Mars Calling!

Female figure or an oddly shaped rock?

Red is not a colour one associates with the idea of ‘life’. Yet, ‘the red planet’ Mars, has fired up Earthly imaginations on more than one occasion.

The 25th May 2008 touchdown by the NASA Phoenix Mars Lander and the subsequent findings
by the robotic arm did just that. Scoops of whitish matter at the landing site raised speculations ranging from assumptions of an ice table to those about a plain salt layer. This discovery came as the latest hope in a series of expeditions to Mars over the past decades. While data from past missions has not exactly supported provisions for life on Mars, it has been much more difficult to disprove any considerations of the same.

This June 2011, NASA’s Aquarius in conjunction with the ‘age of Aquarius’ will begin its journey to Mars in search of ocean salinity data. This is believed to be vital information for scientists on Earth here trying to put together the climatic puzzle for our home planet. The concentration of salt coupled with cold surface water makes it dense, keeps it together and determines the world’s oceanic currents – important for climatic conditions around the world.

The question of life on Mars has haunted famous authors of yore. H. G. Wells in 1898 earlier
added to the brouhaha in the dark ‘The War of the Worlds’, with his depiction of a superior race and their invasion of the Earth. The author of ‘Tarzan’, Edgar Rice Burroughs in the 1900s came up with his own version of the Martians – the Barsoom and their adventures; depicting the Barsoomians as a tough nation trying to survive the perils of a harsh climate.

Throughout history, Mars has been in focus as ‘the harbinger of death’ – the god of War,  or simply as an astronomical delight of the night sky. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877, using his telescope, produced the first map of the terrain, complete with a system of ‘canali’ or channels, later mistranslated as ‘canals’. This seemed to have an effect on the active imagination of Percival Lowell, an American businessman with an astronomical bent of mind, who in 1910 ended up writing a book, Mars As the Abode of Life. He moved public sympathy by his stirring account of a dying civilization of Martians who had constructed canals to distribute water from the poles to the equator.

The public and even some astronomers started believing in Lowell’s theory till it was formally
disproved by NASA’s flyby Mariner 4, 6 and 7 missions in the 1960s and the Viking Orbiter images that showed no such ‘canals’.

However canyons could be seen along with evidence of running water sometime in the past. So was there a possibility that life would exist on Mars or that it had at some point in the past actually existed there? In an atmosphere filled with almost pure carbon dioxide, the former or even the latter assumption seemed hardly likely… until an analysis of Martian soil made astronomers think again… thanks to the Viking Lander which in 1976 approached Mars with the intention of taking in samples and conducting experiments to determine this. The results simply showed that life on Mars was a remote possibility. However organic compounds were
present as they are in most cases in the Universe.

The meteorite ALH84001 found in 1986 in the Allan  Hills region of Antarctica is the oldest of  the twelve meteorites believed to have come from Mars. On 16th August 1996, David McKay et al of NASA’s Johnson Space Centre announced that the meteorite contained signs of primitive
bacterial life on Mars. The next supposed breakthrough came when the Odyssey spacecraft detected subsurface water in 2002. Spirit – NASA’s explorer vehicle probe in 2005 sent back photos of the uninhabitable terrain. Looking closely at the wasteland, observers got a shock as they found they were looking at what seemed to be a female figure perched on a rock. Many dismissed it as an illusion of the landscape while still others say it is hard to find another  such oddly shaped ‘rock’.

Future mission plans include scouting missions on Mars with the next being targeted for launch in 2013. This will increase the number of sites visited and may lead to new discoveries.

Mars remains the planet with the most hospitable environment in the solar system after our
Earth. Whether or not we Earthlings manage to find any glimmer of a Martian microbe or a full grown alien, we may safely assume that even if at present the chances of life there are remote; at some point in future they may easily become all too real.

* A short version of this article has earlier been published in the box features in Daily Dawn Newspaper, Pakistan

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