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Home / Science / Mars is Frigid, Rusty and Haunted. We can not stop looking at it.

Mars is Frigid, Rusty and Haunted. We can not stop looking at it.


An oasis in the sky stimulates the imagination. A series of discoveries refresh our yearning for the red planet.

A lunar eclipse that occurred on Saturday in Sumatra, Indonesia, could be seen alongside Mars, which was closest to Earth in 15 years. Credit Antara Photo / Reuters
  Dennis Overbye

There it was: Red glowing on the dashboard of the sky like an astrological warning light next to the full Blood Moon Friday. Mars.

It brightly cried out over 35.8 million miles of space, a gulf that people have longed for as long as they knew the lights in the sky were places. This week she is closest to Earth in 15 years.

This yearning is now renewed The discovery of a 12-mile-wide lake beneath the southern ice cap on Mars through the European Space Agency (ESA) Mars Express orbit has been renewed for the last time, if at all. An oasis for interplanetary dreamers. It is known that microbes live in similar lakes on earth, and who knows? Could small Mars bugs swim beneath a mile of ice down there, keeping the cosmic rays out and holding the water of the Marswater?

Mars has always been the backyard of our imagination, the place we will one day live or from where invaders would come in flying saucers to enslave us and steal our waters. Our robots have crossed this space again and again.

The Curiosity Rover of NASA in February near the edge of the Gale Crater, one of several robots crawling across the surface of Mars. Credit: Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

It's not crazy in astrobiology circles these days to argue that the life that now surrounds the earth began on Mars and then some Pilgrim germs were brought here on a stray asteroid. We now know that the sky is an endless conveyor belt with cosmic rabble, the debris from planet to planet, star to star, personified by Oumuamua, the wandering comet from outside our solar system, cruising the ocean moving through the ocean last Winter. In the fullness of time everything becomes everywhere.

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So we could all be Martians, that could help explain the seemingly endless lure of the Red Planet. The dream of exile to return to what once might have been Eden. Elon Musk said he wants to die there, but he has not quite gone there yet.

I grew frightened and curious about the place after seeing the thumbnails. "Invaders From Mars." The film showed how a boy my age saw a flying saucer go under a hill, whereupon the townspeople, including his parents, were abducted and turned into robots. My parents never let me see the whole movie.

It was a tribute to a part of a mythology that was dated to the beginning of the century: Mars was the dying home of a dying civilization of superklugen beings – little green men – salvaged by canals that bring water from the poles. These visions spring from a misunderstanding of the work of the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who in 1877 thought he saw long, thin lines which he called canali (canals in Italian) that bound the surface of Mars. Percival Lowell, a celebrity and astronomer, took the term seriously and started mapping what he thought was cities and canals on the planet.

All the good sci-fi melodrama disappeared when satellite imagery showed the real planet, crater and dust] Here are some hard facts. Mars is about half the size of Earth, so gravity is weaker there – just a third of what's on Earth, and so you could jump higher, that is, if you could take a breath. The Martian atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide and there is very little of it anyway, the pressure here is less than one percent of the air pressure. The temperatures on the ground range from 86 degrees Fahrenheit to -190 below. One day is 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds long and one year is 687 Earth days.

Mars is red because it is rusty. Mars dust is full of iron oxide.

It is, as a travel book would say, a land of dramatic contrasts, with the largest volcano in the solar system, Olympia Mons, 15 miles high, and the longest gorge, Valles Marineris, 2500 miles long and 4 miles deep.

The Valles Marineris Canyon system, 2,500 miles long and 4 miles deep. Credit NASA / JPL / USGS
Left, a view of Mars taken by the Hubble Telescope earlier this month, wrapped in a massive dust storm. Right, the Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system. ESA / NASA / Hubble

Out of all these explorations It's a story that is equally insistent, it's about a planet that was once speckled by oceans and shaped by fast-flowing rivers, a world warmed by an atmosphere, but something has happened, and Mars has its glittering Water and its air are lost.

Now there are only the bare shores, empty filaments of tributaries, silent rocks and scattered wet spots on cliffs, if history has ever existed here, history goes on, it died or went away into the underground.

Instead of little green men we search for microbes that are OK with me, I just get lonely and maybe microbes will be n, what applies to cosmic society.

The Vikings, who landed on Mars in 1976, were famed for life on the Martian soil. And scientists are still arguing over whether one of the four experiments actually achieved a positive result.

The Viking 2 spacecraft takes a soil sample. Credit NASA / JPL

In the next 50 years, we will probably know whether Darwin's test tube has produced another result in our own neck of the cosmos, in our own solar system. The missions to Mars have been on the road every two years for decades.

We will not know for sure about Mars until someone walks on it and drills. I always thought I would never be able to see people on the moon, but that was before SpaceX started doing things with rockets – come back and land first – that I had only seen in old science fiction movies.

We may not find monoliths or a funky alien iPhone. We could only find dead microbes or fossil prints of them. But even that would be exciting to know that nature has ever tried.

But if they are alive – whatever that means – then some kind of spiritual and intellectual reckoning will come to us. Depending on how savage or familiar these alien creatures are, we may have to decide whether our affiliation with DNA-based organisms or something is even broader.

And maybe we have to decide if microbes or whole potential biospheres have rights. If we choose the ultimate imperialist project, we could try to make Mars habitable for humans by heating up the planet to melt the ice caps and release carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas – out of them and the red soil. The result would be a thick atmosphere that would keep things warm and humid and cause deliberate climate change.

Gale crater emits small amounts of methane, which scientists believe is a dried-up lake bed. 19659005] Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

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