We are the Martians

Near the top of the list of things we older adults might envy the youth of today – apart from their ability to flit through the world of computers and iPods and cell phones without fear or trembling – is simply that they will live long enough to learn some of the answers to mysteries which have long intrigued mankind.

The successful landing of “Phoenix” in the polar region of Mars proves once again the value of space exploration and the fascination it holds for those of us on planet Earth, despite the reported “seven minutes of terror” during which the vehicle slowed from 20,000 miles per hour to a speed at which most of us can parallel park our cars.

Phoenix didn’t use the balloon-bounce technology of earlier Mars rovers: it used collapsible legs and thrusters not unlike the system which allowed the Eagle to touch down safely on the Moon.

One of the earlier Mars rovers, “Opportunity,” provided enough data for scientists to posit the possibility of a sea where salt water once lapped the dusty surface of the planet, and where water may still be held in ice crystals below the outer layer or trapped in a chemical bond with surface minerals.

Interestingly, early Italian astronomers reported seeing “canales” as they viewed the planet through crude telescopes, which led to speculation about the possibility of sapient life, but the term has been misunderstood. The word actually translates to “channels,” which seems to
indicate water working its way along the surface, rather than artificial constructs.

If there is – or ever was – another life form in our solar system, it’s most likely to have been on Mars or Venus. They and our Earthly home are the only terraform planets. Venus hides its secrets beneath a veil of hot gasses, making exploration far more difficult than on the open dusty plains of Mars.

Still, Mars is a harsh environment: surface temperatures range from a high of about thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit to lows around minus one hundred and thirty. It’s a place, said one NASA scientist, where you’d want to take a coat. Nonetheless, it represents one end of the temperature spectrum where life might have evolved.

Imagine the number of hits the NASA website is going to take in the next few days and weeks. I hope the embers of curiosity that lead students toward careers in astronomy, physics, robotics, geophysics, geology and on and on have been fanned into flame again.

The exponential growth of exploratory technologies used by those who probe space on behalf of mankind may mean we’ll have some answers sooner than anticipated.

They can’t come soon enough to suit me. Many of us who – in our younger days – sat in front of our television sets for hours, spellbound by the Apollo moon landing, may not be around long enough to see proof or disproof of life on a planet about which science-fiction writers have long speculated.

So it’s understandable that some of us envy the youngsters who will one day know whether ancient life inhabited Mars.

For now, all that can be said with certainty is this: as Phoenix takes a look around the Martian plains, it sees nothing recognizable as a life form.

At the moment, we are the Martians.