Archives For mars

hazy mars

NASA’s recent big announcement, leaked before it was publicly made, is really quite interesting and offers the strongest evidence yet that Mars does have liquid water that might host life. Odd gullies and wet-looking streaks around the planet’s equator have been scrutinized for years, but after finally managing to get a spectroscope close enough to study them, the data confirms the tell tale signs of extremely salty liquid water, practically a brine, being responsible for these wet streaks on the Martian surface. No matter how they formed, their chemical signatures require a non-trivial amount of liquid to be present throughout the process, and this discovery means that something dynamic is happening under the surface where living things could be safe from a UV bombardment that has seemingly sterilized the surface. This means the next probe we send is going to be looking for alien microbes in Martian caves and will be planned and built post haste now that we know where to look and have the strongest indication yet of possible life, right?

Well, maybe not. One of the big catches is that while we now know there’s liquid water on Mars and that it has a visible effect on the surrounding environment, we don’t know in what form it is, and whether there are sub-surface aquifers or it’s a side-effect of another process. Without any direct signs of persistent water we don’t actually have a great indication for potential life. And as the water that does exist must be briny to avoid freezing solid right away, it’s full of alien salts, a few of which are actually extremely poisonous to life as we know it. Perchlorate has been found before in massive quantities and we know that whatever oceans Mars once had contained it, so while it may be possible that extremophile bacteria evolved to cope with it in the water and later on survived ever-increasing concentrations as the seas boiled, then froze away, it’s significantly lowering the number and variety of possible organisms we might find. And we can’t rule out the grim possibility that it completely snuffed out life because perchlorate salts break down organic compounds that would’ve been by far the most likely building blocks for Martian microbes.

Another thing to consider is that while Mars could well have large cave networks, giving several alien ecosystems a chance to hide from the windstorms and radiation on the surface, without a source of nutrients and neutral solvents, those organisms couldn’t survive. We don’t know if any of these nutrient sources exist, and whether anything underground could purify Martian brine of its toxic salts, which could prevent more complex life from evolving in what would have been an otherwise safe and stable environment. We would have to figure out what organisms could feed and reproduce in environments rich in the chemicals found on the red planet, and devise a way to explore Martian caves with restrictions imposed on us by the size and power of the robots we can actually launch and operate in mind. Digging to find an existing cave is out of the question, we’d have to find an entrance into one. Likewise, the robots we send would require a degree of independent thought most machines currently don’t have because they would have a very hard time communicating with mission control through the many tons of Martian rock and sand.

Compare the missions that would be required to find a microscopic extremophile colony cluster on Mars with the promise of missions to Europa and Enceladus with vast, warm, salty oceans a lot like ours and offering the chance for complex living things to evolve, and it seems that while looking for signs of life on the red planet would be interesting, the payoff isn’t that great. Again, this is not to rule out that there’s life on Mars, but given the abundance of chemicals we’re very confident are poisonous to every organism with even remotely recognizable chemistry, there is the chance that Mars is no longer a habitable world for anything we would readily identify as an unambiguously living thing. And that’s kind of sad to consider because for the last 200 years, a great deal of scientific literature fixated on Mars having advanced intelligent life which built vast canal systems for global irrigation and erected large cities much the same way we tend to do. If after all that hoping we find out that Mars is now a dead world, emotionally, that would hurt. But that’s science for you. Often times the reality isn’t what you wanted it to be, and with in the very long running hunt for life on red planet it seems that its past was rosier than its present…

terraformed mars

Mars has been calling humans for centuries and with every year we seem more eager to come and set up the groundwork for a lasting presence, so much so, there’s someone very seriously thinking about making the planet its own nation state. But living on Mars is far easier said than done because it’s atmosphere is a ghostly shell, it’s cold, dry, and barren, its magnetic field will offer so little protection from cosmic radiation that its surface can even kill bacteria that happily live inside nuclear reactors, and there are serious question about whether its soil will grow food and plants necessary for long term survival. And that’s not to mention the challenges of getting there safely, and the astronauts’ mental health tens of millions of miles from home. Now, when we do solve the problem of actually getting there comfortably, intact, and quickly, we could deal with the problems of living in a frigid alien desert by building vast, complex, expensive habitats, and hope for the best. Or we could get really ambitious and turn Mars into a livable world.

