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Enigma Issue 13: Mars Quest

Paul Vigay examines the current interest in the Red Planet | Spring 1997

Mars Mania!

Well, I'm not too sure where to start for this article. I had originally planned this article to feature in the last issue of Enigma, but it was postponed due to my increased research load with investigating the Hale Bopp comet. It was originally going to be about the discovery of the Asteroid from Mars which supposedly contained minute life forms. However, since then a lot has been happening with regards to Mars. Everyone seems to be getting on the Mars wagon, so to speak. We now have two space probes heading for Mars, scheduled to land later in the year, the spoof film Mars Attacks and a lot of interest in Mars, not least partly fuelled by Richard Hoagland's continued pressure on NASA to re-take better pictures of the Cydonia region - home of the infamous Face on Mars.

Life on Mars - the Initial Press-Release

I hope in this article, to cover some of the various topics which I think will be of interest to Enigma readers - starting with the lowdown on the 'Life on Mars' discovery made by scientists last year. The first press release was issued by Daniel S.Goldwin, NASA Administrator, on August 6th 1996. This read "NASA has made a startling discovery that points to the possibility that a primitive form of microscopic life may have existed on Mars more than three billion years ago. The research is based on a sophisticated examination of an ancient Martian meteorite that landed on Earth some 13,000 years ago."

ALH84001

Since liquid water is required for life to exist, we need to study the history of water on Mars to discover when the most likely period life could have evolved would have been. For a warm, wetter environment we need to look early in Mars' history, to when it had a much denser atmosphere than it has now. The recent findings have been made by examining one of the earliest known martian meteorites, ALH84001 (fig.1). This rock, about the size of a potato, was found in 1984, buried in the Antarctic, where it landed 13,000 years ago.

[image e013b1.jpg]

Scientists analysing the rock found minute traces of chemicals known to be formed on Earth by Bacteria. They also found what they said were fossilised remains of nanno-bacteria - microbes so small they could only be seen using powerful electron microscopes (fig.2).

[image e013b2.jpg]

No Evidence of Higher Life

The features that interested scientists only measured 250 m across and their minute size has made some scientists sceptical of the claims NASA has been making. Even NASA, soon after making the extraordinary claim, tried to distance themselves from various 'fringe' research being carried out by stating that "No evidence of higher life-forms can be put forward", instead of the media headline "Possible life on Mars".

Dismissing 'Alien' researchers

TIME magazine (August 19th 1996 issue) even went on to dismiss such claims as artificial objects and the 'Face on Mars' by saying that they are made by people who are "alien-life enthusiasts, eccentrics and mystics" who are characterised as being in a "frenzy". This is interesting because NASA almost seemed to be taking a step back, even though it had no need to. After all, the original press-release had made it completely clear that they were only talking about minute bacterial microbes. It was, presumably, the World's media which seemed to imply that 'little green men' may exist. NASA, again seemed to be in a panic as to what impression people got from the data.

UK Confirmation

However, no sooner had scientists around the world started arguing about the authenticity of the finding that verification was to come from a team of UK scientists led by Dr. Ian Wright and Dr. Colin Pillinger of The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK and Dr. Monica Grady of the Natural History Museum in London. They had been examining a much younger fragment of meteorite, designated 79001, that crystallized 175 million years ago and was ejected from Mars, possibly by an asteroid impact, only 600,000 years ago.

More than one sample

Due to the need for suitable atmospheric conditions for life to arise, it now indicates that some kind of life existed on Mars much more recently than first thought. "This is great", said Dr. Michael Meyer, a biologist who specialises in extraterrestrial studies at NASA in Washington. "It means we have more than one sample with hints of life. And it means Mars could have been inhabited for quite a long period and could even have life today." [interesting to see he used the word 'inhabited' - Ed.]

Technological Advances

Both meteorite fragments come from only 12 meteorites so far identified as matching the unique martian chemistry which was measured by the Viking spacecraft which landed on Mars in 1976 - the same one which took the infamous 'Face on Mars' photos. The observations have only been made possible in the last few years, due to technological advances in electron microscope resolution and laser mass spectrometry.

