Stuart Atkinson, spacEurope crew member, brave and intrepid outreacher, has the gift of the written word…
When I received his latest article to be published here (you can read the first part today, the second on Monday. Yes…another looong weekend ahead…), I must be honest, I read it several times before this time arrived. Why?
Because he puts the question in a way that makes sense to all of us, space exploration fans or the general public usually not enticed by this particular theme.
Head lices and life beyond Earth…who would have thought of that?
My friend…I got all “evangelical” reading you. I know others will too.
Phoenix and the Quest for Life - I
When I’m not writing or editing children’s astronomy books, or browsing the pages of unmannedspaceflight.com or spacEurope, I spend a lot of what I laughingly call my “spare time” giving illustrated talks and lectures about space exploration. I give my presentations to kids in schools, and to adult community groups too. It’s great fun, and worthwhile too; I’ll never get to fly into space myself now, I’ve realised grudgingly, but I like to think that one of the kids I’ve spoken to will one day become an astronaut, and fly to the Moon or even Mars because one of my Powerpoint presentations or workshops inspired them to when they were younger.
Every talk is different. Some audiences sit there, still and silent, like rows of zombies, as they look at the images and listen to the words. Other times the audience is so excited – by the subject, not by me, I’m sure! - that the school room or village hall I’m talking in resembles the cinema from the film Gremlins! But at the end of every afternoon or evening, when I ask if there are any questions, I can count on someone – whether the room’s full of spotty kids or grizzled oldies – asking The Questions.
There are four Questions, and they’re always asked. “How do you go to the toilet in space?” is a conundrum that occupies the evil mind of many children, and as I prepare to answer my grinning inquisitor there’s usually a teacher standing at the back of the class with a look of absolute dread etched on their face. “Have you ever been into space?” usually comes next, to which I reply, sadly, no, I haven’t, I’m too old – but you might go into space when you’re grown up! When asked question 3, “Is an asteroid going to hit us?” I resist the temptation to reply with an honest Yes, eventually! and instead I reassure my audience that it’s so unlikely to happen in their lifetimes it’s not worth worrying about. Probably. Perhaps. We’ll see.
Then, finally, there’s question 4. The Question.
“Why should we spend all this money on space when there are so many things wrong down here?”
I know what they’re expecting me to answer, I can see it on their faces as they sit there, arms folded, ready for a debate or argument. They just know I’m going to start preaching to them about how the exploration of space benefits mankind through the development of innovative new technologies (no, not non stick pans, madam…); how satellite communications have revolutionised our world; how the study of the planets helps us know more about the history and future of Earth…
So my answer comes as something of a shock.
“To look for aliens,” I tell them, looking them straight in the eye.
Boy, you should see the looks on their faces! Hunting for aliens? Seriously? That’s why we should spend billions of pounds or dollars or Euros sending golf-cart sized rovers to Mars and school-bus sized probes to Saturn?
Yes, I tell them, absolutely. Because in the end, that’s what it’s all about. We can't just go into space for the sake of it, we have to go for a Good Reason. The Right Reason. And even though its scientists and engineers, controllers and publicists all stress that Phoenix’s main mission is to see if the martian polar environment might once have been hospitable for life, and to look for and study any traces of water lingering beneath the surface there, we all know what it’s really going there for, don’t we? We all have a tiny flame of optimism and curiosity flickering and fluttering in our hearts - along with all the butterflies that are flapping about in our bellies - as Landing Day, May 25th, approaches. We want to know the answer to the ultimate and eternal space question, the question that has intrigued, frustrated and bugged the hell out of us as a species ever since the first person looked at Mars’ ruddy disc swimming in a telescope eyepiece.
Come on Phoenix, we’re all thinking, stop messing about and tell us: is there life on Mars?
After all, that’s what it’s all about, all this stuff with rockets and space-probes, space men and space women. Life.
As a species we are fascinated by Life. We are driven, with a ferocious, insatiable hunger, to learn all we can about its origins and fate, strengths and frailties, limitations and possibilities. Justifiably, we spend vast amounts of time, and money, trying to find ways of extending Life. Perversely, we spend even more time and money inventing, building and selling to others weapons to use to destroy Life.
