Today, we have a better map of the surface of Mars than of Earth’s own ocean bed. Since the 1960s, space agencies from across the globe have sent orbiters, landers, and rovers to Mars to study its terrain, components that make up its land and atmosphere, climatic conditions and to search for evidence of any kind of indigenous life. The Mars affair is extremely popular in the scientific field and frequently makes its way into the news with numerous missions such as India’s revolutionary mission, Mangalyaan, or most recently with the Perseverance rover. Elon Musk has recently joined the Mars mania party, but the human obsession with Mars was prevalent way before that. But why? What is so fascinating about this planet or its prospects?
Exploration of Mars
To an avid stargazer, Mars appears to be a bright red dot moving against a backdrop of relatively stationary stars. Given its colour, the planet is aptly named after the Roman god of war. In 1609, Galileo pointed a telescope to the sky, beginning a new era in observational astronomy. Later that same century, astronomer Christiaan Huygens made several observations of Mars, including the presence of a large dark patch and a white spot at the south pole. He concluded that a day on Mars is approximately 24 Earth hours long. In 1698, he published a book, Cosmotheros. This was one of the first published expositions of extraterrestrial life. Through these observations, we concluded that Mars is a world of its own just as Earth is, which naturally led to the question, does life exist on Mars?
This question was popularly adapted into the works of science-fiction by the 19th century, this is where the idea of an indigenous life-form known as the ‘Martians’ arose. The characteristics of Martians differed from writer to writer. In some interpretations, the Martians were inferior beings, whereas in some the Martians lived in a utopian society. In H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1897), the Martians are intellectual and unsympathetic beasts who look at Earth with envious eyes and are plotting to invade Earth.
In the ’60s and ’70s, NASA sent the very first orbiter, Mariner 9, and the first lander, Viking 1 to Mars. Eventually, when we explored the world up close we learned a lot more about the planet's characteristics. About 4 billion years ago, Mars used to be just like Earth, it had an atmosphere and liquid water too. But over time, solar winds stripped Mars of its atmosphere leaving it to the rusty cold desert we know today. Upon examining it closely, we discovered that the planet is devoid of any life (at least on its surface). There were no Martians as the writers had imagined there to be. But the rise of another eccentric idea had rekindled the human imagination.
What lies ahead?
To the science-fiction of today, Mars seems to be the first foreign world that humans travel to, initially to visit and eventually to stay. Innovative minds and scientists aspire to turn this dream into a reality of the future. Colonising Mars. In order to colonise the planet, it must first be made hospitable to human life, by making it more earth-like. This process of modifying the environment is called terraformation.
In an article titled “Planetary Engineering on Mars”, astronomer Carl Sagan proposes the idea of terraforming Mars. Sagan suggested that vaporizing the northern polar ice caps would release all the water into the atmosphere, which would result in a higher global temperature on the planet and a greatly increased likelihood of liquid water. There are several theories suggested by scientists to melt the ice-caps of Mars. Some are as bizarre as reflecting sunlight on it by suspending gigantic mirrors around Mars. All of these suggested methods require a lot of time to kickstart the process of terraformation. In August 2019, Elon Musk tweeted “Nuke Mars!”, suggesting that the icecaps on Mars be bombarded with nuclear bombs to vaporise a huge chunk of the ice instantly. We don't know if this would actually work in the way it has been hypothesised and there is a chance that Musk didn't mean that seriously. We currently don't have the technology to terraform a planet, but down the line, if we do, is it moral for us to interfere with a planet's natural evolutionary path?
Our life on Earth is under constant threat, mostly at our own hands but cosmic impacts such as asteroids or comets too could annihilate life. Therefore some scientists and pioneers believe that colonising Mars would increase our odds of survival as a species. Plus, it would be seemingly cool to establish a two-planetary system. Colonising Mars is also a step forward into establishing human space travel. It is suspected that a comet rich with amino acids impacted Earth and created life here. Mars’s evolutionary path too could lead it to harbour and evolve its own lifeform. It is also suspected that presently, microbial life could exist deep within the surface of Mars. If Mars has even a negligible opportunity to develop its own life, humans may not have the right to claim Mars. Mars then belongs to the true Martians, whatever its form may be. If we ever do achieve the technology to engineer a planet, then surely we could find a way to maintain the habitability of Earth.
So should we still continue exploring Mars?
Out of the 8 planets in our solar system, Mars is the most ideal prospect for human exploration. The rest are too hot, too cold, or simply lack a surface. Studying Mars, its geology, and its evolution helps us gain a better understanding of our own planet. What the rovers manage to achieve in 6 months, a human can do in 2 hours. Robotic missions cannot perform high-level tasks therefore in order to learn more about this planet, humans will have to set foot on it. Human exploration of Mars is a reality of the near future. Or perhaps it is instinctive of humans to explore and push the boundaries of our knowledge.