Why Explore Mars?

James Maynard
Apr 10 · 5 min read

Why Explore Mars? The Red Planet has beckoned to the human race since we first looked up at the night sky.

The first Martian colonists will face a tough life on the Red Planet. But, they will also make humanity an interplanetary species. Image credit: The Cosmic Companion/Grant Wood/NASA/JPL/GSFC

Long ago, our distant ancestors looked up at the night sky as it hovered, enticingly, over the Serengeti Plain. The mysterious lights scattered amongst the darkness beckoned to the most curious among them.

A few of these lights were special — they seemed to wander among the other, seemingly-stationary lights. One of these planets was also unique due to its color — a shocking blood red.

By the time science first took hold around ancient Greece 2600 years ago, Mars was associated with the god of war, a legend which continued through the Roman era. In the late 19th Century, astronomer Percival Lowell popularized the mistaken notion that Mars was covered in canals, which he theorized were built long ago by an intelligent Martian civilization attempting to survive as their world turned to desert. This was an intriguing, bold, notion, but it ultimately proved to be absolutely wrong.

NASA is now readying to fly a helicopter on Mars for the first time. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

Today, we explore Mars with robotic explorers, and begin to sample its soils. We, as humans, are now able to touch the Red Planet for the first time.

Join us on Astronomy News with the Cosmic Companion, starting April 20, when we will talk with NASA’s Joshua Ravich, Mechanical Engineering Lead for the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars.

Orbiters above the planet explore the atmosphere and large-scale topography of Mars, while landers provide laboratories on the surface of this alien world. Mars is also home to several rovers, crawling and rolling their ways across the frozen desert tundra, examining the geology of Mars up close. On February 18th, NASA placed the Perseverance rover on Mars, which included Ingenuity — the first helicopter ever designed to fly on another world.

As we explore this world first-hand, we examine the ruddy soils of Mars, and dig beneath its surface for the first time. We now know water can be found as ice, as well as small briny pockets just beneath the Martian surface. New research shows minerals in the seafloors of Earth can make biological processes easier, and a similar chemical process is likely to be possible on Mars.

An exciting possibility — that of finding life on Mars — now seems more likely than it was just a few decades ago. But, unlike the tenuous canals of Lowell, new findings could provide conclusive proof of life on Mars.

And, another form of life may soon be seen traipsing across the ruddy surface of Mars — Human beings. Governments and private organizations around the globe are making plans to place human travelers on Mars in the coming decades. As the human race begins our journey to other worlds, the Moon and Mars are the closest thing we will have to a welcoming home.

Greenhouses on Mars will, one day, provide enough food to feed Martian colonists. Image credit: NASA

Even the most temperate worlds in our solar system still hold enormous challenges to those brave enough to uproot their lives completely from the planet on which they were born, embarking for years — or lifetimes, on an alien world. To meet the challenges inherent in leaving our planetary home, we will need to develop ways to grow food, and produce water on the surface of alien worlds, as well as protect colonists.

Space is a dangerous place, and we may not be fighting aliens with laser guns any time soon, but interplanetary settlers will face the very real dangers of radiation and micrometeorites. The first human colonies on the Moon and Mars could be buried beneath layers of lunar or Martian crust or within naturally-occurring caves or craters — creating a generation or more of space-age cave people [glance].

This tremendous shift in the nature of humanity will bring with it unprecedented changes, affecting ideas, traditions, and mores people have held for countless generations. Even the notion of national borders and identities could fall by the wayside as people from all backgrounds will need to work as one in the quest for survival. In many ways, human colonies in space may serve as a microcosm of the Earth, reminding us of our own responsibilities to our planetary home.

A look at the exploration of Mars — both today and in the future — with Dr. Fatima Ebrahimi and Dr. Kirsten Siebach. Video credit: The Cosmic Companion

From the time of the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975, nations have, occasionally, worked together in space. Ronald Reagan’s dream of an all-American Space Station Freedom proved impractical. But, working with Russia, that project morphed into the International Space Station — the first long term home for humans in space. Russia and China recently agreed to work together developing the International Lunar Research Station, designed to house dozens of people on the Moon for long-term stays.

“Mars tugs at the human imagination like no other planet. With a force mightier than gravity, it attracts the eye to the shimmering red presence in the clear night sky.” – John Noble Wilford, Mars Beckons

Over the last few years, China has made historic visits to the Moon and Mars, including placing Tianwen-1, a robotic orbiter, lander, and rover at Mars. The fledgling space agency of the United Arab Emirates recently reached Mars with their own Hope orbiter, becoming the first Arab nation to place a spacecraft at another world.

Mars has called to us since our earliest days of a species, when we first glanced up at the stars, and wondered why a few of them seemed to move. We now stand at the precipice of another great step in our evolution — leaving our planetary home, taking our first few steps, as a species, into the cosmic ocean.

The stars beckon us once more. We are destined to either walk among the stars or perish forever as a species, when Earth is one day made barren by the vagrancies of the Universe, or the shortsightedness of foolish leaders.

The long-term survival of the human race is dependent on us reaching other worlds. The Moon and Mars remain our next steps in the evolution of the human race.

James Maynard is the founder and publisher of The Cosmic Companion. He is a New England native turned desert rat in Tucson, where he lives with his lovely wife, Nicole, and Max the Cat.

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