Both known and unknown mysteries lurk in the dark crevices of countless solar systems and galaxies eager to be explored. What will we discover as we head deeper and deeper into the cosmos? Come and join me in a curious voyage through the universe and spacetime itself to discover time and time again that space is sexy.
In each blog post of the Space is Sexy series, we will ask and attempt to answer three questions to better understand the world around us — from the smallest particle to the endless domain of the ever-expanding universe. Today’s blog post is all about the fourth planet in our solar system, and our immediate red neighbour, Mars. Our three questions for today are:
1. How long will it be until it’s economically feasible to colonize Mars?
2. How is the Curiosity rover different from earlier Mars rovers?
3. What happens if Curiosity finds evidence of life on Mars?
How long will it be until it’s economically feasible to colonize Mars?
To colonize Mars, especially when speaking economically, we first need a fantastically good reason to do so. As history has repeatedly taught us, greed is in limitless supply — while money is scarce. Humanity has not yet socially caught up to its technological level of development. We remain a heavily intertwined society of naked apes amongst technology of our own slow progressive invention. It will be quite some time before we will undergo a paradigm shift that will center science as the most important human endeavour. Both fortunately and unfortunately, a good reason to expand outside of our planet is slowly approaching at a steady pace. Since the Industrial Revolution, humanity has slowly but surely dug itself into deep, deep trouble. Global warming, and overpopulation, are only two of the serious and growing issues that nobody really wants to, or is well coordinated enough, to deal with. The term “global warming” lacks the emotional charge that it desperately needs, when in fact it is violent and cataclysmic climate change that may very well usher in the extinction of the entire human race. This is a legitimate danger, and we might truly have to do our best to leave this planet in a few decades. So, where do we stand on this issue right now?
Right behind the white picket fence rests a teeming nuclear furnace, willing to vaporize the lives of many in favour of the politics of the few. Various nations are constantly on the precipice of war, deadly eager to pummel that red button into their desks without a second thought to it. In the twenty-first century, we have become so used to our artificial lifestyles that we leech off existing resources without regard for what it will do to the future. It will be dumb to blame ourselves, though. Our brains evolve to adapt to the environment with no regard for whether or not we will ever go to space or not. Our biological composition is decidedly earthbound. After all, how could it be any different? Even though some would rather forget we are standing on a gargantuan revolving ball of matter, everything eventually affects all of us. Our planet doesn’t wait for opinions, and doesn’t respect national borders. It is the home to every human currently alive, and must stay that way, unless we make a serious effort to expand. The only thing we have to ask ourselves now, is when? When will we be able to leave this planet, and when will we actually start doing so? Maybe it’s reasonable to assume that we will take action, if the situation became too dire. But we already have been approaching that point for quite a while now. If only we weren’t already ignoring the death of millions and the suffering of billions in favour of war and entertainment. Everyone sees the problem, and nobody can truly take responsibility. It’s an issue that is easily ignored, due to it being too non-local. But it’s out there, somewhere in the distant future. But “Oh no, it won’t affect me or my children,” they say. “Why should I worry about this in particular?” And that is the crucial moment. The crucial moment where apathy takes hold, and overcomes rational thought. But we can’t just close our eyes and wish it away… if only it were that simple. Our planet simply cannot support the overzealous spread of our species forever. And this is a fact. We are slowly outgrowing the support that has sustained us in the past, and are both literally and figuratively setting ourselves up for a world of hurt.
Abundance of water is sadly a wishful illusion that has become ingrained in our minds as a simple result of daily convenience. You open the tap and water begins pouring out, seemingly endless streams of it. Your unconscious mind just assumes the stream will continue on forever. Upon closer inspection and careful analysis, however, it is clear that our planet is headed towards a severe drought — possibly severe enough to incite water wars in only a few decades. Imagine oil wars with just a tinge more violence and cruelty. Consider that there is exactly as much on the planet as billions of years ago, and only a tiny fraction of this water can actually be used. The future is a crumbling forest. Billions of people already struggle with obtaining enough to drink, and the United Nations predicts that 70% of the world will suffer from drought by 2025. Eventually, populating Mars might be the only hope we have, since it is the most accessible and suitable planet for this purpose. When we reach this state in the development of our civilization, science and the space race may yet again take center stage for mankind. The general public might care once more. When things get really screwed up, those with power and wealth will be forced to actually take things seriously. But counting on anything so prematurely would be foolish, especially since very few are willing to part with their money for something so abstract and distant. Our animalistic fears and instincts are surfacing in ever more prominent ways. And we are strained under existential pressure — be it global warming, overpopulation, or otherwise.