Plans for terraforming Mars have been around in both science and science fiction for decades, calculated to take several hundred years, cost trillions, and start out by pumping a noxious mix of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to build it up and melt the polar icecaps. The process should essentially allow for a similar runaway greenhouse effect as Venus’, but keeping Mars at very warm and comfortable temperatures for us. Solar panels the size of Texas hovering over a few strategic points near the poles to redirect sunlight and melt the ice faster, have also been a periodic part of the plan. After the planet starts to warm up, hearty algae can be planted to feed on the toxic gasses and start replacing them with oxygen, much like on primeval Earth on a fast forward setting. If everything goes well, some 125 years after we begin, trees could grow in the Martian soil to speed the process up even more and stabilize the oxygen levels for humans.

Of course, those very interested in terraforming Mars do not want to wait over a century before genetically engineered super trees create the first forests on their chosen planet. They’d like to speed things up a bit using nuclear weapons. That’s right, under one terraforming scenario that Elon Musk explained to Colbert a few night ago, the process of making Earth 2.0 starts with the apocalyptic nuclear bombardment of the Martian poles. Once you’ve basically converted much of the dry ice to vapor after 500 to 800 mushroom clouds finally dissipate, the hot steam could, in theory, start the runaway feedback loop that would puff up the atmosphere and trap enough sunlight to raise the planet’s average temperature to a toasty 15° C or 60° F, although there will be so much fallout that the plants needed to convert much of that to oxygen and nitrogen would have to wait at least a few centuries. And that’s the downside of this plan, really. It is a cheaper, easier way to start terraforming, but over the long term it would really slow things down.

In general, since Mars is already a radioactive desert, there isn’t much that nuclear fallout could do to it that the sun isn’t already doing on a daily basis on the surface. But the surface is not an issue here, it’s the soil underneath. Radioactive elements like cesium will leach into it, poisoning the plant life we’ll ultimately need to sustain. You can see a similar problem in the Bikini Atoll as nuclear tests have rendered growing food there dangerous when cesium-137 mimicked the role of potassium and was absorbed into the local flora. It would take massive remediation efforts to prepare Mars for its greening, something which would run up the budget significantly, or we can just wait for the century or two it would take for the soil to be safe enough for the algae. And for my money, no one is going to choose the far more expensive and resource-consuming process when just waiting would do the job. But that means that we paid for cheapening out on starting the greenhouse effect we needed with an additional century, in the best case scenario.

However, thinking about this game me an idea. We do know of a way to get the oomph of huge nukes and create the same kind of damage without any of the complicated weapons we’d have to somehow convince nuclear powers to give up after modifying complex treaties that are taken so seriously that violating them could open the way to turning Mad Max into a preview of much of our world’s future. Large kinetic missiles dropped from satellites could easily kick start a huge polar melt and our terraforming factories could immediately get to work on making sure that the feedback loop does begin by surgically adding extra greenhouse gasses when needed. And as the kinetic impactors would be just solid spikes of hardened alloys, manufacturing thousands of them should actually be orders of magnitude cheaper than getting nuclear warheads ready and secure enough to be launched into space. This way, we could get the benefit of a nuclear-scale bombardment for a tiny fraction of the price, none of the radiation, and none of the delays. The only things that would be left in the aftermath are craters that we’d help erode away.

So the process sounds good so far, once again. There’s just the small question of whether the hard work of terraforming the red planet will actually stick, which is still a matter of debate. You see, the problem is that Mars may be too small to hold on to a large, thick atmosphere like ours and its lack of volcanic activity and weak magnetic field would only make it worse. Technically, a planet capable of holding on at an adequate atmosphere for 10 billion years can be as small as just 5,690 km across while Mars is almost 6,800 km in diameter, so you’d think there’s a rather comfortable 12% margin above the minimum. But this is a spherical chicken in a vacuum figure which isn’t capturing the complexity of chemical reaction between the sun, surface, and air, and don’t take the solar wind into account. We could invest 250 years into creating a thick, luxurious atmosphere only to see it scoured away to barely breathable in less than twice that time as the planet’s weak magnetic field can’t protect it. We’d have to add 70,000 tons of gas to the Martian atmosphere every year to offset the loss. Hey, no one said terraforming a world will be easy.

