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What? *Another* rover going to Mars…? Hmmm.

There was a huge disturbance in the space enthusiast community’s version of the Force last night, when it was announced at a huge science conference in San Francisco that NASA is going to send *another* rover to explore Mars in 2020. Reactions ranged from stunned silence to incredulity, confusion to anger, and beyond. I read the announcement and subsequent comments and responses on Twitter with a mixture of bafflement and disbelief. Another rover? To Mars? Really?

Wow. Didn’t see that coming.

The initial reaction from many at the conference and reporting on it from elsewhere was that it was a rather bizarre decision, given that money is very short for planetary exploration – and getting shorter, with budget cuts looming – and it’s not that long ago that NASA pulled out of a rover mission with ESA too. And there are many scientists in the planetary science community who are at best envious of, and at worst mad as hell at, NASA’s continuing exploration of – some would say obsession with -Mars. What about Enceladus? they say. Or Titan? Or Europa? Why go to Mars AGAIN when there are many other, arguably more fascinating places Out There just waiting to be explored, and that COULD BE explored for a lot less than the cost of another Mars mission?

After the announcement last night many people were furious that the “new rover” – to be based on Curiosity, as far as its design is concerned – would cost a fortune, and would take away money that could and should otherwise be spent on exploring one of those previously mentioned worlds. I’ll admit I felt uneasy about that myself – ok, I’m a martian explorer to my core, to my DNA, and I am steadfast in my support of NASA’s Mars exploration program, but even I would find it very hard to justify building and launching a Curiosity 2 if that meant money was going to be cut from other missions, or if those missions were cancelled altogether – but a very informative and clear article on The Planetary Society’s blog makes iot VERY clear that this is money that has already been budgeted *for* Mars exploration, it’s not money that is going to be sliced bloodily off missions to other destinations. You can read that remarkable piece here…

2020 Mars rover in context

So. NASA is going to design and build another Mars rover, and launch it in 2020. And for all my passion for Mars, for all my years of dedication to its exploration, of support for NASA and the amazing people who do these amazing things, I have to admit I’ve got very, very mixed feelings about this news.

You would think, wouldn’t you, that a Mars nut like me would greet the news of another rover mission to Mars with all the excitement of a dog finding a juicy bone under a Christmas tree. But even my excitement has to be tempered with realism.

These are very difficult times for people. Money is short, and space missions are unbelievably expensive. Heart-stoppingly expensive. Space missions to Mars have more public support than most, I think it;s fair to say, because Mars has a hold on our imaginations unrivalled by any other body in the solar system. Why? Because we’ve grown up being told by scientists that despite it being a barren, frozen, rock-strewn, dust-covered desert world, it’s a place where extraterrestrial life might exist, or at least have existed in the past. SO people generally look more favourably upon missions dedicated to exploring Mars than exploring elsewhere because we are desperate to know if there’s Life On Mars, it really is as simple as that. And no matter how many NASA scientists, commentators, space journalists or bloggers insist that going to Mars to study its geology, its atmospheric processes and internal structure is just as exciting, the truth is that we’re going to Mars because of the “L” word – life. Either to see if there’s life there now, or if it once had life.

We really need to stop kidding ourselves, and each other, that people outside the scientific community give a **** about rock layers, erosion timetables and atmospheric pressures. They want to know if there are, or ever were, martians there. Simple as that.

Soooo… this new rover… the question is, what’s it going to Mars FOR? What’s it going to DO there? Because, honestly, if it’s just going to go there to be a Curiosity 2, to study geology, to sniff air, to eat dirt, then that’s not right, it’s just not. That would almost just be spending money for the sake of it, and I honestly think NASA would have a VERY hard time justifying that.

What it might go there for, according to many commentators, is to collect samples of martian rock and dirt and gather them up in one place to be collected, and returned to Earth, by another spacecraft at a later date. NASA is really wanting to stage a “Sample Return” mission to Mars in the future, and having Curiosity 2 collect rock and mineral samples *for* that mission would be in line with the space agency’s plans.

But

I personally think that NASA really has to use the next Mars rover to answer, once and for all, the question of life on Mars.

Now I can imagine some of you reading this scoffing at that, or sneering, or shaking your heads in disapproval. I know that many engineering types look down on astrobiology as some kind of lesser science than geology, or physics, or atmospheric studies, and dismiss astrobiology almost as a pseudo-science, not worthy of serious consideration or funding, but save it ok? You’ve had your shot at Mars, for years, for decades.¬† It’s time we went there to actually do something special, something that would make a difference to everyone, not just to professional rock breakers and microscope peerers who use the photographs and measurements to write papers full of squiggly charts and graphs, which conclude that although that mission told us a lot, we need another mission like it to find out even more.

We’ve looked for life on Mars already.. kind of. Viking tried, with technology limited by its time. Curiosity, NASA keeps telling us, ISN’T LOOKING FOR LIFE, not directly, but it MIGHT find chemical evidence showing ancient Mars wasa place where life might have existed. No, they say, it will take another mission to do that.

Well, this should be that “other mission”. To be frank, NASA has faffed about with this for far too long. The “L” word has always been something for “The future”, for “another mission”, for “another time”. Well, enough. Come on. No more delaying, no more procrastinating, no more dicking about with instruments which might find this, might find that, and might give us tantalising hints or clues about Mars’ habitability. Rocks have had their time. Geology has had its time. It’s time we went to Mars to look for life, plain and simple, with no distractions.

There will be pressure for “C2″ to be just another Curiosity with a rock collecting element added on. But it could, and should, be so much more. It should either be a wholly dedicated astrobiology mission, a rover packed with life detection instruments, or at least carry a suite of astrobiology instruments in its payload that would allow it to look seriously for life on Mars and, if it’s there, tell us something about what it is.