We cannot reasonably unify humanity as a space-faring race just yet. Since our individual egos have been coated in steel and do not actively permit such thinking, we like to think of ourselves as individuals, bearing no personal responsibility for something as large as our planet. Many feel like they’re a special snowflake, entitled to everything they possess and more — deserving of everything our world has to offer. Humans are fragmented, and separated into opposing groups, countries, and continents. We fight amongst ourselves. This old habit has to be overcome, or it will certainly be our downfall. As esteemed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins aptly said, “Humans are a species that heavily relies on cooperation, thriving on altruistic behaviour.” We no longer live in a world under the rule of survival of the fittest, but in a society very much reliant on others to survive. Darwinian selection no longer applies to us. In our society, people need to look out for others — or none of us will be around for much longer. But efforts to save the earth have been met with ridicule and contempt — the most powerful trump cards in any argument. The definitive “ace up the sleeves” of any businessperson is to mock their opponent and incite laughter at the idea of supporting them. When the public laughs at an idea, it might as well be dead already. How does this all tie into the Mars mission? Well, the bottom line is that nobody wants to finance the colonization of Mars, unless they have compelling economic incentives. People only invest significant amounts of money if they expect it to come back at least twofold. If it doesn’t make money, it’s doubtful that they will bother to invest any. Our world runs under the motto of “spend money to make money”. Human culture is a culture of hedonism in the present — the now. Future-gazing requires abstract thinking, and effort, which is too much to spare for many. Perhaps they find it disconcerting to ponder what might lie ahead. Maybe they think it’s “all talk”. Our culture finds it just dandy to condemn future generations to misery and decay, and to hinder the growth and progress of science in return for short-lived hedonism.
So… to answer, when it will be economically viable to colonize Mars, is either when it becomes cheap enough to dump finances into it without thought, or when the situation on Earth becomes dire enough that there is no other choice than to get the heck out of here. Perhaps the promise of vast amounts of minerals and Martian volcanoes and impact craters will change a few financially-inclined minds. But will it be enough to convince investors to come on-board? In the present day, there are several technological obstacles that need to be overcome, in order to achieve a pleasant cost-benefit analysis for those greedy eyes. Let’s just say our arguments will have to be thoroughly convincing. If, by some virtue, things should change and adequate funding is found, there isn’t much to stand in the way of colonizing other planets — of which Mars would be the easiest to attend. But first, we need to figure out how to get there — which is thankfully already possible. With current technology, it takes about a year to fly a spaceship to Mars. But there are numerous life-threatening hazards to deal with — such as solar radiation, from which we would normally be shielded from by the atmosphere here on Earth. It’s definitely not a cakewalk. Once we do get there, and get some form of operation up and running, one initial idea would be to create biosphere domes on Mars to see what to do from there.
Biosphere domes are large, round structures which would contain their own closed ecosystems that would be little microcosms of nature on Earth. These ecosystems could provide continuous cycles of plant life, food, breathable air, and thus create a habitable zone within it. They would be artificially-contained sealings of nature itself. It’s easier to picture them as miniature rainforests in dome-shaped see-through buildings amidst the Martian desert. This is probably the most reasonable way to begin colonizing Mars. Anyone who has seen that god-awful Pauly Shore movie Biodome will immediately know what I’m talking about. The good news is that these domes could optimally be built from workable materials that are already commonly found on Mars. Not only that, but all the work could be theoretically done by robots. This would make things quite a lot easier. The skeleton of the dome could be made through the extraction of iron from iron oxide, which is very plentiful on the Martian surface, and processed in furnaces on-site. The plexiglass windows that isolate the ecosystem from the harsh climate of Mars could be provided by bacteria. These bacteria would be genetically engineered to secrete viable forms of plastic for this explicit purpose. This would allow settlers to expand their Martian cities without the expensive and prohibitively difficult transport of materials from Earth. Creating such bacteria is already possible with today’s technology. It’s clear that we have finally reached the point where this is no longer limited to the works of science fiction. While we are 99% there, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to improve the efficiency of solar panels first, before an attempt is made. Solar power is notoriously in need of more development, since even the best panels today capture only a tiny amount of solar energy. Another method would be a long-term solution, which might take years, decades, or even centuries — depending on the approach. This method is referred to as “terraforming”.