Ultimately there will be many challenges to creating Earth 2.0 and the end product might never resemble our home world. Costs will mount, political and legal questions will have to be tackled, and the project could only be accomplished if every advanced economy works together to keep it moving along for longer than something close to two thirds of the nations we recognize today existed. It would be the biggest mega-engineering project ever undertaken, which is why it’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future to be blunt. But it seems that we understand much of the underlying science and have a good idea how to actually make it happen, so if money could one day cease to be a hindrance to this idea, or it suddenly became a top priority after a major catastrophe loomed on Earth and millions needed an escape route within a few hundred years, we may just turn Mars into our second home world with kinetic missiles and a greenhouse gas spewing network of factories. Should you ever be legally able to buy land on Mars, maybe you should shell out for a hundred acres. Your great-great-grandchildren might thank you…

[ illustration by Marcel Labbé-Laurent ]

astronaut on mars

Astrobiologist Jacob Haqq-Misra likes to ask questions about our future in space. If you’ve been following this blog for a long time and the name seems familiar, it’s because you’ve read a take on a paper regarding the Fermi Paradox he co-authored. But this time, instead of looking at the dynamics of an alien civilization in the near future, he turned his eye towards ours by asking if it would be beneficial for astronauts we will one day send to Mars to create their own government and legally become extraterrestrial citizens from the start. At its heart, it’s not a really outlandish notion at all, and in fact, I’ve previously argued that it’s inevitable that deep space exploration is going to splinter humanity into independent, autonomous territories. Even further, unless we’ve been able to build warp drives to travel faster than light and abuse some quantum shenanigans to break the laws of physics and communicate instantaneously, colonists on far off worlds would eventually become not just different cultures and nations, but different species altogether.

However, the time scales for that are thousands to hundreds of thousands of years, while plans for an independent Mars advanced by Haqq-Misra are on the order of decades. And that’s very problematic because the first Martian colonies are not going to be self-sustaining. While they’re claiming their independence, they’re being bankrolled and logistically supported by Earth until a time when they can become fully self-sufficient. Obviously that’s the goal, to travel light and live off the land once you get there, but laying the basic infrastructure for making that happen in an alien wilderness where no terrestrial life can exist on its own requires a lot of initial buildup. And under three out of the five main provisions of what I’m calling the Haqq-Misra Mars Charter, the relationship between the colonists and Earth will be parasitic at best, violating international laws on similar matters, and ultimately restricting the colony’s growth and future prospects.

For example, under the charter, every piece of technology sent to Mars is now Martian property in perpetuity and cannot be taken back. What if this technology is software updated by a steady internet connection used for communication between the two worlds as NASA is planning? Will some Martian patent trolls start suing Earthly companies for not handing over the rights to their digital assets? Not only that, but if a Martian pays for this software, he or she is in violation of a trade prohibition between the planets. That’s right, no commerce would be allowed, and neither would input on scientific research that the Martians feel infringes on their right to run their world as they see fit. In other words, Earth is expected to shell out cash, send free technology, write a lot of free software stuck in legal limbo, and keep its opinions to itself. This does not sound like setting up a new civilization as much as it sounds like enabling a freeloader. Any even remotely plausible Martian colony will have to pay its own way in technology and research that should be traded with Earth on an open market. That’s the only way they’ll be independent quickly.

And of course there’s the provision that no human may lay claim on Martian territory. However, should the colonies lack a sufficiently strong armed forces, their ability to enforce this provision would be pretty much nonexistent. Sovereign territory takes force projection to stay that way so what this provision would be doing is creating an incentive for military buildup in space as soon as we set foot on Mars. Considering that the top three space powers which will be capable of a human landing on another world in the foreseeable future currently have strained relations, it is not something to take lightly. Runaway military buildup gave us space travel in the first place. It can change the world again just as quickly. And I can assure you that no nation in the world will be just fine with heavily armed extraterrestrial freeloaders with whom they can’t engage using a lot of resources these countries have to provide on a regular basis to keep them going. There’s not going to be a war for Martian independence that Haqq-Misra wants to avoid, but there may be one of Martian annexation. And probably a fairly short war at that when the troops land.

