Whether life exists on Mars now, or did in the past, we probably can send manned missions there. Once we get there, the Red Planet certainly has the raw materials needed to build human colonies there.
However, the possibility of colonizing Mars – or any other Solar System body – raises some tough questions:
- Does Mars have anything economically valuable to Earth or is colonization just an excuse to support careers in space science now that the Space Race is over?
- If we find life there, what should we do about it?
- If we ourselves become the Martians, can or should we avoid exporting the bad side of human existence there along with the good?
Facts about Mars
As we saw last week, there have been many successful missions to Mars. We now know a lot of basic facts.
While Venus is our closest neighbor in terms of distance from the Sun, size and density, Mars is otherwise our twin. The Red Planet’s rocks and sand dunes are like our deserts, and they bear the same marks of past volcanic flows as well as rivers, glaciers, lakes and possibly oceans. There is water ice in its northern and southern poles, although most of the ice there is carbon dioxide.
Its day (called a sol) is 24 hours 37 minutes and 22 seconds long, although its year lasts for 1.88 Earth years. The longer year is because Mars has a more eccentric orbit around the Sun than Earth does.
Its planetary axis is also tilted more than Earth’s. This means that the Martian southern hemisphere has much hotter summers than in the north. Southern summers on Mars are also shorter, because the planet moves faster when it’s near the Sun.
The average temperature on Mars is -67 degrees F (-55 degrees C), though it has some pretty big swings. The Global Surveyor recorded temperatures of -200 degrees F (-130 degrees C) at the pole and 30 degrees F (-1 degrees C) at the equator.
Over billions of years the solar wind has stripped most of the planet’s early atmosphere. Surface air pressure there now is only about 1/100 that of Earth’s. Martian air is mostly carbon dioxide, and it’s lethal to people and plants.
Water and CO2 clouds float in its sky, dust devils twist along its surface, and dust storms sometimes cover its entire surface. There is frozen water and CO2 precipitation seasonally at both poles. In summer, a lot of CO2 sublimates (goes from ice to gas without any liquid phase) from the poles, raising the planet’s atmospheric pressure.
Weather on Mars is controlled by the imbalance of seasonal heating and cooling in each hemisphere, as well as by the freezing/sublimation cycle of carbon dioxide at the poles. Air moves from south to north during half of the Martian year, and then reverses flow for the other half. Winds can blow very hard, as much as 250 mph (400 kmh), engulfing the entire planet in dust storms.
The Martian north pole points at a different star, but when you can see the night sky, the constellations there are the same as on Earth, only there’s a little blue dot up there instead of an orange one.
Martian gravity is about 40% of ours because the planet is smaller and less dense than Earth. For much of its history, Mars hasn’t had a magnetic field to shield it from solar radiation. Its surface is bathed with intense radiation and battered by impacting
solar space debris.
Martian rocks generally have more iron (that’s why they’re rusty red [edit: on the outside]) and less aluminum that terrestrial rocks. Although the planet’s volcanoes may still be active, Mars has no plate tectonics. It’s what geologists call a one-plate planet, but it nonetheless has some of the most spectacular volcanoes in the Solar System.
Olympus Mons, at 69,480 feet (21,183 meters), is highest volcano in the Solar System. It towers three times the height of Mauna Loa, Earth’s biggest active volcano, from summit crater to base.
A little over a thousand miles (1,700 km) northeast is Alba Mons. Its summit crater, Alba Patera, isn’t very high, but the entire volcano is some 3,000 km wide and 2,000 km north to south, covering an area equivalent to the size of Libya here on Earth. Alba Mons, therefore, has the greatest volume of any known volcano in the Solar System.
Putting boots on the ground
Planet-wide mineralogy surveys of the Martian surface have been carried out, but a search through books in the local library and some serious Web searching suggests that scientists still know very little about variations in local geology and absolutely nothing about what’s below the surface.
Therefore, our first question – does Mars have any economic value – can’t be answered yet. Careers in planetary science are safe for a while yet!
Let’s look instead at the the basic necessities for colonization:
- Spacecraft to get there, to return to Earth, and to supply and maintain the colonies
- A biological buffer of some sort to prevent biological contamination of Mars and, possibly, Earth
- Life support
- Protection from radiation and meteorites
- Reliable means of surface travel
- Economic and social sustainability (I haven’t seen this discussed very much, but clearly the economic benefits will have to be be greater than the cost of getting to Mars and living there, and social instability either on Earth or in the colonies would endanger the entire scheme)
There is no lack of planning for this.
NASA and their suppliers are currently focused [edit: on] robotic exploration and possible sample return missions.
Private ventures include Mars missions from SpaceX, the Inspiration Mars Foundation and Mars One.
Artists of the 21st century, like ArtFX, are also giving us their vision of the push to Mars:
It sure sounds and looks great. But what happens when the question of whether there is life on Mars is answered positively, negatively, or factually (our becoming the planet’s residents)?
