Of all the bodies in our solar system, none has so captured the imagination like Mars, the red planet. Perhaps it’s the striking crimson of the iron oxide, and its connotations of the blood and fury of war — the planet was named after that particular Roman god, in fact. But perhaps it’s because Mars is relevant; never before in human history have we felt so close to another extraterrestrial body. Now, as we steadily populate that planet with all manner of electromechanical rovers and robots, write books, run simulations and dream of a life on another world, we bring ourselves within reach of that astounding possibility.
Mars, let it be said, is strictly uninhabitable by our limited standards. It’s on average 50 percent farther from the sun than we are, and its temperatures drop to frigid extremes. A Martian winter, for instance, commonly drops to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. Dust flung into the atmosphere by the wind stays there for extended periods, creating massive, blinding dust storms that prevent sunlight from warming the planet. These effects combine to produce a world whose weather is as inscrutable and hostile as the god for which it is named.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped humans from attempting to peek behind the curtain. It’s a remarkable thing: Mars is the only known planet inhabited solely by robots. While we have had successful landers on Venus, they have only been ‘alive’ for minutes before instrument failure. The gas giants don’t have a surface to land upon. And a landing has never been achieved on Mercury or Pluto. From the failed Mars 2, 3 and 6 landers from the USSR to the recent tweets of the United States’ Curiosity rover, Mars has been invaded at least 13 times.
The landers did some great work there. Phoenix, for example, started an intense debate about the existence of metastable liquid water (what we would call a brine) in several regions of Mars. However, the rovers gave Mars exploration real heart. The first was the Sojourner, then the Spirit, then the Opportunity and finally the Curiosity in 2011.
Curiosity is the real champion — right after the rover landed, the probe found some exciting evidences showing that approximately 3.5 billion years ago, a lake existed in the crater that she landed in (yes, Curiosity is a she). But who really cares? I mean, geologists and planetary scientists care; they want to understand what happened. But why should society care?
We explore Mars because of its similarity to our own planet. In fact, it is suspected that at one point Mars resembled Earth in many ways – so what happened? Even more frighteningly, could it happen to us? To answer these questions, it is clear that visiting Mars is the next step.
Nowadays, however, we do things with a more 21st-century approach. SpaceX recently partnered with Google on a project to send up thousands of miniature satellites in low earth orbit to provide low cost Internet to the entire planet. Elon Musk, the ambitious CEO of SpaceX, says that this project will help fund what will ultimately become the first city on Mars. But Martian Metropolis aside, we first need to get there.
Sure, NASA and a dozen other potential space-farers are working on it, but support is the most vital component in any project. Enthusiasm and — most of all — a sincere belief in our ability to soar are two of the most important aspects in space exploration. That’s where we the people, scientist or nonscientist, blue-collar or white, need to step up. Through community-driven organizations like SEDS, the Planetary Society or even Pinterest, Kickstarter and Twitter, anyone can express their belief in an interplanetary species, and in the power of the human drive.
SEDS is an organization committed to spreading awareness and enthusiasm about the developments in space science and industry. We regularly conduct outreach events, participate in space-related projects, and host events with prominent faculty and speakers involved with space. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Facebook at SEDS@UM.
Arun Nagpal is an Engineering Freshman and the publications director for SEDS.
Caue Borlina is an Engineering Junior and the president of SEDS.