Now, all that said, after a century of colonies, terraforming attempts, and several generations of colonists who know Mars as their home, I can definitely see the planet turning independent. It’s going to have the self-sufficiency, economy, and culture to do so, and that culture isn’t going to be created ex nihlo, as Haqq-Misra is hoping to force by declaring astronauts Martians with the first step on alien soil. They will be speaking with Earth daily, many will identify with their nations of origin and their cultures, and it’s all going to take a long time to gel together into something a future researcher can call uniquely Martian. And what it will ultimately mean to be a Martian will be shaped by two-way interactions with those on Earth, not by forced isolation which could give megalomaniacs a chance to create a nation they could subjugate, or utopians a chance to build an alien commune with the consequences that would entail, while people who could help give a group of critics a means to be heard, are legally required to stay out of the way. But the bottom line is that we need to learn to thrive on Mars and spend a great deal of time there before even thinking of making it its own autonomous territory. It will happen, just not anytime soon.

valles marineris

Despite the flimsy plans and questionable premise of the Mars One project, there are now tens of thousands of people who signed up to possibly die on another planet and only a few of them will be chosen for the reality show style mission. Which is still many years away from being ready in any way, shape or form. But as would-be colonists are preparing to leave Earth behind for an alien tundra, one of the big things going overlooked is their mental health, according to a post featured in The Guardian. No, no one’s implying that the applicants are not in their right mind to sign up for a once in a lifetime trip, literally, but that their psyche is in serious danger because a number of studies on human behavior in isolation, under scruitiny, and in confined spaces for a long period of time point to a very high probability of boredom, depression, and anxiety. And the last thing you want a space colonist to be is bored, depressed, and agitated. That’s when really, really bad things can happen and with no one to intervene, they can spiral out of control while a shocked audience powerlessly watches from up to 140 million miles away. This would make for an unforgettable night of TV, but it’s certainly wouldn’t make for a good mission to Mars.

As I recently argued, this is why we need spacious, almost luxury spacecraft if we want to really explore the solar system and beyond. We want our astronauts to be stimulated and have every possible comfort of home. The excitement of a mission to another planet would be powerful, but it’s only going to last so long until the monotony of a long trip takes over and all the experiments and chores turn into tedious tasks on a checklist. We need interplanetary internet with Netflix as well as games, the ability to leave messages to friends and loved ones on Earth at any time, the schedule should a lot for weekends, and the habitats should allow for both communal areas, and big private spaces to counter the feeling of being confined. Certainly this sounds like a wish list of a spoiled teenager rather than necessities for astronauts, but astronauts are humans too and we need to take care of their mental health while they’re doing things no human has ever done, and exploring places no human has ever been. Considering that they’re trying to build a city in an icy, poisonous, alien desert, is trying to give them a way to play Halo or surf the web really an unjustifiable luxury, especially if it will keep them from possibly developing a mental illness?

[ illustration by Tiago da Silva ]

approach to mars

According to Wired’s laundry list of technical and political issues with getting humans to Mars by the year 2030 or so, exploring another planet many millions of miles away won’t be Apollo 2.0 in many ways. It will be an order of magnitude more expensive per launch, require 30 months for a round trip, and needs to be financed, overseen, and executed by an international group that will include space agencies and ambitious aerospace companies with plans and launch vehicles of their own. And yet, the designs being drawn up sound remarkably like Apollo on steroids. We’re basically working with the same basic mission plans we had in the 1980s with a few workarounds for handling fuel and oxygen. Come on folks, this is another planet. It’s not just a status symbol and we don’t need to rush there just to say we went. Really, we don’t. Flag planting is great for propaganda and PR purposes, but it’s disastrous for long term exploration, which needs to be a very boring, consistent, and yes, expensive effort. We need a better plan than this.

Now, as much as this blog will support my assertion that I’m all about space exploration and will go as far as to advocate augmenting humans to travel into deep space (which led to numerous arguments with the Singularity Institute’s fellows), we don’t have to go to Mars as soon as we’re able to launch. It’s been there for 4.5 billion years. It’s not going anywhere for at least another five billion, and we owe it to ourselves to do it right. This is why instead of sending a much bigger capsule or an updated ISS for a 30 month round trip, we need to send inflatable, rotating space stations powered by small nuclear reactors. Instead of landers, we need to send self-assembling habitats. Instead of going to Mars to stick a flag into the ground, collect rocks, and do some very brief and limited experiments to look for traces of organic compounds, we need to commit to an outright colonization effort, and we need to test the basics on the Moon before we go. We won’t fulfill our dreams of roaming the stars and living on alien worlds if we don’t get this right.

