overabundance of awe-inspiring scientific instruments, Curiosity is a rover uniquely positioned to uncover those biosignatures indicative of life.

MAVEN

The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution space probe is designed to study the atmosphere of Mars while it whizzes around the planet in a heliocentric orbit. Having arrived in orbit on September 22nd, it is part of NASA’s Mars Scout Program that is charged with sending multiple, low-cost probes to Mars. MAVEN is the second mission to come out of this initiative2 with mission goals of studying the current state of its upper atmosphere. With multiple avenues of evidence indicating that Mars lost the majority of its atmosphere billions of years ago, MAVEN will circle the Red Planet and study the current rate of atmospheric loss of neutral gases and ions and the processes that control them. Focusing especially on the role of the solar wind, a charged stream of plasma traveling out from the Sun at supersonic streams, MAVEN will study how its interaction with Mars’s atmosphere contributes to the current state of the planet’s air. The discovery of minerals that form in the presence of water and the existence of features on Mars that resemble dry riverbeds indicate that it once-possessed an atmosphere dense enough for liquid water to flow on its surface. The puzzling question of where Mars’s atmosphere went has stymied scientists for decades, but hopefully with MAVEN, and her complex suite of instruments, we’ll finally unravel why it left.

Mars Orbiter Mission

When one talks of robotic exploration of the stars, you don’t normally consider India as a player in this field. But with the launch of the Mars Orbiter Mission, and its successful insertion into a planetary orbit, we may have to redefine the conversation. India, with its groundbreaking orbiter, has become the first Asian nation to put a spacecraft into orbit around a planet other than Earth. And it’s also the cheapest interplanetary mission ever attempted. To top that off, they have also attained the unique honor of becoming the only country to park a spacecraft into orbit around another planet on the first try. No other country has successfully done this. The United States, Europe and Russia have all failed in their initial attempts to send spacecrafts to Mars and historically, less than half of all spacecraft sent to the planet have crashed or veered off course. So the fact that India has pulled this off entitles them to major bragging rights. The wonder and excitement that has gripped the citizens of India as their MOM spacecraft approached its date with destiny bordered on fanaticism and this achievement is being viewed as a technological master stroke over its neighbor China, who is laboring to make its fledgling space program a success. The MOM orbiter, informally called Mangalyaan which is Sanskrit for ‘Mars-Craft’, was launched by India’s Space Research Organization (IRSO) and is meant primarily to be a demonstrator of technology required for development of future interplanetary missions. But if all goes well, India’s Space Research Organization has left room on the craft to do some exploration of its own, with photographing the Red Planet and sampling the atmosphere for traces of methane high on its lists of chores. I for one welcome a new player in the exploration of our heavens and wish India all the luck in its endeavors. It’s about time we let someone else play amongst the stars.

For a dead planet Mars has become a surprisingly active place over the last few decades, a theme which will only continue to grow as we get closer to sending out a manned mission. It’s an inspiration to future generations of explorers what we have been able to accomplish thus far, and by furthering our understanding of Mars, we honor all those who came before us and dared to look up at that red star in the sky and ask “Why?”. And as someone who grew up looking towards the heavens, fantasizing about robots and the red sands of Mars, I for one am thrilled to see the essence of my dreams playing out as we explore it further. Because if there’s one thing that’s true about the planet Earth, where there is water there is life, and once our fearless robots and orbiters sniff it out on Mars, it’s only a matter of time before my dreams of Martians finally, come true.

  1. Or one Mars year. []
  2. The first mission was Phoenix Polar Lander which discovered that there is water-ice in Mars’s surface soil and witnessed snow falling on Mars. []

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