Saturday, May 31, 2008

Unmanned on Mars

Last Sunday NASA’s exploration robot, Phoenix, touched down in the Vastitas Borealis, the plains below the northern pole of Mars. It survived entry into the Martian atmosphere, deployed its parachute, landed gently in what is informally called Green Valley, dug its foot petals into the spot where it will stand for three months, unfolded its stoic little arms which have a reach of 160 square feet, and set about its scientific experiments.

That event, a culmination of painstaking research and development, triumphed over a history of exploration plagued by crash landings, disappearances, technical collapses and other booboos collectively known as ‘The Mars Curse’. (People in the scientific community, of course, being less superstitious, scrupulously attribute the failures to a being called ‘the Great Galactic Ghoul’ which is known to live on a diet of space probes.) After 193 million kilometres of travel over almost ten months through the cold silent void, and at a cost of $420 million dollars, Phoenix is beaming pictures back to earth that prove what scientists have long suspected: that there are lots of little rocks all over the place.

I’m kidding. We already knew about the little rocks. Two Mars Exploration Rovers, called Spirit and Opportunity, have been labouring their way over those little rocks since 2004. Phoenix is there to stand in one spot and dig some inches into the Martian ground in the hope of finding what scientists think might be buried ice, judging from the polygonal lumps that dimple this region of Mars. What’s really going on, of course, is that the whole project is being funded by a shadowy bottled-water conglomerate with an eye on the future.

I’m kidding. No bottled water giant would agree to sponsor an unmanned mission on which a lawyer could not be present. But the possibility that there might be water on Mars raises exciting possibilities for the presence of life, as we know it (it might be nasty, brutish and short, but it’s all we have).

I find the whole thing staggering—that, sitting in a room somewhere on planet Earth, human beings can control a little machine through its long lonely flight and make it see and do various things on the surface of Mars on our behalf. Amazingly, and in a first in the history of space exploration, another probe already orbiting Mars was able to photograph Phoenix coming in to land with its parachute deployed.

While trying to wrap my head around this, I looked up the history of Mars exploration, and discovered, to my shock, that the first successful landing of a probe on Mars took place in 1976. Flybys had happened before that; the Mariner probes orbited and photographed Mars in the years leading up to the first landing. In 1976, however, two Viking spacecraft landed successfully on the Red Planet.

That’s 1976, people. Here’s one way to think about it with some sort of perspective: we had landed a machine on Mars, and caused it to conduct scientific experiments, three years before the Walkman was invented. Viking touched down on another planet before the advent of MS Dos (1981), Windows (1985), disposable cameras (1986), and the Internet (1990). I mean, we were fiddling about on the surface of other planets a quarter of a century before we had the iPod (2001).

I don’t know about you, but that makes my hair stand on end. I’m going to be watching Phoenix with admiration over the next few months, and I’m not how I’ll take it when they just let the little fellow freeze over when the Martian winter sets in. But maybe that’s because women are from Venus.


Raghu Karnad said...

Aren't you being a little credulous? I have good reason to believe in the existence of MS-DOS, Windows and even the iPod, though my belief sometimes wavers on that one. But I've never been convinced by the claims of "NASA scientists" that human contraptions have landed on Mars.

In fact I've no reason to believe in the existence of Mars itself. All I've ever had in the way of evidence is someone pointing vaguely above the horizon and saying, "No, no, can't you see it? The one next to big one that looks slightly red?"

Anonymous said...

I got goosebumps too, reading this.