Indigenous life on Mars
When we’re talking about the colonization of a place by humans, we should give a nod to our history by calling life in that area, even when it’s not on Earth, indigenous. We are, after all, following the same sort of internal urges that spurred exploration of our own planet, not something new and strictly science-like that appeared out of nowhere in the mid to late 20th century.
wall, North American natives back in the day probably evoked a feeling akin to “extraterrestrial” in the hearts and minds of the first European explorers who met them, a feeling that Genghis Khan and his followers, for example, would have shared as they encountered people and worlds in the west whose existence they couldn’t have imagined back home on the steppes.
Anyway, at first glance Mars appears sterile. We have learned that the planet’s surface has less organic matter (not alive, just a result of cosmic bombardment) than our own Moon. Other tests for life on Mars, however, have been inconclusive.
ALH 84001 is one of the rare SNC meteorites – pieces of rock that were ejected from Mars and made it to Earth. The jury is out on whether it shows traces of Martian bacterial activity…or
it may not whether it doesn’t.
Biology and chemistry tests for life, like one that detected methane there, have been inconclusive.
Certainly flowing water was plentiful on Mars billions of years ago, as this NASA
Goodard Goddard animation shows.
To date, though, no widespread carbonate formations have been found to confirm that life ever existed in that water.
This doesn’t prove that life never existed on Mars. It might just mean that the water was more acidic than Earth’s. It still might have supported life. Here on Earth, some extremophiles do live in acid environments, and they don’t form carbonates.
Even though the question of whether life is or once was present on Mars hasn’t been answered yet, now is a good time to think about what we might do if we did find it.
Should we make the entire planet a hands-off “wildlife” preserve, turn that life (if it is weaker than us) into research material, take defensive/offensive steps (if it is superior and/or hostile to us), or find ways to coexist with the native Martians?
Should we care about life on Mars?
As things stand now, yes and no. Just a few ideas off the top of my head:
Yes: The discovery of extraterrestrial life would be one of the biggest scientific events of all time and might tell us much about our own origins.
No: We need to care more about human life on Earth, which is difficult for all but the fortunate few, and we need to take responsibility for our terrestrial environment instead of looking for places to move to after it changes for the worse.
Yes: The discovery of life on another world would have a unifying effect here since we would now think more in terms of “us” and “them.”
No: It would inevitably become “us” versus “them.” Depending on the lifeform, it might even become “them” versus “us,” either unintentionally (biological contamination) or intentionally (let’s go full H. G. Wells here). Ignorance can indeed be bliss.
Yes: The discovery on Mars of something resembling Earth’s extremophiles could show us ways to survive there that we hadn’t dreamed of.
No: Such exploitation is wrong. We shouldn’t turn indigenous Martian life into research fodder just because it isn’t able to resist us or give its permission.
Now, supposing something valuable is found on Mars – precious minerals, a new energy source, the cure for human death, whatever. You know as well as I do, given the history of humanity, what the answer to our question will be: No.
If Martian life is found and is weaker than us, some will be saved for research and zoos. The rest will be obliterated.
This brings us to the ultimate question.
What if we’re the Martians?
And watching the end of this incident is one of my guilty pleasures:
All right, Buzz!
Like most right-thinking people, I cheer Dr. Aldrin for the way he was polite at first, then tried very hard to avoid this guy, and finally took care of the problem when all else failed. That guy’s nerve – hassling one of the first two men on the Moon like that!
It’s a difficult video to watch, too, and pretty sad. We human beings can be awful sometimes, and that video doesn’t show the half of it.
But on Earth, there’s plenty room for creeps, if only because there’s also room for heroes like Buzz Aldrin as well as ordinary folks like me. It all balances out, more or less. If somebody is stupid enough to go after a man who not only has the Right Stuff but also still has well-functioning upper arm muscles, that’s his affair. We’ll watch it play out as it inevitably must and then go on our way, maybe reminding ourselves not to be such an Adam Henry.
It won’t happen like that on Mars. No troublemakers will be allowed. Only “right-thinking people” will ever get there. And they might not be you or me.
That’s not the reason why I’m worried. After all, I’m over 60, like Earth and plan to stay here.
No, it’s because troublemakers, even king jerks like that guy, serve some purpose. It’s not often clear exactly what, but not for nothing did Ambrose Bierce define a malefactor as “the chief factor in the progress of the human race.”
I don’t like to see a man in his 80s bullied by a fanatic (which is why I cheered Buzz), but in the long view, all right-thinkers, including me, left unchecked, tend to turn into prigs and then tyrants. Human history backs me up on that.
So…imagine prigs in control of Martian air locks, radiation shields, food and water, and the ticket back to Earth.
Yeah. Just think about that for a while.
Perhaps the question now, before we have committed ourselves irrevocably to Mars colonization, should be this: What sort of life does humanity as a whole wish to have there and how can that life be achieved?
Only after we have satisfactory answers to that can we truly say we are ready to begin traveling to Mars.
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Buzz Aldrin. Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration. Washington, D. C. National Geographic Society. 2013.
Linda Elkins-Tanton. The Solar System: Mars. New York. Chelsea House. 2006.
J. McCartney. Carbon Dioxide Cycling on Mars. Oregon State University. 2011.
Kevin Nolan. Mars: A Cosmic Stepping Stone. New York. Praxis, 2008