While the world had its eyes trained on London’s Olympics, a great many were staring at the planet Mars. On August 5, workers at the JPL’s Mars Science Laboratory breathed a sigh of relief. Despite the “Seven Minutes of Terror,” during which the Curiosity rover had to make its descent to the Red Planet after losing contact with Pasadena, the one-ton mobile robot performed exactly as hoped for without a glitch. In minutes images were being transmitted across space and the president congratulated the team.
Curiosity’s appointed two-year mission is to gather evidence that conditions supportive of life once existed on Mars. Its chosen landing spot is at the base of a mountain in the middle of a crater, itself apparently flooded at one time—thus providing a mini-catalogue of Martian geological history. If all goes as planned, the sophisticated battery of laboratory tests aboard will answer all sorts of questions about the planet’s past—and possibly its future, since test results may also shed some light on terraforming possibilities.
The new robot joins a number of still functioning American hardware surveying Mars. Although its twin Spirit has at last bit the Martian dust after a long and successful run, the Opportunity rover soldiers on, years past its sell-by date. Meanwhile, a small flotilla of satellites continues to survey the surface from space and will be joined in 2014 by MAVEN, an orbiter that will examine the planet’s atmosphere in an attempt to see how (and if) the water and air from the distant past escaped—and presumably how more could be kept on hand should any attempt be made to restore former conditions. Our European and Russian friends’ space agencies are also hard at work, planning missions that will search for organic molecules and bring Martian soil back home. Yet to be determined is whether there will be a first manned mission to Mars and resulting colonization.
For many of us down here below, the idea of blowing billions on such schemes when our finances are so rocky seems at first glance little more than insane. Considering the various social, political, and cultural ills that afflict us and every other nation, it is hard to see how any right-thinking person could possibly support further Martian exploration.
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