Yes, it sounds downright crazy to propose something like that, especially thanks to the political climates of today. And it is. But at the risk of repeating myself, when we have trillions of banks to erase their bad bets from the books and nothing to aid the paltry budgets of space agencies or labs working on the technology of the future, the issue isn’t money. It’s priorities, vision, and will, and today’s politicians have the first one skewed, and more often than not either lack the other two, or envision our society going backwards as if this is a good thing. And we can keep right on placating ourselves by saying that we’ll at least get to roam around the solar system a bit like we did once, but that’s not how we should be exploring space. We know it’s not. if you want to really reach out into space, you go in for the long term with your eye on the spin-offs and benefits that will rain down from massive, ambitious, integrated projects that try to do what’s never been done before not by reinventing the wheel, but by attaching said wheel to a new airplane.

mars one habitat

The Mars One project generated a good deal of media attention by promising to fund its efforts to colonize the Red Planet with a reality show which would follow the crews on their one way trip and chronicle their efforts at living on another world. Now while this sounds like the most far out premise for the next season of Survivor, it’s a terrible idea for an actual mission. If you’ve ever seen a reality show, you know that producers don’t really cast people as much as they cast the stereotypes they think will give viewers the most bang for their buck. If Gordon Ramsey didn’t go on epic tirades over every dish not up to his par, slamming trays, punching the food, and having fits of apoplectic rage that would put a banshee to shame, you’d be left with a fairly boring hour of TV that would be more at home at the Food Network than on a broadcast channel. Could you imagine Hell’s Spacecraft as a real mission to extend human cities to a new planet?

And that’s not even getting to the fact that Mars One is asking anyone to apply for what should be a mission for extremely well trained professionals with numerous actual space flights on their resumes, and charging as much as $38 just to look at an application, and that it will rely on new rockets built by SpaceX to do the actual work, as well as the fact that it’s spending no time at all trying to address all the problems with flying to Mars in capsules? At the end of the day this has to be either a scam, or just a really terrible idea that will never pan out. Make no mistake, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to colonize Mars or that we can’t pull it off if we really devoted plenty of time, energy, and resources to it. We absolutely should and we’re probably very close to the place we need to be to safely and comfortably send crews to the Red Planet. But making reality shows out of it, raising money by promising one way trips to alien worlds, and relying on brand new technology not really meant or tested for these missions is not the way to go about it.

approach to mars

Whatever you do, don’t say that Elon Musk isn’t ambitious. While most Silicon Valley bigwigs try to sell us on some new app they always promise will change the world as we know it and larding their pitch with buzzwords like "social," "cloud-ready," and "disruption," he put his resources into a craft able to resupply the ISS and is busily planning what could only be described as a city of 80,000 people on Mars. How does he think this would happen? First, make his rockets reusable so they can be cleaned up and ready for their next launch in a matter of days. Second, using space tourism to create the economies of scale necessary to cut the cost of traveling to Mars to just about $500,000 or so. But while reusable spacecraft and economies of scale will go a long way, would they really encourage a mass migration of tens of thousands of people to a hostile alien world with immense dust storms, non-negligible radiation hazards, and a distinct lack of the few basic things they’ll need to survive outside of their little environmental bubble?

If SpaceX wants a Martian city, it will need to cut the trip time down from 8 months and make the flight itself a lot safer and a lot more comfortable than in an Apollo-style capsule. It would have to essentially set up something much like a space station which would travel between our planets, ferrying passengers back and forth, powering it and its engines with nuclear reactors. That’s not an easy task, both from engineering and legal standpoints, though the latter could pose far more of a problem than the former considering the history of the Outer Space Treaty. And while I can certainly see adventurous billionaires and scientific agencies shelling out even $50 million for a ticket to Mars, does SpaceX really think it can maintain a population of 80,000 people who would expect creature comforts and will have to be constantly supervised to ensure that exposure to alien gravity and radiation for months on end doesn’t leave them incapable of ever setting foot on Earth again? Sounds like Musk would have his hands full.

