The Past and Future of Mars with and without Human Intervention
by John Tuttle
The sandy planet of Mars, named after the mythological Roman figure who was associated with war and bloodshed, is estimated to be slightly over 4.5 billion years old. It is also commonly referred to as the Red Planet; red as in the color of blood. For various reasons, this unique celestial body has excited the minds of many-a-man over the centuries, and evidently, it continues to do so.
The Ages and Features of Mars
Scientists who have studied Mars have broken its lifespan into three separate time periods. During the first age, which covered the first 700 to 900 million years of the planet's existence, this world was home to a chilling climate. Volcanic activity was certainly not a rarity. (Mars is home to the largest volcanoes on any planet in our solar system.) During this period, water in its liquid phase is believed to have been quite plentiful there. In addition to the presence of water, at that time Mars had a thick atmosphere as well as a magnetic field which would have been able to shield the cold surface from dangerous levels of radiation. Such were good conditions for supporting living organisms.
As time progressed, it is believed Mars gradually became colder and drier. Between 3 and 3.6 billion years ago (the second age), the water froze, rendering the surface almost wholly frozen. But even in the midst of the frigid temperatures, volcanic activity still reigned across the planet. However, the magnetic field of the first era of Mars was gone, meaning a more significant dose of radiation was bathing the surface. This drastic change in climate would have made survival for many forms of life extremely difficult.
The third and final age has lasted from 3 billion years ago up to the present. The continued cold and dryness along with a very thin atmosphere may have been the cause of the most severe effects in this period of Mars's history. These conditions mean that water in its liquid state can now last only a short while on the surface; this would likely be the most life-denying quality the planet has to offer. Despite this, many scientists still believe Mars to be a suitable host for supporting life.
Similar to Earth, Mars has a pair of polar ice caps. Its north pole is made up of a 1.8 mile thick sheet of water ice. The sheet of the opposite pole is thicker and made mostly of carbon dioxide ice. The planet is smaller than ours, having a diameter of approximately 4,200 miles. The air is comprised mainly of carbon dioxide. This could be a positive sign since carbon or carbon compounds are present in all life-forms on Earth.
Temperatures on Mars can be as low as -195 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius). Mars has two moons orbiting it, Phobos and Deimos. Carbon dioxide makes up 95% of the atmosphere on Mars. The surface of the planet contains iron oxide, the compound which gives blood and rust their scarlet and orangish color. This is why Mars appears red.
Early Observations and Beliefs
Humans have noticed Mars and have been observing it as far back as the time of the ancient Egyptians before the Common Era. But it was Nicolaus Copernicus in the early to mid part of the 16th century CE who first suggested that Mars was a planet. Less than two decades later, Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens made a drawing of Mars based on some data which he had gathered via a telescope he created himself. In his observations, Huygens discovered a strange formation on the planet which would eventually be called Syrtis Major. This scientist was also the first person known to have proposed that there is life on Mars.
Later, in 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, director of the Brera Observatory in Milan, began describing and and making illustrations of the Martian surface. He gave historical and mythical names to the "seas" and "continents" which he observed there. Schiaparelli even thought he had discovered what appeared to be canali or "channels," although this term was mistakenly translated into "canals." Numerous other scientists of the time made their own observations and concluded the same. But in fact, the channels did not exist at all; they were an optical illusion caused by a certain common mechanism of the telescopes of the late 1800's.
Less than ten years before this alleged discovery, the Suez Canal which was the engineering marvel of the day, had been finished. With such an advanced recent achievement on Earth, the astronomical community had a big interest in similar canal structures having been built on Mars. A few years later, American astronomer Percival Lowell, founder of the Lowell Observatory, proposed that the so-called "canals" determined that at some point the planet had sustained life.
He went so far even as to write and publish several books including Mars as the Abode of Life (1908). However, as telescopes became more advanced, even in Lowell's lifetime, scientists were able to observe the planet without seeing the fantastic artificial canals. Thus, the idea of their existence and subsequently, the existence of Martian beings was dismissed by many members of the scientific community. Even so, storytellers of all kinds loved the whole concept of life on Mars and in other extraterrestrial reaches of the universe as well.
The Role of Mars in Pop Culture
Ever since the 19th century scientific proposal of canals constructed by intelligent creatures on the surface of Mars, fiction writers and movie makers and the like have continually reused the idea of Martian life. The public curiosity and interest in Martians has increased the overall popularity of aliens in general. Mars has acted as either the main stage or a key element in countless science fiction tales.
Such classic science fiction includes movies like The Angry Red Planet (1960) and TV series like Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-1968). The planet has been the foundation of several acclaimed sci-fi novels including Out of the Silent Planet (1938), the first installment of C.S. Lewis's sci-fi trilogy and The Martian (2011) by Andy Weir which was adapted into the 2015 film of the same title.