The Religious View

It's interesting to note that scientists weren't the only ones to be concerned about the discovery of life elsewhere in our solar system. Newsweek magazine ran a feature looking at the various theological implications that 'we are not alone'. The Vatican were quick to say that "Finding life on other planets is a vindication that God is not limited by our imagination." and David Slavsky, dean of science and mathematics at Loyola University, Chicago and a religious Jew, claimed that the message from Mars offered profound intellectual reassurance, saying "It tells us that the laws of physics and chemistry are not limited to Earth alone."

At odds with The Bible?

Hindus and Buddhists should have no problem with the concept of life elsewhere in the Universe. Their philosophies speak of many alternate universes inhabited by celestial and other beings. However, Christians and Muslims are likely to have the biggest problem accepting the news, which appears to be at odds with the Bible - the word of God. The fundamentalists who believe that life originated literally as recounted in the book of Genesis may have to re-evaluate their interpretation of 'the word of God'.

Man's Mission on Earth

Sayyid Syeed of the Islamic Society of North America said that the Koran refers to Allah as the God of "worlds" and not just one world. He added that the Koran says God created the universe for man to explore and discover. According to Sayyid, the Koran gives man a specific mission on Earth, which does not preclude God giving other life forms a mission on other planets.

Coming to terms with possible future announcements
There is no denying however, that NASA may have coincided the announcement to allow religious thinkers to come to terms with extraterrestrial life should further announcements be made in the future....

Missions to Mars

Mars seems very vogue within the space research organisations around the world, with no less than five different missions to Mars already underway or planned for the near future.

Mars Global Surveyor

The first to blast off on it's journey to Mars was the Americans Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) which took off during the first week in November 1996. After a couple of minor computer glitches, it's take-off went well and it is now well on it's way to rendezvouing with Mars in September 1997.

Mars 96

Unfortunately, the second probe to lift off - the Russian Mars96 probe - met it's untimely demise by plunging into the Pacific Ocean only hours after it's launch on Saturday 16th November 1996. It had been scheduled to also reach Mars around September 1997, and it's failure gave the US fears about the ultimate reliability of Russian spacecraft as NASA officials are depending on Russia to provide equipment for the international space station now in the works. Alarm was also voiced at the US Space Command, who were watching as the probe re-entered Earth's atmosphere, but were unable to tell exactly where it was going to crash. It was originally believed it would hit east/mid Australia or somewhere to the west of Chile. In the end, it crashed in the Pacific approx. 620 miles west of South America, near Easter Island.

Radioactive Payload

Additional concern was issued at the revelation that the craft was carrying amounts (approx 200 grams) of radioactive plutonium. However, Russian space officials told U.S. and Australian officials that they believed there was no danger of radioactive contamination.

Mars Pathfinder

The last probe to be launched was the U.S. Mars Pathfinder mission. This is scheduled to actually place a rover vehicle on the surface of the red planet. Entry into Mars' atmosphere is timed for July 4th 1997 without going into orbit around the planet. A number of readings are planned for Pathfinder including atmospheric readings as it descends to the planet's surface. As it nears the surface a large parachute will open, slowing the craft before three solid rocket motors will be fired to bring the lander to a stop approximately 12 meters above the ground. The parachute will then be released and the lander, nestled inside it's protective air bag cocoon, will fall to the ground, bounding and rolling until it stops.

It can then open its three triangular, metallic solar panels and stand itself upright from which ever side it lands on. It will then start transmitting data back to Earth. It contains an imaging system and a mobile rover, called Sojourner, for collecting samples from the Martian surface.

Coincidence or Intention?

If the arrival of Pathfinder on Mars on 4th July is an interesting coincidence, an even bigger coincidence is the position of landing site - located at 19.5 degrees North (will interest the Richard Hoagland fans) and 32.8 degrees West. This is located near an outwash plain known as Chryse Planitia. This is one of the largest outflow channels on Mars (the result of a huge flood)

The Search for Water

One of the unifying themes of the Mars probe missions is the search for water - a key requirement for life. Both MGS and Pathfinder will be looking for signs of water, both past and present. MGS will begin it's orbit of Mars in September 1997 when it will begin a highly elliptical orbit and spend four months dipping lower and lower into the atmosphere as it aerobrakes to a low altitude, nearly circular mapping orbit over the poles. By March 1998, Surveyor will be ready to begin data collection, compiling a systematic database as it surveys the Martian landscape and photographs unique features, such as the polar caps and Mars' network of sinuous, intertwining river channels.

