An Alien Land

Olympus Mons, 3x the height of Mt. Everest

When I say Beer, what do you first think of? If it is a delicious, cold and alcoholic beverage, then you are a normal human being. If you think of Beer and Mädler, the namers of geographic regions on the moon and Mars, then you are a total and complete geekazoid. With that already on the table, allow me to explore the details of the Martian landscape and its unusual naming process.

I’ve always wondered, as kid, where these stars got their names from and if it was a unanimous vote or a first come first serve type of deal. I’ve always suspected scientists to be the sneakier type of person so it seems to me that they went around discovering and naming as many things as they could after themselves / family. That may be (hopefully) the case for far off stars that are a dime a dozen, but what about the features on one of our closest and most mysterious neighbors. The largest of features on Mars still retain the classical mythology names that they were given when they first were focused into telescopes in the mid 19th century, yet the smaller features follow a more unique naming scheme. Craters that are larger than 37 miles will have names of deceased scientists and writers who have been a part of Martian history. Craters smaller than 37 miles are named not after people but cities and towns that have populations less than 100,00 people.

Sites have aslo been renamed to highlight certain aspects of features or just changed out of sheer boredom with the name it’s been given for 150 years. The tallest known mountain in the solar system, Olympus Mons, was once called Nix Olympica after, I’m assuming, they decided that it really needed an updated name. Smaller features like caves and minor impact craters seem to carry the names of scientists’ children and pets, like “Nikki”, “Dina” and “Wendy”, continuing the legacy of selfish and inane naming systems. If given the chance to name a couple features, they would probably be Fred and Gareth.

Just Add Water…

      Water, on Earth, is everywhere. It is so abundant here that there must be some on the planet that is right next to ours, right? Well, as most things go on Mars, it’s not that simple. There is ice on mars, it is located on the ends. “But Alex, ice is the same as water” you might ask, but it isn’t. Water in ice form doesn’t have the same ability to support life at all, so therefore it is almost like false hope. But as the scientists took a closer look at the land features on Mars, they saw quite a bit of similarity with the features here on Earth. These features were a result, they hypothesize, of water flowing across the surface at some point in it’s history.

What Mars would look like if it’s ice caps melted

Gullies, channels, deltas, alluvial fans and what looks like eroded mountains point towards a history of water that probably melted off the glaciers and ice caps present. Mars is, considering its lack of atmosphere, a surprisingly cold planet. It rarely gets above freezing and down by the Polar caps, it drops to -225 degrees farenheight. This keeps all water locked up in ice form.

      But Mars, scientists say, did have water flowing on the surface as little as a few million years ago (a short time ago, relatively speaking). The existence of certain types of minerals like hematite and goethite also point to a wet history.

Life? The Big Question

      After the rumors of life thriving on mars died down, people began to, clear headedly, think about the actual possibility of Mars sustaining life. Was there life in the past, life right now and the ability of life to exist (weather or not in cramped pods, like we will be living) in the natural environment? It seems as though Mars, at times, lies in the habitable zone (far enough away from the sun to not fry everything on the surface, yet close enough to keep the temp comfortable), and this fact alone is enough for many a scientist to get their knickers in a bunch. Mars has two things going against it; it doesn’t have magnetic poles like we do on Earth and it’s atmosphere is incredibly thin. This means that the surface is susceptible to any and everything the sun throws at it, including it’s sunshine (which would give you the worst sunburn you could think of times 10) and solar winds. Not to mention the incredible dust storms that blow through all the time.

      And yet! We still persist in our never-ending search for life because evidence is building that Mars once was much more

An extremeophile.

habitable than it is today, that is our our silver lining that we cling to. In the mid 1970’s we sent probes to Mars but nothing very conclusive, life wise, came from that, just more fuel for both sides of the debate. Extremeophiles, organisms that live in parts of the world that are incredibly hot/ acidic/ should never support life, are a new discovery for us and the tests done in the 70’s didn’t take these organisms into account. Armed with our knowledge of extremeophiles that need these crazy environments, we had to go back to the drawing board when brainstorming how and where life would live on the lonely planet.

      Yes, the jury is still out, but is that such a bad thing? Sometimes the unknown is more intresting and motivating then knowing all the answers. On a positive note, when we put Lichens into a simulated Mars environment, they lived. Take that, Mars.

