Mars bears the name of the ancient Roman god of war. Seen in the sky by the ancients as a red and angry bright pimple, this fourth planet from the Sun has fascinated laypersons and scientists for millennia. Since it was first seen through crude telescopes two hundred years ago, the world has wondered if there is life on Mars. Early astronomers thought they were looking at canals on the surface of Mars. Built by who? How long ago? Was the planet full of water, like Earth?
But these so-called irrigation canals (first described by astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877) were an optical illusion. Once stronger telescopes and space photography turned their attention to Mars, the planet was revealed to be mostly desert – with huge impact craters scattered across the landscape, and extinct volcano cones over a mile high dotting the scenery.
Mars, sometimes known as the “red planet,” is about half the size of the Earth and has a rocky surface. Its outer surface is mostly formed of basalt, which was brought to the surface by ancient volcanoes that were active throughout the planet’s early history and has remained there ever since. Due to a cessation of volcanic activity on the planet many years ago, the planet’s surface is coated with iron oxide dust of a fine consistency equivalent to talcum powder. This also contributes to the planet’s crimson color.
Additionally, dust storms often occur on the planet, which blow the Martian dust about and gradually erode away the characteristics of the planet’s surface. It’s like gigantic sheets of rough sandpaper slowly erasing all the bumps. In another million years or so, Mars will be as flat as North Dakota – and probably more livable.
Planetary scientists estimate that Mars has a core area with a radius of roughly 1,480 kilometers and a composition that is mostly composed of iron and sulfur (17 percent).
Unlike the Earth’s core, the Martian core no longer rotates on its own at all. Scientists think this is why the atmosphere of Mars is so thin; the magnetosphere created by our planet’s spinning core is lacking on Mars. Without that magnetic power the force of gravity is pretty weak. The solar winds constantly coming from the Sun have swept away most of Mars’ atmosphere, since there was nothing to divert it or keep the atmosphere anchored to the planet.
In order to bring back a viable breathable atmosphere on Mars, scientists would need to figure out a way to restart the planet’s moribund core. Once it was spinning again, gravity would increase, and atmospheric gases would be held in tight. Otherwise, tourist excursions to Mars will have to rely on bulky old space suits and pressurized buildings. Is that any way to run a planet?
Mars has definitely seen better days.
Ancient lake beds and river valleys indicate that billions of years ago Mars had a more temperate and moist environment. There would have been a decent atmosphere (if you were an air-breathing life form.) Whereas today the nighttime temperature can plummet to 250 degrees below Fahrenheit, back in the good old days the nights on Mars would have been merely chilly. Not even cold enough to trouble a penguin.
The only H2O left on the planet’s surface now is located at the polar ice caps, where dry ice comes and goes at the whim of a distant Sun. But scientists are hopeful that a well dug deep enough on Mars may bring up water trapped in the silicon layers down in the crust. The probes that have landed on Mars thus far have not been big enough or powerful enough to drill down more than a few inches. Automated robotic drilling machines can be dropped onto the planet to begin drilling in earnest at any time. But the cost of such a venture is still very prohibitive. To date, NASA does not have the funding to do this. And Elon Musk is busy with other plans at the moment – although his SpaceX travel agency is currently booking flight to Mars itself. 500,000 dollars per ticket; launch date to be announced, but guaranteed to take off before 2030.
Nobody wants to go to Venus. And our Moon as a destination already seems so yesterday for the jet set space traveler. No, Mars is the ‘in’ place to be. Despite its manifest unsuitability to human life, plans are already being made on how best to colonize the planet. Serious discussion is taking place as this piece is being posted, between business leaders and scientists, on how best to utilize photovoltaic power on Mars so the colonizers will not be forced into using that nasty and dangerous nuclear power.
Why? Why the rush to Mars?
Because it is the new Last Frontier. Radical historians say that when the original ‘Last Frontier’ was closed at the end of the 19th century, the pioneering spirit left the American people and they began a long decline. Without a new and distant horizon to aim for, it is claimed by some, the whole human race decays into a hopeless and warring state of chaos. And anyone who keeps up with the news today can vouchsafe that this does seem to be happening.
So the appeal of Mars is obvious, and inevitable. A new world to conquer. A place to begin over again. To experiment. Far from the stale influence and corruption of planet Earth.
Scientists, of course, look upon Mars merely as a fascinating environment to be explored. But the poets and dreamers, the hucksters and ambitious business people, see Mars as a place of redemption and profit.
Only time will tell how crazy, or how right, they are!