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NASA wants help planning the future exploration of Mars

Following the recent blood-spattered, Washington Mars exploration budget chainsaw massacre, NASA is looking for help with mapping out and planning its future efforts to reach, study and explore Mars. Here’s the press release…

http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2012/apr/12-112_MPPG_Update.html

On there you’ll find a link to a much more detailed article asking for input from “The Mars community” – which means scientists and boffins, I think, not rover-huggers like me.

But here’s my two cents worth anyway.

(Warning: this might well turn into an unrealistic, naive rant, but it’s my blog, and I’m free to post my own personal thoughts here about my passion for Mars and its exploration, so there! *raspberry noise*!)

I wish, oh how I wish, I could take the NASA “Powers That Be” up to Kendal Castle with me on the next clear night, lead them into the ruins of Kendal Castle, and show them Mars shining like a jewel above the crumbling towers and turrets. I’d then tell them what I think they should do about Mars, and it would be this…

You’ve a chance to take a deep breath now, to pause, and figure out what’s really important. And when you think about it, I mean really seriously think about it, you’ll realise that there’s one overwhelmingly, face-slappingly obvious question to answer about Mars. Not how strong its winds are, not how many layers its rocks have, not what’s going on in its core. But this: is there, or has there ever been, life on Mars?

No-one’s a bigger fan of the rovers, or of robot geology, than I. I live, breathe and sleep the adventures of Spirit and Opportunity, as my writings show. But really, it’s time to get serious about martian astrobiology. We’ve been pussyfooting around the question of life on Mars for too long.

We should know by now, damnit, if Mars has, or had, life, it’s ridiculous! Depending on who you ask, Viking may or may not have found evidence of microbial life – and a new re-evaluation of the results from the landers suggests that the probes did indeed find life, we just didn’t realise it then. (Only fair to say that that re-evaluation itself is being hotly debated, but that’s a good thing, because it shows just how important and timeless this question is.)

It honestly baffles me how it can be that we still don’t know if Mars has life or not? Come on!! The Vikings landed 35 years ago!! People were wearing flares then, and sideburns, and brown/orange suits with huge flappy lapels! Mobile phones were the size of bricks, home computers were only found in science fiction novels, and the height of TV drama was Charlies Angels! It’s two thousand and ***** twelve! Mobile phones are so small you can slip them into your pocket. We have home computers with a frightening amount of processing power, that people plucked from the 70s would think were magic or reverse-engineered alien tech. We can fly probes through the plumes of Enceladus, and land them on Titan. But we haven’t figured out yet if there’s life on Mars? It’s nuts!

So, if I got those NASA people up to Kendal Castle, on a dark and clear night, I’d tell them this…

Stop faffing about, and just set NASA’s Mars exploration teams a challenge that they can become passionate about; a challenge with a true goal;, a task with a beginning, a middle and an end. Tell them to find out, once and for all, if Mars ever had, or now has, life.

To help them with this, go global. Ask for help from and collaboration with space agencies, scientists, experts and communities all around the world. Organise a huge conference, inviting all those people, and set it a tough but single goal – to establish a framework for a genuine, no-nonsense, answer-the-bloody-question-once-and-for-all mission to look for signs of life on Mars. Find the most promising-for-signs-of-life landing site on the planet, and figure out exactly what equipment a lander (or landers) would need to carry to study it properly. Figure out exactly which tests would have to be carried out on the samples gathered. Agree on a definition of “martian life” right from the start, so the mission scientists aren’t humming and haa’ing after the landing.

Basically, hang above the venue’s main entrance a ruddy huge poster – “WANTED: Martians, Dead or Alive”.

Focus. Get serious. Get real. No other distractions. Plan a mission to go to Mars and answer the question of life there once and for all. Have it carry a laboratory that would test the dirt and soil there with the right instruments to find life it’s there; have it carry a microscope and camera that would be able to image fossils, or micro-fossils, if they’re there to be seen; have it carry sensors that can sniff the martian air and detect the icy cold breath of microbes and bacteria if they’re there to be found. Yes, it would be a big mission, a complicated mission, but it’s a mission with a set goal and a history-making, magnificent prize at the end of it. And a result either way, positive or negative, would help define our view of Mars – and what to do with it – for generations to come.

That’s what I’d tell them.

Why?

