As the midsummer Sun beats down on the southern mountains of Mars, bringing daytime temperatures soaring up to a balmy 25ºC (77ºF), some of their slopes become darkened with long, rusty stains that may be the result of water seeping out from just below the surface.
The image above, captured by the HiRISE camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on Feb. 20, shows mountain peaks within the 150-km (93-mile) -wide Hale Crater. Made from data acquired in visible and near infrared wavelengths the long stains are very evident, running down steep slopes below the rocky cliffs… but the process that’s responsible for them has yet to be confirmed.
NASA’s Shuttle era may be over but its robotic era is in full swing. With robots having long performed the bulk of our exploration across the Solar System, on the surface of Mars, and now assisting astronauts in low-Earth orbit, we’re now also on the verge of having robots doing work for us on the Moon, on asteroids, and even augmenting natural human capabilities to levels otherwise unattainable – especially in the alien environments found outside of Earth.
“This is probably one of the most exciting times to be working at NASA,” said Terry Fong, director of the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames Research Center. “Regardless of where NASA goes, robots are going to be there. If humans go back to the Moon, or to an asteroid, or Mars, robots are going with them.”
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.
Also, check out this fun and insightful article by Kristi Harrison on Cracked.com.
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.)