Cold as hell and no place to raise your kids, the surface of Mars today is a quite inhospitable place for any forms of life we know of. But that wasn’t always the case – billions of years ago Mars may have been a lot more like Earth, with a magnetic field, a much denser atmosphere, lakes and even an ocean on its surface where life could have not just developed but thrived. And in Curiosity’s hunt for any remaining evidence of that ancient utopia, the rover has identified a key ingredient: nitrates contained within the surface rocks of Gale Crater.
Although it’s not thought that the nitrates were created by organisms currently living on Mars it’s yet another indication that the environment of Gale Crater was once a place where life could have existed, joining the rover’s previous discoveries of traces of water and sediment deposited by ancient rivers.
“Finding a biochemically accessible form of nitrogen is more support for the ancient Martian environment at Gale Crater being habitable,” said Jennifer Stern of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, lead author of the research team.
The suffix “-gate” is often added to words to create a meaning of conspiracy or public debacle, à la the 1972 Watergate scandal that destroyed Nixon’s term as U.S. president, and we might soon be referring to this as “Marsgate” – the allegations of MarsOne of illegitimacy and fraudulent (or at the very least sketchy) practices by Medium.com reporter Elmo Keep and her contact Dr. Joseph Roche. While Keep and Roche – the latter of whom was chosen as a finalist in the latest round of candidate selections for a future one-way trip to Mars – are certainly not alone in their doubtfulness of the Dutch nonprofit company’s ability to actually set up a human colony on Mars over the next decade, their March 17 exposé article has certainly helped to position MarsOne directly under the burning spotlight of public skepticism (a place some say it should have been since the very beginning.)
Not to let such bad publicity remain blatantly unanswered, MarsOne CEO Bas Lansdorp has published a video interview in which he responds to the criticisms brought up by Keep and Roche. One thing Lansdorp does note is that there has been a delay of two years (already) to the mission timeline, which now puts the first crew’s boots on red ground in 2029 instead of 2027. Lansdorp openly asserts that they have a development team and contracts, and progress will be made.
“The recent bad press about MarsOne was caused to a large extent by an article on Medium.com by Elmo Keep, and that article contains a lot of things that simply are not true.”
– Bas Lansdorp, MarsOne CEO
Of course words aren’t rocketships or habitation modules and anything can be said in an interview. But this is the public response to a public challenge – not likely the first to come, either – and so it remains to be seen where it all goes from here.*
Watch the video interview above, and read more about this week’s Marsgate here.
*One thing that mustn’t be allowed to develop is a public perception of Mars as a human destination to be intrinsically unachievable. MarsOne is not NASA or ESA or any other government space agency (or even SpaceX); if MarsOne fails it won’t be because of Mars or indicative of human capability as a whole. Hopefully if it starts to go that way, Lansdorp will have the good sense and decency to shut it all down before anyone gets hurt.
Only a day after skywatchers in mid- to upper-latitudes around the world were treated to a particularly energetic display of auroras on the night of March 17 as a result of an intense geomagnetic storm, researchers from the University of Colorado announced findings from NASA’s MAVEN mission of auroral action observed on Mars – although in invisible ultraviolet wavelengths rather than visible light.
The concept of off-world habitation has been getting extra attention recently, especially with the announcement of 100 semi-finalists selected for the MarsOne “mission” (quotes because there’s more than a small amount of doubt that it will ever really take off – pun intended) and world-famous astronauts like Buzz Aldrin unabashedly telling us to “get our asses to Mars.” But even if we did manage to send a set of human derrières to the Red Planet, where would they call home? Building a safe habitation for humans for any sort of long term stay would be a time-intensive and expensive challenge, to say the least, and the environment of Mars – regardless of how much it might look like the deserts of Arizona or Utah in pictures – is harsh, unforgiving, and downright inhospitable for people. A lot of protection against the Martian elements would have to be built into modules for living and working, especially the extreme daily (and seasonal, depending on latitude) temperature changes and exposure to both solar and cosmic radiation. Protection equals mass, and mass equals fuel, and fuel equals more mass… and more money. What if there were a way for humans to set up base somewhere that radiation exposure and temperature variations could be mitigated? Somewhere like an easily-accessible cave where Mars itself could provide safe shelter to astronauts?
(Hey, it worked well for humans in the past.)
Former NASA astronaut Ron Garan was recently interviewed for Huffington Post’s LIVE broadcast. Ron talked about his new book The Orbital Perspective (read my review here) along with what it was like to be an astronaut and the way his experiences changed his views of life on Earth. (He also live-narrated some of the work being done at the time of the interview outside the ISS during EVA 30!)
In addition to talking about astronaut stuff, Ron weighed in on the human exploration of Mars, recently brought into the spotlight – for better or worse – with the announcement of 100 finalists by the Dutch MarsOne company, which has aspirations of creating the first human colony on the Red Planet. Ron says that while it will be important for us to venture out into the Solar System, really the next logical step would be to establish a permanent presence on our own Moon first.
“This is our closest neighbor, it’s three days away… There are so many things that could be done on the Moon that would have tremendous benefit.”
– Ron Garan, NASA astronaut
You can watch the entire video here, and share what you think in the poll below – should we go back to the Moon first? Or head right on out to Mars?
These days the world is looking in awe at the incredible images of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko from ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft. But it took Rosetta over ten years to arrive at the comet, during which time it got some great views of other worlds in our Solar System as well: Earth (a couple of times), the asteroids Lutetia and 2867 Steins, and, on this day in 2007, Mars!
The image above was captured by the Philae lander riding aboard Rosetta as the two spacecraft passed just 1,000 km (621 miles) over Mars on Feb. 24-25, 2007. The image shows one of Rosetta’s 14-meter (50-foot) -long solar panels with the surface of Mars below, showing the Mawrth Vallis region in the planet’s northern lowlands.