Because seriously, NASA can’t just keep going to Mars to take beautiful pictures of rocks and scooping up teeny scoopfuls of dust and dirt looking for “fascinating chemistry”. People – and by “people” I mean the people who pay for it, the taxpayers – aren’t going to keep putting their hands in their pockets forever. NASA enjoys huge public support and goodwill in the US, but if I was a US taxpayer I’d be seriously hacked off in 2020 if NASA just launched another robot geologist to Mars.

And yes, if I’m honest, I think even I would be a bit underwhelmed by another Curiosity. I don’t want to use the word “bored” but I don’t feel very excited at the prospect of yet another geology mission. I want a robot to go to Mars to do something incredible, something amazing, something genuinely “Earth-shaking”. I love Opportunity and Curiosity, everyone knowsI do, and I stand shoulder to shoulder with the people responsible for them. But another Opportunity? Another Curiosity? We have to move on.

The press release about the new rover states that scientists will soon be invited to propose instruments for the mission, and many of those will be brilliant I’m sure. But someone should just get the world’s best exobiology experts together, to form a Task Group or Think Tank or whatever you want to call it and have them design an instrument suite that will detect microbial life if it’s there. I’m sure they could do it, aren’t you? We must have got to that stage by now. Damn it, if you have to, if it’s the only way to do it, then just build another Beagle 2, put it on top of Curiosity 2 then drop it onto the surface after landing and let it go hunting!

I know many people will dismiss these thoughts as the ranting of a naive space enthusiast obsessed with Mars, and with looking for alien life. I can live with that. I can live with that because out here, in the real world, there are thousands, if not millions, of people like me, who just want to know, before we die, if there’s life on Mars or not. Scientists have teased us about it for generations, drip-feeding us information about the atmospheric pressure there, the humidity there, the amount of wate the dirt¬† may or may not contain, then told us “but we won’t know if there’s life there for another xx years, until a mission goes there to actually look for life”. Well enough! Stop playing with us! Get your act together and build a robot to carry a laboratory to Mars that will tell us, once and for all, if there’s life there. And if you’re going to pull out that old tired line about “Well, we’re still not sure what life is..” then get your bloody heads together and find out! That’s what you’re paid for! And when you’ve decided, send C2 to Mars and let it go hunting for that life without being distracted by rocks and dust, etc.

NASA… please… for the love of God… don’t just send another Curiosity to Mars. Don’t just go there to pick up a few rocks and drop them into a basket for yet another machine to go and collect and bring back to Earth, for scientists here to study. Grasp this opportunity to send a robot bloodhound to Barsoom and let it snuffle. Try to answer The Question once and for all.

You can’t lose. If it found life, our understanding of our place in the universe would change. If it didn’t, it would tell you much about the planet’s past and tell you you need to look elsewhere.

We’ve done rocks and dust to death. Time to think bigger, NASA.

I dare you.

Mare Orientale spotted…

There have been some lovely clear, frosty nights in Kendal recently, and after starting off overcast last night was bone-shatteringly cold and clear too – which was brilliant timing, because I wanted to try and spot a lunar feature which we can only glimpse now and again, and is on view at the moment…

The feature in question was “Mare Orientale”, a truly enormous impact basin on the lunar farside. Because of its position on the lunar globe we never see it in all its glory – it was seen by Apollo astronauts, of course, but since Apollo ended we’ve only ever seen its true structure and shape through the robot eyes of unmanned spaceprobes – but because the Moon wobbles on its axis a bit, occasionally the nearest rim of the basin pops into view on the lunar limb, and sometimes we can even enjoy a tantalising glimpse of the dark frozen lava pool in its centre.

Here’s how we see Mare Orientale from Earth (its position is marked by teh white line)…

Screenshot_2012-12-02-21-01-56

…but if we could somehow grab the Moon and twist it around, bringing Mare Orientale better into view, this is what it would look like…

Screenshot_2012-11-25-07-57-20

…and if we kept spinning the Moon around, until Mare Orientale was in the centre of the disc, this is what it would look like…

Screenshot_2012-11-25-07-57-42

Wow… imagine that… imagine if the Moon actually looked like that in our sky… how would our religions and faiths have been shaped if the rising Full Moon had looked like a big, bloated, bloodshot eye staring down at us from the heavens…?

moonrise102704s

As I said, our best views of Mare Orientale have come from craft orbiting the Moon. Here’s what it looks like from above…

mo

Pretty impressive! But that doesn’t really give a sense of scale, does it? This will help you appreciate just how big Mare Orientale is…

MO 629km2

Incredible… and that’s why I wanted to try and see it through my scope.

At the moment we can see the closest rim of Mare Orientale as a mottled light/dark area close to the lunar limb. It’s going to be at its best after next weekend, but because this morning was so clear and still I really wanted to give it a go, so at 6am I went out into the freezing (below freezing, actually, I think it reached -4 deg C overnight!) morning and aimed my humble but trusty 4.5″ reflector at the Moon – and there it was, clear as day. Mare Orientale! :-)

Hands shaking, breath forming white clouds around my head, I tried taking a few photos, lifting a very basic point-and-shoot digital camera up to the eyepiece and just clicking away optimistically… and yaaaay, a few of them show Mare Orientale! This is the best one…

mo1b

And if you’re not sure where Mare Orientale is on that admittedly less-than-perfect image, this little animation will help (you might have to click on it to run it)…

Animation1

So, there you go! Others will be taking better photos, with larger telescopes, fancier cameras and high tech kick-ass software, but I took that with my trusty little 4.5″ reflector and an almost-dead digital camera, from my own backyard. More than happy with that!

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