Bill Conant" />
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Thursday, September 21, 2023


Get technical: Pushing the edge of exploration

How does Mars hold such sway over humans that we launch billions of dollars’ worth of equipment at its rocky surface knowing that we’ll lose our investments when they crack and break in the harsh environment? Why does NASA do it?

The Phoenix Mars Lander has gone silent. Martian winter is approaching, and its solar panels are likely freezing over with carbon dioxide frost, the fragile elements of the lander’s electronics submitting to temperatures as low as 292 degrees below zero.

NASA has halted operations with the Lander but the little robot could still be alive, so they’ve decided to continue listening with the two satellites in Mars’ orbit. Mars Reconnaissance and Odyssey will fly by from time to time and try to hail the little frozen machine, looking for signs of life until Solar Conjunction three weeks from now, when the Red Planet tucks itself away behind the sun.

Phoenix was meant as a three-month mission to examine soil samples, try to find water and to bring back the first sounds of Mars. Instead it ran for five months, successfully finding water-ice, gathering soil samples and recording snowfall on its cameras.

Although the microphone meant for recording sounds from the alien planet was damaged, the robot did find evidence of perchlorate (an oxidizer which can, on Earth, sustain some microbes), calcium carbonate – the most prominent component of limestone – and some various forms of clay, all of which are indicative of former liquid water on Mars’ surface.

The mission as a whole was a success, and ran for much longer than expected.

This particular government junket to distant planets has yielded some spectacular results, to be sure, but why bother? The odds are overwhelming that there are planets sustaining life, even intelligent life, but humankind must have incontrovertible proof.

NASA’s next mission to Mars, the Mars Science Laboratory, will bring in more evidence to sway our minds one way or the other after its launch next year. And it also brings us one step closer to finding the proof we require.

Then again, what if we missed it? What if we’ve been so focused on other things on Earth that we missed some sort of cataclysmic event that wiped out Martian civilization?

Perhaps the famed canals really were purposefully built. Perhaps there was a species of intelligence living on the dusty surface. Maybe, just maybe, there is still subterranean life on Mars.

We will never know until we send an actual human team to the fourth planet, and even then we may not find anything conclusive.

Having a robot proxy on the Martian surface is well and good, but humans know what to look for and when to change objectives on the fly. Perhaps there will be an artificially intelligent robot developed to determine more about the planet. It could certainly solve problems associated with feeding, sheltering, clothing and otherwise caring for humans in such an extreme climate.

So, with that in mind, I call on the people of Earth to advance the sciences and push boundaries. We must press on in our exploration of the solar system and beyond.

We shall find our companions in the stars. We shall go to the furthest depths of deepest space, and we shall find the light of intelligence and the darkness of further mystery, for light is nothing without shadow to define it.

To those who find humans running out of questions to answer, I offer this: Answers will always generate questions. The inquisitive mind of Homo sapiens sapiens ensures it.

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