Is there life on Mars?

Last night I watched one of the most compelling documentaries I’d seen in a long time, a National Geographic biopic that traced the study and exploration of Mars, the planet on which the human species has long projected visions of other life in our solar system.

Alas, the truth of the matter is the magnetic forces that keep earth’s atmosphere and water in place were disrupted on Mars long ago, so the whole planet is fucked.

While there is evidence that water once covered significant portions of Mars, even gouging out massive canyons at some point in the planet’s geological history, all that H2O evaporated into space when the guts of the planet turned inside out, splitting a giant, visible gash in the surface while all traces of water disappeared.

Exploration

Yet the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is still making plans to send people to Mars. We’ve already sent a series of amazing rovers to study the surface. These machines take massive amounts of photographs and even dig core samples to analyze rock composition. Next we’ll send a rover that will be digging through sedimentary layers to see if there are samples of fossilized life hidden below the dusty void.

Mars is a beautiful planet in its barren stolidity. There is a HiRise satellite orbiting Mars with a HiRes camera has beamed back 200,000 images of the planet from top to bottom. Along the way, it documented the movement of giant dust devils towering twelve miles high. These traced fantastical patterns on the surface.

They also likely blew the gathering dust off the solar panels of a Rover that was shutting down due to lack of power. The machine was only expected to run for 90 days anyway, so the fact that it lasted 14.5 years on Mars was an enormous gift to science. It finally died when a massive dust storm blocked out the sun so long that temperatures dropped so low it killed the rover for good. A few scientists cried over that. The rover didn’t even get a decent burial.

It really does get cold on Mars at times. At the poles, the temperatures drops to 190 degrees below Celcius. Patches of white visible on the top and bottom of the planet are dry ice formed of CO2, not water. When the sun hits them as seasons change the dry ice builds up pressure and explodes.

All this fascinated me. The photos of the surface are surreal. Massive sand dunes mix with barren rock. A mountain standing 90,000 feet tall sticks out of the surface. That’s three times taller than Mount Everest. Even Reinhold Messner would have trouble scaling that one.

An imposing place

The fact of the matter is that Mars is an imposing place. Conditions seem far worse than the moon. The worst part of life on Mars seems to be the radiation problem. Either the planet is just plain radioactive or there is nothing blocking the sun’s rays from killing people who hang out on the surface. I didn’t quite understand that part.

Scientists think they’ve found a solution to that problem in a set of giant volcanic tunnels where people can hide below the surface and even build big cities there. Seriously: that’s the plan. There are even people crawling around in caves under Spain to practice for this scenario. This is all going to take place within a generation. People will be going to Mars in the name of exploration. That’s why we’re doing it. Because human beings “have to explore.”

It just seems like such a dead end. Surely a few brave pioneers flying along for seven months to reach Mars will go stir crazy first, then be faced with a crazy landing only to try to make do on a planet as inhospitable as a bowl of Grape Nuts without milk.

I love the space program and always have. I support funding space exploration and think it’s important to the advancement of knowledge among the human race. What I love about it as well is the technology that emerges from this process.

But I also love what it tells us about our own planet. Right now, we know that our planet is heating up due to just over one hundred years of human activity that has pumped out trillions of tons of carbon dioxide. That greenhouse trap is keeping the heat of the sun’s rays from bouncing back out into the universe. It’s not a novel concept. It doesn’t take that much imagination to appreciate how and why that can happen.

The earth exists in the most delicate balance of all the planets in the universe. Our watery planet is perfect for our existence because we all evolved in sync with its biotic potential. Nothing exists randomly. Every form of life on earth remains because it has the right survival potential for current climatic conditions. We’d have to create all that on Mars. In short, we’d have to play God to our own needs.

A few years back, a chunk of black meteorite was determined to have emanated from a galactic collision on Mars. An asteroid striking that planet sent shards of rock flying into space. Eventually one of those hand-sized rocks plunged into earth’s gravity and was collected in the deserts near Morocco or some dry spot like that. It came through the hands of a collector into the realm of scientists who spliced off a piece and found traces of water inside. Eureka! Mars was once wet.

But it isn’t any more. The climate changed. The same goddamned thing could happen to Earth. What is so hard to conceive about that? Human arrogance blocks it out.

The Earth is changing right now. Droughts are getting more severe. Fires are raging everywhere. Wine plantations are migrating up mountains for growing conditions.

There are people who deny that fact because they refuse to think beyond their own selfish, ideologically clogged noses. They are the snots of economic and religious prejudice. They likely haven’t studied the look and feel of a planet like Mars, where nothing lives perhaps except a batch of bacteria at some volcanic vents. We don’t know that for sure yet. But even that form of life doesn’t offer much hope to supporting human survival. We’d have to import everything we need to make it work on Mars. It’s 140 million miles away. And it’s smaller than Earth.

So I’m an advocate for taking a harder look at what we’re doing to life on Earth while we study what the prospects for life on Mars really are. Sixty years ago people imagined their might be Martians living there, and great cities awaited to be discovered. What we’ve discovered instead is a burned out sphere with rocks that look like a dumped out bag of granola and cinnamon. The bad news is that they’re not any more edible than Mars is livable.

Let’s focus on what the biblical notion of dominion really means to the human race. We’d better take care of what we’ve got, or Life on Mars will be all we have.

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