Mars Curiosity? Brilliant, superb. We were all NASA engineers for those last ten minutes or so. The discoveries it makes will challenge our minds, lighten our hearts, make us proud, a rare thing lately, to be human.
The photo from an orbiting satellite of that parachute descent was stunning, almost unbelievable that we can achieve such things. So was the panorama the next day – there was Curiosity sitting on a dusty pebbly plain with distant mountains, just like any Earth landscape, and yet, Mars.
Oh, once it gets going what a brave new world. It will be doing proper geology. Looking at rock sequences, writing Mars geological history. And the history of its water. And, as a consequence, the jackpot, checking to see if any of the layers shows signs of past life, as they probably would (depending) on Earth.
Worth thinking about the logic of what discovery of life (past and/or present) on Mars would mean. If life is found then we immediately know, as many of us suspect, that life is abundant in the universe, and is likely to be found on any roughly Earth-size planets in the “Goldilocks Zone” distance from their star. Wouldn’t mean every such planet would have developed life – plenty of accidents like meteor strikes, supernova eruptions, runaway greenhouse effects – but it means the numbers of planets with life must be in the billions of billions.
Conversely, no evidence of life on Mars tells us very little. Means the odds perhaps a little less, but also simply means that although Mars is roughly in zone for life something else wasn’t right. Bit disappointing, but leaves us where we were.
Worth adding that if future probes find life on likely moons such as Enceladus, Titan, Europa, then this would multiply the likely places with life many times. It would also mean, if nothing found on Mars, that Mars was odd for not having life, and its history was the explanation.
So exciting times ahead (not least because life on Mars, and the moons, would, perhaps [no scientist ever lost a dollar by underestimating the intelligence of the religious public] finally put an end to the madness of imaginary friends on this planet.
And yet, and yet…
Why oh why does this magnificent machine have to be powered by Plutonium? Why oh why did the delivery vehicle use highly toxic Hydrazine, the remains of which were dumped on the Mars surface after Curiosity detached? Why are the number of bits of space junk on the surface of Mars multiplying?
You all know the “broken window” theory right? This says that you should immediately repair damage, clean up litter, wash graffiti off walls, tow away old cars, because if you leave one small mess people will think its ok to make more, and in an ever-growing snowball effect the neighbourhood will rapidly disintegrate.
Some truth in it of course (though as always the Right turns a minor idea into a truism engraved in stone as if provided by St Ronald or St Ayn). And it should have given those rightly happy NASA scientists a little cause for pause in the High Fives.
The word pristine actually once had meaning on Mars. Now it doesn’t. If one bit of junk why not another? If one lot of noxious and/or radioactive materials why not another? And another. Until before you know where you are the Martian bikie gangs have moved in. Would have been nice if Mars exploration could have been like the old National Park idea – leave nothing behind, take nothing away.
And not just bad for Mars itself. If finding life on Mars would have a positive effect back on Earth by pulling the prayer rugs out from under the priests, then dumping garbage on Mars has a negative effect back here. If it’s ok to litter Mars presumably it’s ok to litter, say, Antarctica. If it’s ok to land Plutonium on Mars then who can say nay to the nuclear power salesmen when they want to put some in your backyard?