Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mission to Mars!

In 1877, Giovanni Shiaparelli charted a series of criss-crossing lines which he called "canals" on the surface of Mars. Ever since then, people have speculated that life may have once existed on the Red Planet, and even that it may have once hosted a mighty and powerful empire.
Although subsequent investigation has revealed that these canals are actually optical illusions, there are still many who believe Mars once contained life. Our understanding of Mars has changed dramatically over the last 30 years, and it has been the main focus of numerous space voyages. Mankind may never visit Venus, but there is little doubt that very soon, people will walk on Mars.

Since 1960, at least 37 probes have been launched toward Mars, but more than two-thirds have been total failures. The United States has had some spectacular successes, though. Mariner 4 was the first probe to fly by in 1964, giving us our first close-up photos of the planet's surface. Ground exploration began with the two Viking landers which arrived at the planet in 1976. When the identical twin robot rovers Opportunity and Spirit landed on opposite sides of the planet in 2004, they were expected to operate for about 90 days before succumbing to the harsh Martian environment. Today, in 2008, they continue to report dramatic and exciting findings back to NASA on Earth.

Mars is a rugged and cold world, lashed by 100-mile-per-hour winds. The Hubble Telescope, which began observing Martian weather in 1991, captured images of huge dust storms which block out the sun from the planet's surface. The northern hemisphere features a vast, flat, low-lying area which is believed to be the bed of an ancient ocean. Even if it isn't, strong evidence suggests that liquid water was once common on Mars. Incredibly heavy water flows, equivalent to thousands of Mississippi Rivers, would have been needed to shape some of the features on Mars. Additionally, Opportunity has discovered the presence of hematite, an iron ore which is only formed under water.

Since 2000, NASA's Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft has sent pictures of gullies on the surface of the planet which are thought to have been carved recently by the drainage of liquid from the surface. 
The exciting possibility raised by the discovery of these gullies is that liquid water may be present today underground. This possibility has significant implications for human exploration of the planet. If water were present in substantial amounts, it would be easier to access and exploit it. Aside from its use for drinking, oxygen can be extracted from it to create breathable air. There is no doubt that human exploration of Mars will soon enter an exciting new era.

For some exquisite photos, and even video footage from the European Space Agency, click here.

1 comment:

steve said...

I worry that when you write 'human exploration of the planet' what you're really saying is 'human exploitation of the planet.' Humans have an abyssmal track record with taking care of THIS planet - I think it would be a horrible idea if the species exported itself anywhere else.