Well, ok, that’s one of my dreams, to be around when life is discovered on Mars, so it’s a selfish ask, I know. But also, because I really think the public would actually get behind a Mars mission dedicated to looking for life there. Because while many of you, my dear readers, care passionately about the meteorology, geology and chemistry of the Red Planet, most of the people Out There – doing their shopping, washing their cars, playing with their kids, balancing their cheque books or walking the dog along the river on their way to the pub – don’t actually give a monkey’s about any of those things. They honestly could not care less about how detailed that HiRISE image of layers in a crater is; they haven’t got the slightest bit of interest in how complicated the chemistry is of the martian dust, or how it is distributed around the planet by Mars’ weather systems. They couldn’t give a **** if Mars has a solid or liquid core. None of those hings are relevent to them, and never will be.

But life on Mars? Ah, now there’s something interesting..!

I have this conversation and this reaction all the time, pretty much after every Outreach talk I give. I’ve lost count of the number of epople who’ve come up to me and said something along the lines of “Aliens on Mars? Hmmm… if there are simple life forms there, then maybe there are more complicated forms of life Out There, right?”

If NASA set itself a goal of finding out once and for all if Mars had, or has, life, and sent a mission there purely to answer that question, I think they’d get a huge increase in public interest and support.

I’m not stupid, though, I’m not naive. I know that getting ANYTHING to Mars is incredibly hard, and such an astrobiology-focussed mission would take a helluva lot of planning, designing and operating, but I genuinely think it’s the only way for NASA to move forward with Mars exploration. As much as they appreciate the pretty pictures of Mars sent back by NASA’s hardware, many people do wonder – I know this because they tell me – if it’s actually worth the enormous expense, because all the science doesn’t actually change our overall view of the universe or our place in it. Great science, yes, but of no real consequence to the average person. But many of those “average people” have a real interest in our place in the universe, and are intrigued and fascinated by the prospect of finding life in space, because, very simply, it would change our view of things.

I know I’m probably coming across as unreasonable here, as impatient and unrealistic, but that’s ok, I’m just typing as I think, and I’m thinking that if NASA is asking for input from people then my input is as good as anyone else’s. I don’t work in space science, I’m not an astrobiologist, or an engineer, or a software designer. I’m just a guy who lugs a telescope up to a ruined castle on a cold, clear night to gaze longingly and lovingly at Mars, and wishes with all his heart that we finally, after all these years, knew if there is anything alive on it, or even just if anything was alive on it once, you know?

Because seriously, in 2012, we really should know by now.

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3 Responses

  1. 100% Agree. So many wasted chances, so many wrong turns, so many clear paths left untaken. The ‘step by step’ approach is fine, but only if you know where you are going, travel in a reasonably straight line & remain focused on getting there. It’s now long past the time for baby steps, damn it, we should be there already. Nasa – love you to death, but grow up & just do it, why don’t you!

  2. Yes, I agree 100% too. Seems to me that post Viking and the inconclusive results that gave NASA took fright at looking directly for life, past or present. They decided to play safe and do some geology and snap a few million pictures. If you think about it, geology and some photography and a little bit of observing the weather is 100% safe for them. Mars is a nice big ball of rock, therefore you can photograph it in ever increasing detail, you can do geology because it is rock. It has an atmosphere and weather too, so you can watch that too. Trouble is, all they’re doing is killing time and the public interest taking pretty pictures and finding lots of types of rock, even meteorites from elsewhere!

    Come on NASA, pluck up some courage and go for it! You have a planet with a solid surface, lots of minerals, an atmosphere with Carbon Dioxide and Methane in it, frozen water today and plenty of evidence that in the past there was liquid water. There was once an internal heat source and there may be traces of it left too, you have enough sunlight reaching the surface today. There are so many things stacking up in the results that would be of benefit for life as we know it, that the goal humanity should pursue, with urgency at Mars is ‘Find the signs of life, past or present’. Never mind the ‘follow the water’ nonsense, we know it was there, we know it was widespread, we know where it has got to now.

    Let’s have this new goal and inspire the average person, not just the scientists and space geeks like myself!

    Oh, and yes, I do love the rovers too, and for that matter, any and all space missions, manned or robotic. I’m just nuts about space, but lets do something as a species that the whole of humanity would be interested in.

  3. First, we have to find life on Earth. Slap any Mars lander down in the middle of the Atacama desert and see if it can detect signs of life, living or extinct. Slap it down in the antarctic, the Australian outback the Sahara. Will it detect signs of life? There was a documentary on tv recently which featured a collaboration between American and Russian scientists trying to use a rover to find life in the badlands of the US. It failed to discover anything living, even missing dinosaur footprints by a few metres. Build a probe to find life on Earth and then send it to Mars.

    Cheers,
    Fatty

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