There is a popular view that beyond the Earth, there is nothing but barren wastes and balls of gas. “Nothing to write home about”, seems to be a view held by some in the media. But the evidence uncovered by science is considerably more optimistic than that.
To understand the possibility of life we should look first at our own world. Before the exploration of the Galapagos rift in the 1970s, the thinking was that life could only exist with sunlight. Yet, deep in the oceans, at the very bottom, where pressure is staggeringly intense and light is non-existent, life exists around the “smokers”. If life can find a way even in these desolate, hostile environs, then its chances on other worlds are more than possible.
Recently, the Spirit Rover accidentally discovered silica on Mar’s surface, suggesting that Mars was not always the dry, barren, rusty world it is now.
In our own solar system, even where life has not thrived, it has, with astonishing frequency, got damn close to happening. Consider Europa and Titan, for example. Within the vast gas giants, there may be basic life (we have barely scratched the “surface” of those strange, barely comprehensible worlds). Venus may be a hellhole at its surface, but up in its clouds the planet has a much more friendly disposition.
But let’s get back to Mars. Mars’ thin atmosphere (little protection from the harmful radiation of the sun) and low gravity present challenges. The key area for investigation may not be Mars’ barren landscape, but rather it’s polar ice caps. In those regions, it may be possible to build a human habitat within the protection of that ice, where water is plentiful, or maybe in the caves dotted around the landscape, which could provide makeshift shelters and facilitate mining.
The biggest challenge facing astronaut’s is psychological rather than physical; living in a small, cramped environment, not being able to walk outside without a spacesuit, and the feelings of isolation could prove extremely stressful for even the most well-trained astronauts.
But the gains of exploration are enormous; once humanity exists beyond the Earth, our chances of survival are greatly increased. Humanity’s legacy secure in it’s ubiquity, one might say.
At present we can barely travel to that red ball, but, given the astonishingly fast advance of human technology, maybe some day, we could terraform Mars (which might raise ethical questions about “playing God”) and in that, maybe us humans could redeem the damage we have done to our own, gloriously beautiful world.