And we look for Life with an obsessive passion. For centuries we have travelled the globe looking for new forms of Life in dense jungles, under the ocean and now beneath the ice. We are now, with ambition and optimism, starting to search for Life beyond Earth, and are fascinated by the possibility of its existence. That's why I got up so early, to see Life in the sky - or at least to see an intriguing panorama of potential homes of Life Out There. When I looked at Saturn last night, shining close to the bright Leonian star Regulus, just above the skeletal treetops, I knew that one of its moons, Titan, may have alien life on its slushy, cloud-covered surface, and maybe beneath the now-famous “Tiger Strip” fractures down near Enceladus’ south pole, you know, the ones that gush out water and all those yummy organic compounds. Whenever I look at Jupiter, flickering and flashing in the pre-dawn sky, I feel a familiar tingle when I thought about all the places Life may be lurking there: perhaps underneath the icy crusts of its moons Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, perhaps even within the storm-wracked clouds of the mighty gas giant itself, in the form of the lumbering, living zeppelins of the already greatly-missed Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination
…and if some optimistic exobiologists are right, then perhaps even the acid-saturated clouds of Twinned-With-Hell Venus, the gorgeous Morning Star which I’ve seen blazing above the mountains and fells of my Cumbrian home before dawn countless times, may harbour hardy alien microbes…
And of course, looking at the ruddy spark of Mars always sets me thinking about all the places Life might be clinging-on there: microbes could be hiding underground there, sheltering from the Sun’s sterilising UV glare, living on decades-apart sips of the red planet’s briny water; colourful colonies of bacteria could be clustered around small, volcanic vents in the shadowed depths of the sprawling Mariner Valley. Life might be even found within the rocks themselves, just as startled scientists found it hiding within rocks in Antarctica.
Life on Mars is no longer the stuff of science fiction. It could be somewhere. Anywhere. Maybe it’s everywhere, we don’t know! But thanks to Spirit, Opportunity, and a host of other probes we now know for a fact that Mars once used to be warmer, and wetter, more friendly towards the development of life.
And hey, something is putting that ammonia and methane into the atmosphere, right?
But we’re not content to look for life in our own backyard now. Now, while some astronomers search for primitive Life on the surfaces of Earth's sister planets with robots, others are designing telescopes that will one day take pictures of Earth-like worlds orbiting other stars. Within a decade we could have the first photo of a "New Terra", and surely, when it appears on websites, TV screens and the front pages of newspapers around the world, that first image of a tiny blue-green world shining like a painted marble against the blackness of deep space will have the same social impact as the first Apollo photo showing Earth as a whole disc.
But of course, the ultimate prize – our “Quest for Life’s” Holy Grail - is the detection of a signal from an alien civilisation, and as you read this, many scientists fascinated by SETI, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, are engaged in an epic search to locate that Grail. Some employ radio telescopes to listen to the Universe, using them as ultra-sensitive radio scanners that can monitor tens of thousands of bands at once. They hope to actually detect or even hear faint calls from advanced alien civilisations on planets orbiting distant, mysterious stars. Others are looking for flashes of light that might be laser beams fired at us from across the galaxy, containing words or even pictures from our faraway cousins…
The drama, romance – and frustration – of SETI isn’t restricted to professional astronomers. Around the world, more than five million ordinary men, women and children are engaged in the search too. Having downloaded special SETI@Home software onto their home (or work!) computers they can analyse the R2-D2 chirps, whistles and beeps detected by SETI telescopes and search for any ET signal they contain. They don’t even have to watch the screen while the software does its job; SETI@Home runs as a screensaver, chugging away while its host computer is idle. Around the globe, 24 hours a day, the hard drives of tens of thousands of unattended PCs spin and whirr as mailto:SETI@Hole software listens uncritically to the background muzak of the Universe, hoping to catch sound of a previously unknown, beautiful alien melody.
How ironic this development is! For decades, science fiction novels and movies have told us that the first ET signal would be detected by a geeky, white-coated astronomer in the strip-lit control room of a hi-tech observatory. Now, because of SETI@Home, the chances are it will be found by one of us. Perhaps a blue-collar worker who was driving a fork-lift around a factory warehouse will be the first human being in history to make contact with an alien intelligence. Or it might be a teenage girl who was out walking her dog when the discovery was made. Mankind’s first interstellar ambassador might be a ten year old boy, who was fast asleep, oblivious to the flickering of his PC’s hard disk light, when the first ET greeting washed over our planet…
Just think. It may even have happened already. It could be a Breaking News story on CNN, FOX, SKY or BBC News 24 now, as you read this at your computer…
So, you see, in the end, it's all about Life. Understanding, encouraging, creating Life - that’s what we, as a species, do. It may even be, in the grand scheme of things, why we're here in the first place. Maybe the scientists who dedicate their lives to solving the hallowed Drake Equation are wrong, and there are no other civilisations Out There. Someone has to be first, after all. If it's us, Man, then it might be our role, our responsibility, to spread life across the stars, across the Galaxy, who's to say otherwise?
But with exobiology dedicated missions to Europa, Titan and Enceladus decades if not generations away, the Quest for Life will focus on Mars for our lifetimes. Within three decades that Quest will take men and women to Mars, to plant bootprints in the tracks of Spirit, Opportunity and, hopefully, ExoMars too, but until then those robots will have to be our eyes and hands and tools.
Spirit and Oppy have been fantastically successful. They’ve survived technical glitches, software crashes, stalls and broken wheels. They refused to die when Mars itself tried to murder them by hurling a huge dust storm at them, darkening their skies and starving them of energy. They recently survived being caught in the “Master and Commander” like crossfire of the political and scientific civil war raging within NASA. They have not just survived, they’ve triumphed.