A question that must at some time cross the mind of every intelligent human being, does this tiny planet (earth) in the solar system - which is a dot in the galaxy itself - contain the only life form in the universe? Since it is beyond our power to reach other stars’ planetary systems (if they do indeed exist), our attention has mainly been focused on our solar system. For many years, Mars was actually thought to have intelligent inhabitants. As our knowledge of astronomy advanced, these thoughts were changed to ‘Mars is inhabited by life forms of some sort’. Although, by 1964, no one really expected to see waterways or the plantations which the Martians were once supposed to have irrigated, the space craft Mariner 4 photographs were most disappointing. Mars seemed utterly lifeless, not only biologically but geologically as well. Later, came the pictures from Mariners 6 and 7 which showed yet more lifeless craters.
Viking I was launched from earth orbit in August 1975. It traced seven hundred million kilometres in an interplanetary spiral to reach Martian orbit the following June. In July 1976 a car size tripod lander, dropped from the space craft, alighted on the rocky surface of Mars some 1200 miles from the Martian Mariner canyon system. This was the location of man’s first on-site search for life on another planet.
The successful Viking missions to Mars supplied us with most valuable scientific information. Although Mars is a rock-strewn desert, its rocks are enriched with minerals that may support life forms with water, air, and raw materials. This was the verdict of the Viking 1 and 2 missions to Mars. Mars may once have had rivers and lakes, but now the temperatures and the atmospheric pressures are so low that water can only exist in the form of vapour or ice. Scientists also suspect that the planet’s giant volcano, Olympus Mons, overlies a hot spot. Although this volcano may still erupt every 10,000 years, the red planet has essentially been frozen to death. However, there is still hope, because the experiments conducted with Martian soil produced significant results. During the experiments, Martian soil was fed with nutrients and water. The results were most surprising. Unlike the lunar dust, Martian soil consumed the nutrients. Not only did apparent consumption of the nutrients give ‘rise to a steady rate of carbon dioxide production but the introduction of water vapour resulted in a most unexpected surge in oxygen levels.
Eighteen years have passed since these experiments and mankind has not taken a step on Mars yet. Will it ever be possible for man to achieve a settlement on Mars in the future? Firstly, such settlements on the planet need to be as self-sufficient as possible. The first Mars invaders will need to begin a search for crucial supplies such as water and oxygen. Since Mars has little nitrogen in its soil to sustain plants, scientists would need to inject the soil with earthly micro-organisms to free up the crucial element. A base independent from earth is impossible without these necessities of life, particularly water and power sources and raw materials for building an ecosystem. Although the atmosphere is only 0.03 % water, the air is saturated with water most of the time, due to the low temperature. However, rain is impossible because the atmosphere is too thin and it is generally cloudless.
A Martian day is 24 hours and 37 minutes, which is very close to earth’s. The fact that gravity is one third of earth’s, is also an advantage. However, what is important is to produce resources like ammonia (a plant nutrient), hydrazine (for rocket fuel), formic acid (for storing electricity), nitric acid (for oxygen storage) and methane (natural gas). We do not know what will actually be found on Mars when it is completely explored, but the important fact about Mars is that, unlike the moon, it contains all the raw materials that are crucial for a Martian base.
At present the planet is an Arctic wasteland, but scientists say this has not always been the case. Much can be learned from a small core sample of the planet’s polar ice. Scientists need to know what happened to its climate, if it resembled the earth’s in the distant past. The topographical features and the river channels suggest that a few million years ago Mars was a warm planet and probably had a thick atmosphere. The Viking findings and the analysis of some of the data suggest that Mars contains more water than once thought. We must also keep in mind that the Viking probes did not completely rule out the possibility of life on the planet. It might still be possible that Mars supports some kind of microbes. It may be that we have not yet looked in the right place. There are many questions about Mars that remain to be answered. For example: we do not know anything about the interior of the planet, whether its core is liquid or frozen or maybe an earth-like core or if the largest volcanoes in the solar system are still alive. A manned mission to Mars and building bases on its surface is quite possible but we are not sure when it will actually take place.
When we think about the planets in our solar system and their conditions, it is impossible to overlook the fact that the earth was designed purposely for life forms to exist. One has to be out of one’s mind to assume that all this order and harmony is completely coincidental. One important thing we have to understand is that we (living organisms) need the earth and its conditions to survive. It is the only planet in the solar system that could support us. For all we know, it might even be the only one in the galaxy. It is obvious that the earth was specifically designed for human beings, because all other life forms on earth serve mankind. By this token we can even claim that the whole universe was created for the benefit of man. The only reason for this claim is that everything would be completely meaningless without an intelligent thinking being.
Our neighbour, the red planet, might be a hope for the future. Whether we will indeed be able to build bases, grow plants, produce valuable gases and materials, begin settlements and colonies or maybe even achieve the birth of the first human being on Mars, remains to be seen, but until then we have to take care of this blue planet of ours and its inhabitants, since we are its trustees.
From the Blue to the Red Planet
- By O. Ergi
- Category: Issue 2 (April - June 1993)
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