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.