20 Days to Mars!
To keep you away from bitting your nails here's the second part of Stuart Atkinson's Phoenix and the Quest for Life. First one can be found here.
Enjoy the reading!
But as amazing as our beloved “plucky little rovers” are, they are not in the daily thoughts of the public. Why? Because they are basically robot geologists, and as much as we like to tell ourselves otherwise, ordinary people, non-space people, The Public, whatever you want to call them, are not excited by, or even interested in, the geology of Mars. Unlike the enlightened people who read spacEurope, they are not excited to hear that the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter has taken the highest resolution images yet of Mars’ surface. They don't bat an eyelid at the latest news report announcing the MERs have found PROOF that Mars had water on its surface. SO WHAT?! is the collective response to the latest batch of Themis data suggesting Mars was once warmer and wetter than it is now…
SpaceEurope readers lap up these news announcements like a cat lapping up cream. They’re what we live for, aren’t they? But as much as we like to kid ourselves that it isn't the case, that the Public are as excited by these things as we are, let's face it, they're not. And that's the truth of it.
Ah, but even whisper a rumour that Life has been found on a meteorite from Mars, or drop even a hint that a spaceprobe photo shows something artificial on the Red Planet, and boy, do ears prick up!
Which is why Phoenix will, once Landing Day is just days away, become possibly the most high profile Mars mission ever. People, ordinary people, will become fascinated by it. A media perfect storm is coming, and I hope NASA, and JPL, and the University of Arizona are ready for it, because Phoenix will soon be known – accurately or otherwise – as “the probe that’s looking for life on Mars”.
It doesn’t matter that any life found by Phoenix will be about as sexy and photogenic as a flake of lichen on a gravestone wall, or as advanced as a smear of mucous left in a hankie after a loud slushy sneeze. It would still be alien life, true, genuine, “Look at that!” alien life. And thanks to decades of enjoyable but hopelessly over-optimistic science fiction, The Public have "aliens" in their hearts, minds and souls, and there is a fascination with the subject of extraterrestrial life that grows stronger and deeper every year. There are many different camps, of course. While many - most? – people are happy to look up on a clear night and, considering the number of stars in and the size of the Universe, and the odds against Man being the only intelligent species in it, Believe, others believe that aliens buzz the Earth and its inhabitants every day, that the sky is full of cosmic joyriders swooping around in their hot-rod flying saucers with glorious disregard for the world's air forces and air defence systems, only stopping now and again to either abduct some poor hapless (and, conveniently, always camera-less) truck-driving pig farmer from Idaho, or use the downdraught of their anti-gravity drives to cut breathtaking Mandelbrot set patterns in corn fields.
Still others believe that even if the sky is devoid of aliens now, it certainly wasn't in the past, and that on at least one occasion a UFO crashed, was recovered, and is even now being taken apart, "back-engineered" in the hope of revealing its secrets. You'll have your own view on that one, I'm sure, but personally I can’t help thinking that if we are back-engineering alien technology, we wouldn’t have to put up with CD cases that break when you look at them, and milk cartons that explode when you try to open them in a hurry…
But why? Why is there this desperate fascination with the existence of aliens? Why do so many people want Phoenix to find life on Mars?
Simple. As a species we're lonely. And we're scared of the dark.
Why? Well, ever since we began to realise just how big the Universe is, and how small we are, we've had a growing feeling of insecurity and vulnerability. We look out on a clear night and with our naked eyes and can see thousands of stars. A humble pair of binoculars reveals entire other galaxies, vast pinwheels of billions and billions of more stars. Now the Hubble Telescope is taking images showing tens of thousands of galaxies in areas of sky no bigger than a marble held at arm's length… That's a lot of space, a lot of stars. It makes us tinier than tiny. If we allowed ourselves to believe that we were the only intelligent creatures in the immensity of the Universe it would drive us mad, so of course we feel lonely, and scared.
And so we yearn for the company of Others.
We are a social species, Mankind; we want the company of others, it's bred into us, we've evolved that way. Our ancestors didn't live alone, they didn't want to; they needed interaction and co-operation so they lived in groups, in families. That hasn't changed. The building blocks of our civilisation are population centres - towns, cities, etc. And now we know that our "world", the Universe, stretches out billions of light years in all directions we WANT there to others out there to talk to and interact with, we WANT there to be aliens. We want it SO badly we can taste it.
And we seem to have a particular obsession with finding Life on Mars. Remember the furore back in '97, when news broke - prematurely, it turned-out - of the discovery of fossils in a martian meteorite? The world went crazy! The scientists, to be fair, had only been announcing initial results which suggested a possibility of martian life, but as usual the media added two and two to get twenty, and before we knew it every paper's front page was declaring "We Are Not Alone!" and Bill Clinton really was standing on the White House Lawn - this time without Jodie Foster or James Wood at his side - beaming with pride at how Americans had made the "Greatest Discovery Of All Time".