Terraforming involves altering the ground and atmosphere of another planet in order to create an Earth-like environment. It might sound completely out of reach, but most of the technology needed already exists — today. First, it would be necessary to increase the density of the atmosphere by several magnitudes, insure that it stays warm, and prevent it from escaping into outer space. Currently, the atmosphere on Mars is extremely thin, and would not support life regardless of whether or not there is breathable air and water. Second, we would need to melt the glaciers on Mars to provide water. And finally, we would need to introduce simple plant life capable of converting carbon dioxide into oxygen.
So, in order to turn Mars into an Earth-like environment, it would be necessary to:
1. Thicken the atmosphere — possibly by releasing greenhouse gas-inducing substances into the atmosphere. These are banned from use on Earth, because they contribute thousands of times more to global warming than CO2. But this would prove quite useful on Mars.
2. Keep the atmosphere warm, and prevent it from escaping into space. This could be done using huge orbiting mirrors, by creating an artificial magnetosphere. Or, by bombarding the surface with ammonia bombs — small asteroids rich in ammonia.
3. And finally, introduce simple plant life such as algae. These resistant plants could flourish in a harsh environment and provide breathable air through photosynthesis, much like trees do on Earth. But unless you happen to have a few billion to spare, and were really inspired by this blog post to spend them, we will just have to wait and see what happens. And if we don’t manage to get all of our eggs in one basket anytime soon, China will get there first — and we will all be speaking Chinese on Mars. So to answer when it will be economically viable to colonize Mars, is when people in charge feel like it. Tough luck, eh?
How is the Curiosity rover different from earlier Mars rovers?
Well, for starters, the Curiosity obviously carries the most advanced equipment to date that has roamed the Martian surface. Since the last rover was sent in 1996, think about the difference between computers and digital cameras then — and now. We’ve come a long way as a species. Anyway, the goal of the Curiosity rover is to investigate whether Mars could have ever supported life, whether it can become habitable, and to research the role of water on the red planet — perhaps, even find life. Another amazing fact about Curiosity is that it is in fact powered by a nuclear reactor with enough plutonium to last one Martian year, or roughly two Earth years. Being powered by nuclear power solves all problems encountered by previous rovers, such as needing to heat batteries in order not to freeze, relying on solar panels for power, and navigating dark landscapes. It’s smooth sailing from here on out. Something immediately noticeable is that Curiosity is about the size of a car, which is far larger than the previous rovers while still staying lightweight in comparison. It only weighs about 2,000 pounds — which is 700 less than a Honda Civic.
The rover is extremely maneuverable, using advanced collision detection and artificial intelligence that allows it to navigate effectively on its own. Not only that, but it can be controlled from Earth using something that looks somewhat like an extremely elaborate video game. Using this interface, NASA can send low-level commands (such as rotating the motor in certain amounts of revolutions) or high-level commands (such as finding the best path and staying safe). The rover is also built for rugged terrain, because the previous models kept getting stuck — and had to be handled with great care so that they wouldn’t flip over. Curiosity can move about with little or no regard for terrain, violent temperature changes, and lack of sunlight. And that’s the point — not much on the Martian surface can stop it. Curiosity also has a percussive drill that can bore through rock in order to take samples before filtering them for analysis. If the drill is used up, the rover can easily replace it with a new one. As if that weren’t enough, Curiosity also carries an extremely powerful laser for cutting off pieces of rock. If you were to stick your arm into the beam, it would be cut clean off — much like a lightsaber. It uses this laser to slice pieces of rock from up to twenty-three feet away. Then it uses its ChemCam system, to spectroscopically find the best sample to pick up for further analysis. This means that it can easily shoot apart rock into small pieces, scan them at a distance, and then decide which piece to use for more in-depth research. The rover uses several stereoscopic cameras — meaning that it can see and map the landscape fully, in three dimensions. This allows the rover to have more depth perception and create high-resolution 3D images of its surroundings. The most pivotal difference is, that while the previous Rovers were only equipped to look for the presence of ice and water, the Curiosity rover is actually a complete rolling laboratory, with a huge amount of features. This is why it has been dubbed the MSL — the Mars Science Laboratory. Among countless other biochemical research equipment, it carries a full gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer — a machine that allows it to fully analyze samples right then and there, on Mars. It also has sensors for atmospheric temperature, pressure, humidity, radiation, UV levels, and many, many more. This makes sending physical samples back to Earth pretty much obsolete. In essence, the Curiosity rover is a huge automatized chemistry lab equipped with robot arms, 3D cameras, lightsabers, drills, and countless sensors — to aid in the search on Mars for water, and signs of life past and present. Roll along, you sexy beast!