But perhaps the most well-known and loved of Martian stories is H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds (1897), a novel which unfolds the tale of the Martian race invading and trying to dominate our own world. Orson Welles' radio rendition of October 30, 1938 was apparently so convincing that when it was aired, it may have given way to a national panic. One screen adaptation of H.G. Wells' book was George Pal's 1953 masterpiece, a movie which changed sci-fi action cinematography forever and is still considered the best War of the Worlds film by many fans. Early on in Pal's version, the audience is taken to Mars where, as the narrator tells us,
"For centuries it has been in the last stages of exhaustion. At night, temperatures drop far below zero, even at its equator. The inhabitants of this dying planet looked across space with instruments of which we have scarcely dreamed, searching for another world to which they could migrate." The script writers were at least correct with the simple fact that Mars is cold and that temperatures can reach well beneath the freezing point of water in the evenings as stated earlier.
According to a 2012 article from The Atlantic by Alexis C. Madrigal, an account notes that in 1899 a young boy named Robert imagined a vessel that might be able to reach Mars and that the vision gave him a goal to strive for in his life. This child grew up to become the legendary Robert Goddard, an American physicist known today as the "father of modern rocketry." This is because he invented the first liquid fuel propelled rockets. He had been inspired by the fantastical literary works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells including The War of the Worlds. Science fiction and the true study of science have influenced and built upon each other in numerous instances.
The Quest to the Stars and on to Mars
Before mankind even landed on the moon, US scientists had sent a probe into space headed for the fourth planet from our sun, Mars; it was to capture aerial imagery of the planet. In 1964, the probe, Mariner 4, made a flyby and successfully produced 21 pictures. In 1969, Mariner 6 and 7 were launched for the purpose of viewing the south pole of Mars. Both probe missions went well. When Mariner 7 succeeded on its flyby on August 5th, it relayed 126 photos back to Earth. Less than 20 days prior to this momentous occasion, Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin had made a landing on the surface of another heavenly body and had made history.
Over the past half a century, 20+ spacecraft from various nations have taken off in order to investigate the Red Planet, furthering our knowledge and understanding of its appearance, its chemical makeup, and even its past. As a result, we have discovered many things about Mars. Probes have found and photographed dark designs in the sand that were formed via the motion of dust devils. Such patterns are made when the red Martian topsoil is blown away, and the darker, heavier soil below is left in its place.
But now man's dreams and his energy are focused on sending actual people to this planet; artificial intelligence and programed satellites can only accomplish so much. Besides, humanity is fascinated with the idea of settling on a distant alien world.
There are many reasons to send a manned mission to Mars. The shortest possible distance it would take to reach Mars is approximately 54.6 million kilometers; the longest distance, about 401 million kilometers. It depends on the stage of its revolution. It is the closest planet to Earth that astronauts can explore. Furthering our scientific knowledge is probably the most significant excuse for traveling there. The Red Planet would provide a superb environment for many experimental tests. It may even be possible to render or distill from the soil an oxidizer, an additional fuel supply, water, or oxygen.
As discussed previously, the atmosphere on Mars is rather thin. In fact, there is a hole in the ozone layer which spans the whole planet. The Red Planet is the most habitable of the eight planets in our solar system apart from Earth. In studying the side effects of this on Mars, we can learn about some of the consequences we may have to face here on our home planet in the event of an ozone reduction.
"What about searching for life?" - probably one of the most basic and often asked inquiries by the public as well as the scientific community. Of course, scientists are going to look for extraterrestrial life-forms in almost every place they explore. Even though a living organism has never actually been found outside of Earth, scientists continue their search throughout the endless cosmos.
The Viking landers of the mid-1970s and early 1980s which touched down on Mars came up with negative results in their search for life on the barren ice-age rock, once an Earth-like world. However, many scientists are persevering, hoping that oases, certain pockets of terrain that are agreeable to the support of life, might exist on Mars. The men and women of the biological sciences will exhaust every possibility.
New extraterrestrial exploration and discovery, such as a manned mission to Mars, leads to a much higher interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, leading to a future generation of dedicated scientists, innovators, and educators. On perhaps a more interesting note, some would like to see if Mars could be made into a capable colinization destination. Establishing a permanent human presence on the Red Planet has been seriously thought of. Martian resources could produce many staples and elements necessary for our survival, but we will not know until astronauts can make a series of tests on the planet.
NASA has been discussing manned missions to Mars for decades, but the goal and decision to send such a mission have now been made. On March 21, 2017, President Trump issued a mandate to NASA to achieve a manned Martian landing by the year 2033. The administration answered with its most elaborate plan yet, consisting of five phases which are to be carried out over the following years. However, as we know from past experience, plans are subject to change, and there shall always be failures and drawbacks. But we will push through them because it is human nature to do so. In many regards, it is certainly a bold and brilliant technologically oriented age in which we live.
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