Finally, here’s another issue to consider. What exactly would this city provide from an economic standpoint to justify its existence? There are only so many tourists and so many scientists. While it certainly does make sense to set up a Martian habitat, a population goal of 80,000 might be a little too ambitious to be workable and the habitat is unlikely to be economically self-sustaining if we consider how remote it will be and how difficult it will be to maintain. I can certainly see why Musk would want to shoot for something like this and definitely appreciate doing science for the sake of science. But after a certain limit, something like a city or a research base would have to give companies reasons to invest in it, otherwise, it will quickly either run out of funding or work and be abandoned. Take the ISS for example. After tens of billions of dollars and decades upon decades of work, it’s finally completed. Only to be understaffed and underutilized, kept alive by space agencies trying to justify the project that’ll never be what it was meant to become. I hope that Musk takes the ISS’ example to heart and avoids making the same mistake…

circuit boards

Once upon a time I wrote a post about the sacrifices in intelligence our rovers have to make to be able to travel to other worlds and why these sacrifices are necessary. Basically, we can build very smart bots here on Earth because we can give them a big energy supply for faster, more complex, and more energy demanding computation. On Mars, however, this big energy supply will be a big liability since it will have to take away from a rover’s ability to move or its overall mission time. I’m still pretty confident in my earlier assessment, but some stories spreading around pop sci blogs made me realize that there was a AI-hobbling factor forgotten that wasn’t addressed; cosmic rays. As rovers explore Mars, they’re bombarded with radiation that easily penetrates through the red planet’ thin atmosphere. To give Curiosity the best possible tools to explore the Martian surface, it was given a very powerful setup, at least by spacecraft standards.

BAE Systems’ RAD750 chips provide it with a blazing dual 200 MHz processors and 256 MB of DRAM as well as an entire 2 GB of flash memory. Again, this is blazing only in the world of space travel since these are pretty much the specs for a low end smartphone, and even that probably has a dual core 1 GHz CPU. But the low end smartphone probably can’t withstand a massive radioactive bombardment without going haywire. The problem is the DRAM, or the memory the computer uses to keep all the things it needs to run. When hit by cosmic rays, it goes through something called a bit flip. Ordinarily, for us, this is no big deal because the vast majority of the memory our devices use is taken up by some background process, usually one with enough temporary variables that can absorb the hit before being cleared out of a register in a matter of nanoseconds. This means we either don’t care, or don’t notice, and that’s just fine for those rare cases when a stray particle flips a bit or two. Hell, we lose entire packets when we send them around the internet with certain protocols and that’s a lot more than a bit, but life goes on.

For rovers on other worlds, this is a much, much bigger issue. Not only are the bit flips a lot more frequent since they’re being showered by energetic particles, there’s a lot less margin for error since their setups are a lot more lean. Were a particle case a most significant bit to flip while a small array of bytes is telling the rover how to move, the consequences could be disastrous. The value for 0x00 [00000000] could turn into 0x80 [10000000] and instead of telling the wheel motors to stop, the byte stream just gave it the command to apply 50% power to each wheel, driving it into a ditch, or right off a cliff. And this is why the RAD750 chip is made to only tolerate a single bit flip per year, about twice during the entire Curiosity mission. Were the scenario I just outlined happen, the chip would auto-correct the stream to keep 0x00 as it was when assigned. Rovers go on their merry way, JPL is not living in fear of cosmic rays giving Curiosity a mind of its own, and we get great high rez pictures from the surface of another planet. Win, win, win, right?

Yes, but the auto-correction and the radiation hardening necessitates some tradeoff. It makes the chip more expensive, or consume a little more power, or slows down the CPU cycles, all of which could be used to make rovers smarter and more autonomous. Though dumbing them down a little is a small sacrifice for making sure they’re a lot less likely to randomly drive off a cliff unless you have the budget to build a much bigger robot, launch it on a much more powerful rocket, and devise a way for it to land safely tens if not hundreds of millions of miles from home. Don’t get me wrong, Curiosity’s dual cores and an RTG will make it a lot smarter than previous rovers, but it’s hardly an E-Einstein and unless we find a way to double or triple the size of our Martian rovers, or create artificial magnetospheres for our spacecraft, it’s going to be fairly close to the peak of the kind of intelligence we can get in an interplanetary robot for the next decade or so. Actually, considering that just testing and certifying a new radiation-hardened chip can take that long, that may be an optimistic assessment.

