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Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Green Hills Of Mars

The Green Hills of Mars

Since the earliest days of astronomy and indeed into the deep recesses of history there has remained within the human psyche an abiding desire to know what life might inhabit the worlds that share our solar system. Looking into the night sky with the naked eye upon Venus and Mars our ancestors wondered how and why these stars behaved differently than those of the background. These stars like the others of their kind in time came to be known as planets.  In our imaginations they took upon the names and characteristics of whatever local god seemed appropriate. There in the sky the planets of love and war dominated their arena in the same ways that these aspects of life dominated us. Later as notions of what it really meant to be a planet grew more mature so too did the imagery used to depict them had become.  
However in the absence of true knowledge so deep was this desire to know these unknowable places that men began in their imaginations to create visions of ornate fantasy. On these worlds fantastical realms there in existed, each populated by dragons, fairy kingdoms, and hot steamy jungles. And in the case of Mars, there even existed a worldwide system of canals. All of these were readily created to fill the void left by these knowledge gaps.  

 We now know much to our disappointment that Venus and Mars are for the time being uninhabitable. One has a shrouded atmosphere many times denser than our own with temperatures hundreds of degrees hotter than our own. And the other is a barren lifeless dessert with little if any atmosphere to speak of.  Despite how much we have learned the most basic questions have remained unanswered. Is it possible that even in these most desolate environments, can and does life exist beyond the Earth?
Let’s look at the evidence so far. We do not because of the extreme environments on Venus yet possess the technology that would make such a voyage possible. Perhaps in a future time we will make that leap. But for purely practical reasons we must focus on Mars.

                                                  Mars Then and Now 
                Credit & Copyright: 
Tom Ruen, Eugene Antoniadi, Lowell Hess,  

I’m old enough to remember references from science texts to the green seasons on mars. Maps indicting the dry and wet cycles were considered by some to be of sound theory. It was  astronomers like Schiaparelli and  Percival Lowell who in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century s  who popularized such notions. Though extrapolations on grand canals and advanced cultures had maye missed the mark had they perhaps in the world before color photography visualized a rare and anomalous greening event?

By the nineteen seventies these ideas had been firmly dismissed by science.  Imagery of Mars showing it to be the arid and cold wasteland that we know today had existed for some time.  By the time the twin Viking landers had touched down in 1976 the consensus was that Mars was a dead world. The mission would be one of confirmation rather than discovery. To their credit however a number of biological experiments were conducted.

 When the results of these experiments were released to the general pubic Mars was officially declared dead. There were however within the details contradictory results that some say  showed just the opposite. In particular the Viking biology package GEX/LR/PR designed to capture the telltale signs of chemical metabolism in soil found some interesting results. However in the absence of earth-like organic compounds these results were considered to be no more than an aberration.

Viking chemistry of life soil experiments

Since that time four rover missions have successfully touched down on the red planet. What they have discovered there along with what we now know about extremophiles on earth has been revolutionary in the field of planetary science. With the use of rovers and satellites have found conclusive evidence of past and possible current water that could be trapped below the  frozen surface. We are forced now to reevaluate and replicate those early experiments.


 1996 an announcement was released which made headlines around the world. What they discovered within  a 4-billion-year-old Martian meteorite found in Antarctica was shocking. Under microscopic examination they discovered  there what appeared to be fossilized bacteria. The excitement that followed this amazing news was however short lived as this evidence was deemed once again to be inconclusive.
 The other day I read of another discovery this time from a meteorite that struck Egypt in 1911. The article describes a find similar to those of the Allen hills discovery of 1996. In this case however structures more similar to what would be described as cellular or similar to earth biology was found. Now however because such Ideas are chastised within the scientific community they are all but ignored. I not being a scientist do not have a professional reputaion to throw away by advocating such notions.


additional reading

I could make the case that there is now sufficient evidence to place a manned mission to Mars squarely at the top of our scientific priority list. We as humans have a deep seated desire to make the discoveries that answer these questions. However in the last fifty years the arbiters of science have stalled this human urge by continually denying the possibilities on the grounds of insufficient evidence.  Currently there are grand plans on the boards at NASA yet as always they remain twenty years or more away. The unfortunate truth is there is no political will to make the commitment to use the necessary resources. Are we doomed to be a one planet species?

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