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Life on Mars: Curiosity takes a look at fourth rock from the sun

At 3.31pm eastern time today on our blue planet, NASA scientists will read data from Mars that will reveal whether the red planet has a fresh new metallic pock mark on the surface of Gale Crater or that, standing intact, the elaborate machinery of Curiosity has landed safely. It is the latest and by far the most capably equipped Mars rover yet to be sent to the intriguing and incredibly complex surface.

When the sudden Martian night falls, well before the cameras and instruments on Curiosity have been checked out, there will be a bright blue star, and a faint yellow-white companion, in that alien sky.

Our Earth, and our moon.

And on that planet, our planet, the first of our species to go to Mars, or die trying, are already among us, probably very young, and completely unaware of their destiny.

(You can easily spot Mars high in the western half of the evening sky at present as the reddish bright star in an obvious triangle that it forms with pale-yellow Saturn and bright silver star Spica.)

By the time Curiosity is either a footnote, or a whole chapter, in the electronic pages of the Martian chronicles of the 21st century, all of the first moon men, the Apollo explorers, will have died, and their children will either be very old or dead.

But most likely by then, there will have been men and women on asteroids, or even making risky excursions onto the surface of comets, or engaged in Earth orbital work for space-based industries on a scale that would make the International Space Station seem puny.

Such are the futures that ride to Mars with Curiosity.

They also ride with other contemporary and science-rich missions that are now in transit to their objectives, including an instrumented cannonball to fly between Pluto and its largest moon, Charon (New Horizons probe due July 2015), a landing on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (Rosetta, due November 2014) or the close-range study of the largest and strangest of asteroids, Ceres (Dawn, due February 2015 and now completing its orbital mission around rocky Vesta).

Waiting for funds are plans to land on the Jovian moons, including Europa in particular, and maybe drill down through its ice caps into hidden seas, or place the James Webb space telescope in a strange “still point” in deeper space beyond the Earth-moon system, called a Lagrange point.

If all goes well after the so-called seven minutes of terror of the Curiosity plunge through the Martian atmosphere this afternoon, its science program has to battle with the public expectation that it will find life, or the fossil traces of now extinct life, in the rock layers and crannies of Gale Crater.

This is a difficult ask, because the PR-driven techniques for getting funding for space flights always involve forcing the objectivity of true science through the prism of promising to deliver a predetermined outcome.

Something like 99% of space research exploratory funding is promoted as answering the questions as to where we came from, whether we are alone, whether there are life forms out there and, when you head into the flakier dimensions, whether we are all Martians like JFK was a Berliner.  The way to breathe life into any funding request for Mars, or Titan, or Jupiter, or just about anywhere, is to promise to find life.

In truth, no one knows what surprises Mars has for us, even if it turns out to have been as dead as a doornail since day one. Science has already discovered that Mars was a various times drenched in fluids, or heavily dissolved chemical cocktails. There is water ice present in what in places look like rock and sand covered glacial deposits, just as there is solid dry ice, or carbon dioxide in conjunction with or in proximity to the water ice.

The Mars-o-sphere generates and replenishes atmospheric methane, which could either be explained by purely chemical processes, or by biological activity, probably microbial and subterranean in nature, since something as vulgar as herds of farting cows would have already been discovered by the increasingly high-definition mapping of the Martian surface by satellites, and have inspired an interplanetary livestock race, and a space trade war!

But that is what Curiosity is ultimately all about. Not finding what we want to find, but finding what is  less than 10 light minutes away, on the fourth rock from the sun.

11
  • 1
    yjyey eyee
    Posted Monday, 6 August 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Nicely said, mate

  • 2
    Danno of Arabia
    Posted Monday, 6 August 2012 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    there will be a bright blue star, and a faint yellow-white companion, in that alien sky. Our Earth, and our moon.”

    Wait, what? Earth is a star now?

  • 3
    Gary Scanlan
    Posted Monday, 6 August 2012 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    My first question is : why are we doing this.? Specifically: why are we spending
    billions of dollars on basically useless posturing when we have so many issues
    (malnutrition, poverty, disease, environmental damage) that this money could help
    allevaite. Why look for “life” elsewhere when we can’t even look after it here?

  • 4
    michael r james
    Posted Monday, 6 August 2012 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    @DANNO OF ARABIA

    Just like Venus looks like a bright star (the Morning star) to us on earth, so earth would look the same from Mars.
    ………
    @GARY SCANLAN
    Are you serious?
    Quite apart from you philistinism, you may have forgotten the huge boost to environmentalism and eco-awareness from the first pictures sent back from the first satellites showing the blue globe of the earth. Seeing our own, fragile planet in its entirety and realizing we are an “oasis in space”, made at least some people realize that its the only planet we have so we better protect it. Mars may have something to say about our origins — either we have always been the only life in our solar system, or not. Both say something about how precious and rare it is, and how its future could be.
    …………………………….

    And of course it has landed on the planet’s surface and begun transmitting images (one of which is on the NYT front page, ie. online).

  • 5
    Ben Sandilands
    Posted Monday, 6 August 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    With Curiosity wheels down and ready to roll on Mars, a new version of this report has been posted on Plane Talking:

    http://blogs.crikey.com.au/planetalking/2012/08/06/mars-touchdown-the-machinery-of-curiosity-begins-to-write-its-chapter-in-the-21st-century-martian-chronicles/

  • 6
    Steve777
    Posted Monday, 6 August 2012 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    Why go to Mars? Because it’s there. As good a reason as any. All spending is ultimately to satisfy one or more human needs, often needs that are rather trivial or less than meritorious. In due course entrepreneurs may find a way to make money from space. In the meantime I think an intense curiosity on the part of probably nearly all of us to know what’s out there is a pretty good reason.

  • 7
    Moira Smith
    Posted Monday, 6 August 2012 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    … the electronic pages of the Martian chronicles of the 21st century…’

    A nice little nod to Ray Bradbury, who died recently.

  • 8
    AR
    Posted Monday, 6 August 2012 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

    I, like many I hope, held my breath in the final moments until touchdown. happy travels, Curiosity, send back lotsa postcards.

  • 9
    Stuart Omond
    Posted Monday, 6 August 2012 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    @DANNO OF ARABIA

    And they say there’s no global warming!

  • 10
    MJPC
    Posted Tuesday, 7 August 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Brian, interesting article. I watch the live feed from NASA of yesterdays landing , the most exciting event on the earth at that time and something I will never forget.
    If anything, this proves that NASA is composed of some of the most talented people on earth. When one considers what was achieved, all without direct human involvement, it is mind boggling.
    People talk about China challenging the US power. Well, the Chinese will have to pull a lot of rabbits out of their hat to get anywhere the sheer scale, inspiation and just plain admiration yesterdays landing achieved.
    Just one comment though, whilst the Earth is undoubetly seen from Mars (between duststorms), I think the possibility of seeing the moon in the Martian sky will be a limited possibility. After all, when I look at Mars I cannot see the moons Phobos or Deimos as much I would like to.

  • 11
    Duggy the DC3
    Posted Tuesday, 7 August 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    All the money in the world isn’t saving Syria at the moment. Money will never feed the poor, only inspiration, vision and good will which are sadly in short supply amongst our most powerful and influential leaders. By our nature humans are explorers not blessed with a rear view mirror.

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