What happens if Curiosity discovers evidence of life on Mars?
Life on Mars? That’s just a conspiracy theory, right? Nope. Not at all. In fact, many scientists believe that very resistant micro-organisms might be plentiful on the Martian surface, and definitely out there somewhere in space. They might not be green men with big heads with a penchant for inspecting our butts and mutilating cattle, but they certainly do qualify as extraterrestrial life. These organisms might just be single cells moving about with little intelligence to speak of — yet they are life, nonetheless. Previously unknown micro-organisms have already been found on meteors that have impacted our planet, so why should it be such a far stretch that such lifeforms could exist on Mars? Considering the sheer amount of Earth-like planets discovered, life in some shape or form is sure to exist somewhere in the vast reaches of the cosmos. In fact, it is incredibly unlikely that there is no other life except that on Earth. So unlikely, that it is better to say that it is certain that there is life outside of our own planet. To fully understand the likelihood of life, it is important not to narrow your definition to carbon-based lifeforms such as that on Earth. Since methane-based bacteria have been discovered, and even some that thrive on nuclear radiation — yes, nuclear radiation! — there might even be more exotic life out there that would be impossible for the mind to even conceive. The fact is, that there is definitely other life out there somewhere. Statistically speaking, it would be ridiculous to assume there wasn’t. The only question remaining is how advanced it is — and whether it will ever be in our reach. A theory known as “panspermia” even suggests that life on Earth may have originated from another planet and was brought here by meteor impacts — thus planting a seed, that would, over millions of years, grow into the ecosystem we are part of today. Everything on Earth might be the eventual offspring of a particularly resilient extraterrestrial organism — an alien, if you will — from a distant planet somewhere in the outer reaches of space. It is very probable that we are the offspring of aliens, millions of years in the making.
What will happen if the Curiosity rover discovers life on Mars? First, scientists worldwide will celebrate. Next, the deeply religious might flip their lids completely. Religion is built from the ground up with geocentrism in mind — with the Earth and humans always smack in the center of importance. That is why the discovery of alien life would put serious strain on the dogma of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism alike — and rightfully so, if I might add. It would be incredibly difficult for theology to justify life outside of Earth — which is by those circles believed to be God’s domain and home to his children. How could extraterrestrials have occurred in the religious world view? Did God accidentally spill some magic dust on Mars while he was working on Earth? Or, is it an attempt by the dark lord Satan to confuse and mislead people into disbelief? These are the deep theological dilemmas we can look forward to hearing about from followers of such Bronze Age mythology. And as soon as prayer gets a man on the moon, we might be actually willing to listen to what they have to say. When churches reach a similar patient recovery rate as medical facilities, it will be worth a look. Until then, we should try and avoid needless fiction — lest we lose sight of the facts completely.
It’s a bit embarrassing to think that we have a car-sized robot equipped with death lasers and a full chemical laboratory on freaking Mars, and all that the orthodox is concerned with is whether the musings of the semi-literate goat-herders from two millennia ago could account for bacteria that could possibly be found there. We have much better explanations for the world around us by now. Hey, it’s only been what… 2000 years of progress? At least the church will give extraterrestrial life more publicity, since it’s doubtful that much will change. The general public seems to care more about Paris Hilton’s farts than science nowadays. We might get a few more quality sci-fi flicks on the big screen for a while, but a paradigm shift it does not make. If there is life discovered on Mars, the red planet might actually be the birthplace of life on Earth itself. There are hundreds of thousands of Martian meteors scattered all across our planet’s surface — and one or more of these meteors could have brought the first microbes to our planet, and ceded all further growth and evolution. We might actually have been Martians all along. Sounds like a plot to an M. Night Shyamalan movie, doesn’t it? One thing we can say for sure, is that if Curiosity finds life — or any evidence of previous life — on Mars, I will definitely have a lot of material to write future blog posts about. Sadly, our journey must now come to an end. I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post, and wish you a good morning. And in case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night. Take care, and remember to look for future blog posts of the Space is Sexy series.