We were hunters and foragers. The frontier was everywhere. We were bounded only by the Earth, and the ocean, and the sky. The open road still softly calls…
“…Sailors on a becalmed sea, we sense the stirring of a breeze”
– Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot
Mars. As John Wilford states it “tugs at the human imagination like no other planet. With a force mightier than gravity”.
For as long as humans have had imagination we have created myths of that red shimmering spot in our sky. For the Roman’s he was blood drenched war. She floated as Nergal in the Babylonian sky, the god of fire.
Modern humanity may have lost some of her persona but none of her majesty and certainly none of her mystery… until now.
NASA sometime ago announced that they have found near proof of flowing water on the surface of Mars. The confirmation that there is flowing water on Mars is the most exciting discovery of modern exploration. Even more exciting than sharks living in an underwater volcano and you know how much we humans love dangerous things living dangerously.
The details of the discovery are that NASA has found “hydrated salts” in what appear to be currently frozen downhill flows. The model that NASA has compiled for Mars is that in the summer months (which are distressingly short for those of us that love a long and languorous summer), when the temperature reaches about negative 23 degrees Celsius the water will liquify and begin to flow down hill.
Before you start haranguing the poor scientists over at NASA; yes they know that water freezes at 0 Degrees Celsius. However water, being the wonderfully strange entity that it is, can change it’s boiling and freezing points depending on contaminants. As it turns out hydrated salts are just the ticket to keep that water flowing even at sub-freezing temperatures as low as negative 23 Celsius.
Now, you may be asking why this is significant. I will let John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington explain: “Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected”.
Of all the planets we have explored only one has ever had definitive proof of flowing water: Earth. Earth is also the only planet known to harbour life. Correlation does not equate causation, unfortunately however the fact is we only have one template of life to go on. It is therefore an assumption that life requires certain things to propagate and thrive. While flowing water may not be necessary it is certainly not going to hurt the chances of us finding life where it exists.
So the search for life, albeit not the handshaking type of life is the first reason to be excited.
The second reason is that there is something we know humans need to survive. No need to guess: it’s water.
Humanity has long dreamt of settling Mars. In the space era NASA had tentative plans to launch manned missions ala the Apollo missions to Mars. In the 90’s we had some proposals put forward however it is only lately plans have taken on a realism that has many of us cosmophiles excited. With Buzz Aldrin being the latest to get in the act, joining the likes of President Obama and Elon Musk the likelihood of humans living on Mars within a couple of generations is looking more and more likely.
Technical hurdles still need to be overcome. The major hurdle for any space faring human civilisation is obtaining water. We need regular access to water in order to get everything that we need to live; grow food, create oxygen and drink. With this discovery scientists are now extremely close to being able to pinpoint water sources on Mars and understanding the Mars hydrological dynamacy which would overcome this most significant hurdle to Mars colonisation.
Why do we want to go to Mars? Well, coolness aside, our species is one asteroid away from mass extinction. Not to mention what we’ve done to the planet and to each other. Remaining a single planetary species is simply not an option if we want our species to continue to exist. Mars is our first insurance policy.
Insurance and coolness factors aren’t the only reasons either. As Carl Sagan noted at the top of this article, we are a nomadic species. Open spaces, the dipping of the horizon, the curve of the earth, the twinkling of the unknown stars, the road beckons us and fills our minds with bigger and better dreams. International cooperation is found more prevalent in space exploration than in nearly any other field of endeavour.
As we look back at our history cities, for all their security and… bars are a fresh new development in the story of humanity. For the majority of our history our only invention was the hand axe and we followed the herd. Well, the herd has moved on and in it’s place we have settled and found cynicism.
Something that is little known about the Apollo 11 landing was that President Nixon had two speeches written. The first we all know: it praised NASA and the astronauts on a successful mission. The second was written in the event that they couldn’t leave the surface: “In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood”.
Mars offers us the dream of new horizons to chase and heroes once again floating in our skies. That is the real promise of the Martian option, simply put it is a bigger dream.