Cydonia Revisited

Surveyor has led to a storm of protest from people intrigued by the long-running controversy over the Cydonia region - home of the infamous Face on Mars, publicised by Richard Hoagland. For months NASA refused to acknowledge whether or not Cydonia was on Surveyor's itinerary for high quality photographing, possibly ending one of the longest arguments in the history of space exploration. However, on October 16th 1996, NASA stunned those interested in the anomalies by announcing that near-real-time imagery from the Cydonia region would be transmitted back to Earth.

A Question over Resolution?

Near-real-time is sometimes called "life" transmission with only the minimal delay required for the travel of the signal through space and conversion of the data to a form viewable by us. However, there is still some uncertainty as to which camera aboard Surveyor will be used for this. If the mapping camera is used, the resolution may still not be good enough to resolve the dispute. The high resolution camera may not be freed up from it's task of target priorities, as it can only cover a much smaller area of the surface. In any case, we can never be sure if NASA is actually releasing pictures real-time.

Mapping in Detail

A large collection of pictures should be gained though, because Surveyor will perform one complete orbit around Mars in about two hours. As the planet rotates, each new orbit will pass over a different part of the surface. The mapping operations are scheduled to last for some two years, so you can work out how much data will be beamed back to Earth. How much of it will become public is another matter though!

Probes race each other to Mars

Of course, there are still a few months to go before either probe gets to Mars. Mars Pathfinder is travelling fastest and is on a shorter flight path than Surveyor, demonstrated on March 15th, when Pathfinder overtook Surveyor on it's journey. Pathfinder is now more than half way along it's flightpath to Mars, at approximately 28 million miles from Earth. Travelling at just over 60,000 miles per hour, Pathfinder is scheduled to land on Mars at approx. 6pm (GMT) on July 4th.

Saving Cash!

Surveyor on the other hand is following a longer orbit (a "type 2" trajectory) and is slightly slower at 59,800 miles per hour. Surveyor will take far less fuel than Pathfinder, resulting in saving costs to cash-starved NASA.
Talking about Surveyor, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin said, "It has 80 percent of the science of the Mars Observer at one-quarter the cost." He added, "It's a very, very strong statement about the will of the NASA people to do more with less."

All Systems Go!

At the moment, both probes seem to be 'all systems go' and are quite happily making good progress on their courses. There is no reason to speculate that anything untoward should happen to them, but there again it was only 1993 that NASA lost contact with Mars Observer, their last attempt to reach Mars. I am keeping close tabs on both probes and any interesting developments will be written about in future issues of Enigma.

More Missions coming up....

More missions are planned for the years leading up to the new millennium; Mars Orbiter '98 is scheduled for launch in December 1998 and will carry advanced cameras and atmospheric measuring instruments. This will be half the weight of Surveyor.

Mars Polar Lander

To be launched in January 1999 is Mars Polar Lander '98, again carrying a high resolution camera, but this time it will be the first mission ever sent to the polar regions of Mars, where it should encounter layers of icy terrain that represent a preserved record of the planet's climate history.

The Japanese enter the contest

The Japanese are also planning a mission to Mars. The "Planet B" mission is also planned for a 1998 launch and will study the upper atmosphere and solar wind. A second set of experiments are looking to measure magnetic fields around the planet as a result of solar wind.

Surprises in Store?

Mars has always held a strong fascination for people, from scientists and science fiction writers alike. From H.G.Wells "War of the Worlds" to pop star David Bowie's "Is There Life on Mars", written in 1973 (how correct he turned out to be!). I'm sure as the following months unravel, we will find even more surprises about Mars. Who knows? We may even confirm that Cydonia is not just a coincidence.

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