The view from Mars

With all the trouble and strife on earth these days it’s no wonder that we spend so much time looking to Mars.

Last Sunday NASA rang in the New Year with the successful landing of Spirit Rover on the Red Planet, and the release of the first pictures and data collected by the probe.

A British Rover, dubbed the Beagle II after Charles Darwin’s legendary research ship, landed or crashed on Christmas Day, and scientists have since been unable to make contact with it. Another European venture, the Mars Express satellite, is still shifting into its planned orbit of Mars, at which point it will try to contact the Beagle II.

The Spirit Rover brings the total number of successful Mars trips to 10 out of 30 attempts. Some 20 probes, rovers and landers either went wide, broke down or crashed before they could be of use, at the cost of tens of billions of dollars. The feat is impressive, even with a 33 per cent success rate, if a little on the expensive side.

The unspoken question underlying all of this Martian discovery is whether the quantity and quality of scientific data collected by these missions could ever justify the enormous costs. In all honesty, the pictures sent back by the Spirit Rover to date could have been taken in any desert on earth.

So what is it all for?

By sending hardware to Mars scientists are hoping to answer a few questions about our nearest planetary neighbour. Such as: Is there water on Mars’ surface? Is there/was there life? Could there be life, if we were to put some there?

These are important questions if we ever wanted to visit or colonize Mars, which some scientists believe should be our end goal. They said the same thing about the moon in the ’50s, but that proved to be a scientific dead end.

At the same time, there are a growing number of scientists, who believe that these missions are a waste of money, elaborate public relations stunts that divert money from serious research, and serious research technology.

Humanitarians also object, noting that the cost of these Mars missions could be better applied to health care, education, and the battle against poverty. They are skeptical as to whether any Martian discoveries will benefit mankind in the slightest.

So far they have a point. The Spirit team discovered that the atmosphere has more particulate than previously thought, which reduced the effectiveness of solar panels by one-sixth. They also found that the temperature at night is about 10 degrees Celsius warmer than we thought. It’s still minus 100 at night. It’s neat stuff, destined for textbooks, but it’s not going to change life drastically on earth.

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