Now, it's rather calmed down. No-one's sure either way. But the legacy of that breathless day remains. Ask people on the street, in the bar or in the store if they think there's life on Mars and it's a fair bet that they'll tell you all about the fossils contained within ALH84001 as if the case was proven there on Day 1. As far as they’re concerned, yep, sure there's life there, it was in the paper after all.
And now along comes Phoenix, to light the blue touchpaper of public fascination and expectation. We’d better get ready for a bang.
Would the discovery of life on Mars by Phoenix really change the world, though? It’s easy to come over all evangelical about the consequences of finding microbes or bacteria there. Surely if we found life there, however primitive, it would mean Mars would have to be turned into a kind of planetary nature preserve, and access to its surface would have to be restricted to astrobiologists until the martians had been studied and all their secrets learned..? After all, it would mean Mars was already inhabited. What right would we have to the planet if it already had natives, even if they were only visible through a microscope?
Others aren’t so convinced. Some say that granting Civil Rights to martian microbes would be ridiculous, that it would lead, disastrously, to Mars being declared “Off Limits” to explorers and colonists for generations, just because of the presence of the lowest of the lowest forms of life. They point out, and they might have a point, that rock-hugging biologists might well preach about how all life is sacred, but when they have a cold and sneeze into a hankie, they don’t keep it, even though it’s full of life, do they? So-called “Reds” scream that we should forget terraforming if we find even one bacterium on Mars, but if their kids get head lice, or they see a bug in their bed, they don’t lovingly collect them and feed them and nurture them, they kill them with shampoo, or a rolled up magazine..! I’ll admit, this argument makes me shuffle my feet uncomfortably. As a long-standing Red I hate the thought of native martian life being exterminated by our exploration, but if I see a wasp on my arm, or a spider scuttling across the floor, I don’t worry about its “rights”, or the beauty of its creation and evolution, I send it to join its ancestors in Bug Heaven without a second thought. Yet I want to shield martian bacteria from the attention of those nasty scientists. What kind of a hypocrite does that make me?
But, bugs aside, people genuinely want to know we’re not Alone in this huge Universe, which is why so much attention is going to be focussed on Phoenix.
It's always been that way, if we're honest with ourselves. We just have to admit it, bite that bullet, and focus. Yes, the weather systems, geology and other aspects of Mars are all fascinating in their own right, and to the scientists who study those subjects they’re magical, wonderful and wondrous. But now, today, they are not fascinating to the man or woman in the street. They want bugs.
So, here we are. Phoenix is now, what, just about three weeks away from landing? In the time it’s taken you to read this it has travelled Universe knows how many more thousand miles closer to Mars. On May 25th it will end its long journey and fall out of the martian sky to streak across it like a fiery meteor, screaming through what passes for an atmosphere above Mars for what will seem like an eternity before opening its parachute and dropping to the surface, finally braking its descent with blasts of its braking rockets before, hopefully, touching down gently and safely on the icy terrain of the near pole. Across the world, tens of thousands – possibly millions – of people will watch the events of entry, descent and landing played out on media viewers on their computer screens, studying the faces of the flight controllers for any signs that all is well, or not well. If it is anything like the landings of Spirit and Opportunity it will be absolute torture, six minutes of true terror. But if… no, when… that first signal comes in, and the flight controllers leap to their feet, punching the air, slapping each others backs and shouting “Yes!!!!” at the ceiling we’ll leap and shout with them.
Then the Wait. The Wait for that First Picture. It should come back quite soon, and then we’ll get our first look at a completely new martian landscape. There’ll be none of the hills seen at Gusev Crater or Ares Valles. None of the craters seen at meridiani. Phoenix will show us a new Mars. I can’t wait.
And then the hunt will begin. Soil will be collected, scooped up, deposited into a small lab and subjected to test after test after test. Will those tests find life? It is possible, if unlikely. But we have to at least try. Because I truly believe that this is a test. If we don’t look for life on Mars, then maybe we’re not worthy of finding more advanced life Out There. If we take the time, and spend the money, and make the sacrifices necessary to look for and find life on Mars, no matter how primitive it is, then we will have proved our worth. If we can’t, then maybe the Universe belongs to Others, Out There.
Europa, Titan and Enceladus are beyond our reach, as are the stars, but Mars is within our grasp. Just. We have to reach out for it. Because if we do not, if we do not even try to claw our way up out of the blood-thickened filth of these tortured years, then we may be doomed to spend eternity wallowing in it.
Phoenix will show us a whole new side to Mars with its pictures. But, if it finds life there – or perhaps, even by just trying to find life there – it will show us a whole new side to ourselves, too.
© Stuart Atkinson 2008