Life on Mars

posted 22 February 2005

As far as I'm aware, this isn't being shouted from the rooftops or anything, but the discovery of a frozen sea near the Martian equator is big news. Sorry for geeking out on you for a bit here*, but I feel the need to talk about this.

In the realms of science fiction, where I spend most of my reading time, the possibility of life on Mars is extensively discussed. And I don't mean native life -- intelligent or otherwise. I mean the possibility of human life sustaining itself on Mars, with Kim Stanley Robinson's amazing Mars trilogy being pre-eminent among these. The ability for human beings to live a self-sustaining existence on Mars has not just been the premise of these stories, but the focus: the resources required, the technology that would be needed, the maths and the physics of getting people there and providing them with energy, the geology and the chemistry involved in making it work without requiring regular infusions of raw materials, the biology of providing them with food and ensuring they aren't roasted by hard radiation. All of these things have been extensively investigated, and written about not just in science fiction, but as serious proposals. There is even a Mars Society, founded with the eventual aim of human exploration of Mars (they debate whether they want to colonize it or not -- believe it or not, there is a significant ecological movement to keep Mars untouched).

And as far as all the people who care about life on Mars are concerned, the discovery of a large body of water on Mars -- frozen or otherwise -- is an achievement, which is why they got excited when it was confirmed that a large portion of the Martian icecaps is water-ice (large chunks of it are frozen CO2, aka dry ice). At the poles, however, the extreme temperatures and low levels of sunlight make human life difficult. Thus, the discovery of this ocean at the equator is a get-out-of-jail-free card. A human colony on Mars is no longer a dream: it is a distinct possibility. Water, in addition to being vital in itself, can be electrolysed (using aforementioned solar energy) into oxygen -- the other biggie for survival -- and hydrogen, which is a relatively convenient source of fuel for vehicles and other machinery. Once you've found water, the hard problems simply go away.

We can live on Mars now. Screw the microbes, we have a whole new planet to screw up. And really, I'm ready to go.

* What am I talking about? I'm not sorry at all.

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