Us and Mars

Mars observation dates back many thousands of year. Some of our earliest records come from people trying to calculate Mars’ positions it rotated around (what we now know is) the Sun. Helenistic, Greek, Indian and Chinese cultures were some of the first to really get a grasp on the planet’s size, distance, motions and shape of orbit. In 1610 Galileo first saw Mars through his telescope, and from there we’ve been on a non stop discovery train that brings us closer and closer to understanding this planet and how we will one set foot on it, for isn’t that the ultimate goal?

Dark spots, polar ice caps, canals and what looked like dust, everywhere. These observations were the cornerstones of our interest in this planet and have also convinced a lot of people, a hundred or so years ago, that there is or was definitely life on Mars. In 1877 Giovanni Schiaparelli, using a, for the time, high resolution telescope, saw what he believed to be long and straight lines on Mars. In Italian, he called these “canlis”, which means grooves, but got mistranslated to mean canals, connoting a population living and creating these features. The rumors of life on mars began to spread and even other astronomers were decidedly convinced that they too saw these canals.

Books got written and everyone for a while was convinced that we shared this solar system with other living, breathing, intelligent life forms. These “canals” turned out to be nothing more than an optical illusion created with the telescopes, but rest assured that it fueled the fire for knowledge and discovery that has helped fund and space programs around the world.

One of the first Maps of mars from Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli with the mistaken “canals”:

Mars Attacks!

      The science fiction community has been some of Mars’ greatest fans, but what was science fiction back in the day is now slowly becoming reality due to the extraordinary effort and imagination of select people. There is something about Mars being a planet, and not just another moon, that gives it some personality and intrigue. It has a lot to offer our population here on Earth, like; natural resources, a brand new land to discover, hope for a new colony and it is just all around bleakly weird enough to see what the hell is going on there.

      One name that pops out to me when researching Mars and our history with it is Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun, yeah you read that right. He is an incredible man that deserves all the attention that he gets. To get straight to the point, he knew how to build rockets. He was a rocket scientist, aerospace engineer, space architect and overall badass that came to America from Germany to help our military’s rocket program, but was soon assimilated into NASA’s rocket detail when they found out how much he knew. His first thoughts on Mars were about colonizing and were incredibly ambitious. He wanted to have “a fleet of ten spacecrafts (each with a mass of 3,720 metric tons), three of them unmanned and each carrying one 200-ton winged lander in addition to cargo, and nine crew vehicles transporting a total of 70 astronauts” go to Mars. 70 astronauts going to Mars! He also wrote a science fiction novel about colonizing Mars while working on the Mars details. He scaled his plans down quite a bit later on, but these plans being birthed in the 50’s, bowed down to moon plans that came on its heels and took priority. He is the man that oversaw the production of the rocket that took men to the moon, so you can’t blame him for really anything.

The man and his maiden:

ImageImage

In the Red

With Mars back in the news for a quick moment as we make contact, I found myself interested again in this red planet, and our attempts to tame it. The next planet over from us (away from the sun), Mars, has always been the one that got away. It was right there, but not really. Mars may be the most viable option in terms of landing/colonizing a planet, but the amount of effort and funds it takes to get there, especially with humans on board, is extremely overwhelming to most sane people. I say most, because there were and currently are people who view putting humans on mars as totally feasible.

     Our moon took a lot of attention away from Mars, but why wouldn’t it? It’s much closer and we can see the damn thing almost always just sitting there, waiting for us to get our shit together and visit again. It’s one thing to get a space craft to orbit an object, but its a whole nother ball game to land something on it, especially if that something contains humans. The manned flight to the moon went from being a scientific achievement to a political chest beating match between us and the Soviet Union. We were severely embarrassed when we found out that the Soviet Union beat us to space, so we had to beat them to the moon. I bring this up because it shows just how much was riding on the moon projects while Mars plans were few and far between, always eclipsed by the moon.

      Don’t get me wrong now, Mars may have played second fiddle to the moon, but it has always remained on our, for lack of a better phrase, “bucket list”. People have had all sorts of ideas on how we will get to the moon, but I believe that only now are we living in a time where we have the technology to actually pull it off. We just landed a large rover, now why not humans? Many great minds pondered this and I will discuss some of these people in my next post.

      

Here is a great video of the lunar landing that has just recently been found. (NSFW: Heavy Language)