And this is why ultimately, we have to go to other worlds ourselves if we want to do high impact science quickly and efficiently. Robots are safer, they’re cheaper, and they don’t want hazard pay, true. But ultimately, humans are going to be much better explorers than the rovers and probes they send. Not only do they have the necessary brainpower to deal with challenging alien environments without a 34 minute delay between actions, they also have the will and interest to try new things and fit in an experiment or two that can’t be crammed into a rover’s schedule but can teach us something new and exciting as well. And this is not to mention the medical benefits we’d reap from getting humans ready to walk on other worlds and the possible wonders it could do for surgeries, physical therapy, and regenerative treatments as all these technologies and ideas are forces to come together, compete, and produce a roadmap that can be empirically tested and proven by a real mission…

approach to mars

After screaming through the Martian atmosphere and pulling off a ridiculously complicated and risky set of maneuvers, Curiosity is finally on the surface of the Red Planet. Aside from the sheer fact that we have the technology to launch an SUV-sized robot to another planet and land it with pinpoint accuracy after guiding it for more than half a billion kilometers through the void of space being awesome beyond words, this landing also demonstrates how much better NASA has been getting in landing on Mars. Considering the history of many previous missions to the cold desert world, having four machines execute three different types of descent without a hitch and survive long enough to begin extended missions just shows that the more we practice, the better we keep getting at this whole space-faring thing.

Because we can’t recreate all the rigors of space travel in the lab, we have to actually go there and test our technology in situ, and the current generations of Mars missions is reaping the benefits of all this practice. But the big question is when we’ll finally send humans to the Red Planet to join the rovers and try to build outposts on another world to see whether our species can make it as a two-planet one. Well, in my humble opinion, building outposts on the Moon has to come first so we don’t take a leap into deep space just to find that we missed something crucial because we rushed. Even more importantly, we’d need to really experiment with some bleeding age medical ideas to make human bodies far more resilient to harsh environments, ideas that could have a very tangible impact right here on Earth for tens of millions, if not billions, of people of all ages across the world…

[ illustration by NASA/JPL/Caltech ]

Since humans first realized that the strange points of light in the night sky lay beyond this planet, there were a lot of dreamers who talked of how one day we would soar among the stars and travel to other worlds. And for the vast majority of recorded history, they were in the minority as many others grumbled that the challenges of leaving the Earth are simply too great to overcome. If you lived at that time, you would’ve probably joined them as well. I mean, consider what sending a probe to another world entails. You balance your device on top of an enormous metal tube filled with flammable, toxic liquids and solids, send it up on a controlled explosion for a few hundred miles, gently detach your probe with explosive bolts (since "gentle" and "explosives" go together so well), send it barreling through the inky blackness of space for millions of miles, using the position of little pinpricks of light to stay on course, whip around your target world, and then go from 17,000 mph or more to a soft, precise landing in a zone a few miles across. No sweat, right? Well, rocket scientists beg to differ…

No wonder landing on Mars is called Seven Minutes of Terror. Not only are you threading the cosmic needle a couple of hundred million miles from home, you’re also trying to control an event akin to a meteor impact with tiny rockets and have no way of knowing whether you’ve succeeded or failed until it’s all been over for 14 slow, agonizing minutes. Quite frankly, it’s amazing that we have the math and technology to even think about going to another planet, much less successfully doing it again and again. And to think that in an age when we send robots to explore other worlds on a relatively routine basis, there are people who think this is just a big waste of time, money, and effort, forgetting that it’s these kinds of endeavors that defined human civilization, not a rat race through stock markets, or how many shopping malls we build, or how many channels we get on a cable box with a DVR. Thankfully, despite the pathological short-sightedness and lack of vision of those who ended up holding the purse strings for space agencies, we’re still flying into space, we’re still exploring, and we talk about the Seven Minutes of Terror from practical experience rather than conjecture. And if we have to endure a few minutes of anxious agony to keep exploring, I say it’s worth every minute of anticipation.