Cosmos


Page 16 of 41


I think the lifeforms on many worlds will consist, by and large, of the same atoms we have here, perhaps even many of the same basic molecules, such as proteins and nucleic acids—but put together in unfamiliar ways. Perhaps organisms that float in dense planetary atmospheres will be very much like us in their atomic composition, except they might not have bones and therefore not need much calcium. Perhaps elsewhere some solvent other than water is used. Hydrofluoric acid might serve rather well, although there is not a great deal of fluorine in the Cosmos; hydrofluoric acid would do a great deal of damage to the kind of molecules that make us up, but other organic molecules, paraffin waxes, for example, are perfectly stable in its presence. Liquid ammonia would make an even better solvent system, because ammonia is very abundant in the Cosmos. But it is liquid only on worlds much colder than the Earth or Mars. Ammonia is ordinarily a gas on Earth, as water is on Venus. Or perhaps there are living things that do not have a solvent system at all—solid-state life, where there are electrical signals propagating rather than molecules floating about.

But these ideas do not rescue the notion that the Viking lander experiments indicate life on Mars. On that rather Earth-like world, with abundant carbon and water, life, if it exists, should be based on organic chemistry. The organic chemistry results, like the imaging and microbiology results, are all consistent with no life in the fine particles of Chryse and Utopia in the late 1970’s. Perhaps some millimeters beneath the rocks (as in the Antarctic dry valleys), or elsewhere on the planet, or in some earlier, more clement time. But not where and when we looked.

The Viking exploration of Mars is a mission of major historical importance, the first serious search for what other kinds of life may be, the first survival of a functioning spacecraft for more than an hour or so on any other planet (Viking 1 has survived for years), the source of a rich harvest of data on the geology, seismology, mineralogy, meteorology and half a dozen other sciences of another world. How should we follow up on these spectacular advances? Some scientists want to send an automatic device that would land, acquire soil samples, and return them to Earth, where they could be examined in great detail in the large sophisticated laboratories of Earth rather than in the limited microminiaturized laboratories that we are able to send to Mars. In this way most of the ambiguities of the Viking microbiology experiments could be resolved. The chemistry and mineralogy of the soil could be determined; rocks could be broken open to search for subsurface life; hundreds of tests for organic chemistry and life could be performed, including direct microscopic examination, under a wide range of conditions. We could even use Vishniac’s scoring techniques. Although it would be fairly expensive, such a mission is probably within our technological capability.

However, it carries with it a novel danger: back-contamination. If we wish on Earth to examine samples of Martian soil for microbes, we must, of course, not sterilize the samples beforehand. The point of the expedition is to bring them back alive. But what then? Might Martian microorganisms returned to Earth pose a public health hazard? The Martians of H. G. Wells and Orson Welles, preoccupied with the suppression of Bournemouth and Jersey City, never noticed until too late that their immunological defenses were unavailing against the microbes of Earth. Is the converse possible? This is a serious and difficult issue. There may be no micromartians. If they exist, perhaps we can eat a kilogram of them with no ill effects. But we are not sure, and the stakes are high. If we wish to return unsterilized Martian samples to Earth, we must have a containment procedure that is stupefyingly reliable. There are nations that develop and stockpile bacteriological weapons. They seem to have an occasional accident, but they have not yet, so far as I know, produced global pandemics. Perhaps Martian samples can be safely returned to Earth. But I would want to be very sure before considering a returned-sample mission.

There is another way to investigate Mars and the full range of delights and discoveries this heterogeneous planet holds for us. My most persistent emotion in working with the Viking lander pictures was frustration at our immobility. I found myself unconsciously urging the spacecraft at least to stand on its tiptoes, as if this laboratory, designed for immobility, were perversely refusing to manage even a little hop. How we longed to poke that dune with the sample arm, look for life beneath that rock, see if that distant ridge was a crater rampart. And not so very far to the southeast, I knew, were the four sinuous channels of Chryse. For all the tantalizing and provocative character of the Viking results, I know a hundred places on Mars which are far more interesting than our landing sites. The ideal tool is a roving vehicle carrying on advanced experiments, particularly in imaging, chemistry and biology. Prototypes of such rovers are under development by NASA. They know on their own how to go over rocks, how not to fall down ravines, how to get out of tight spots. It is within our capability to land a rover on Mars that could scan its surroundings, see the most interesting place in its field of view and, by the same time tomorrow, be there. Every day a new place, a complex, winding traverse over the varied topography of this appealing planet.

Such a mission would reap enormous scientific benefits, even if there is no life on Mars. We could wander down the ancient river valleys, up the slopes of one of the great volcanic mountains, along the strange stepped terrain of the icy polar terraces, or muster a close approach to the beckoning pyramids of Mars.* Public interest in such a mission would be sizable. Every day a new set of vistas would arrive on our home television screens. We could trace the route, ponder the findings, suggest new destinations. The journey would be long, the rover obedient to radio commands from Earth. There would be plenty of time for good new ideas to be incorporated into the mission plan. A billion people could participate in the exploration of another world.

The surface area of Mars is exactly as large as the land area of the Earth. A thorough reconnaissance will clearly occupy us for centuries. But there will be a time when Mars is all explored; a time after robot aircraft have mapped it from aloft, a time after rovers have combed the surface, a time after samples have been returned safely to Earth, a time after human beings have walked the sands of Mars. What then? What shall we do with Mars?

There are so many examples of human misuse of the Earth that even phrasing this question chills me. If mere is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes. The existence of an independent biology on a nearby planet is a treasure beyond assessing, and the preservation of that life must, I think, supersede any other possible use of Mars. However, suppose Mars is lifeless. It is not a plausible source of raw materials: the freightage from Mars to Earth would be too expensive for many centuries to come. But might we be able to live on Mars? Could we in some sense make Mars habitable?

A lovely world, surely, but there is—from our parochial point of view—much wrong with Mars, chiefly the low oxygen abundance, the absence of liquid water, and the high ultraviolet flux. (The low temperatures do not pose an insuperable obstacle, as the year-round scientific stations in Antarctica demonstrate.) All of these problems could be solved if we could make more air. With higher atmospheric pressures, liquid water would be possible. With more oxygen we might breathe the atmosphere, and ozone would form to shield the surface from solar ultraviolet radiation. The sinuous channels, stacked polar plates and other evidence suggest that Mars once had such a denser atmosphere. Those gases are unlikely to have escaped from Mars. They are, therefore, on the planet somewhere. Some are chemically combined with the surface rocks. Some are in subsurface ice. But most may be in the present polar ice caps.

To vaporize the caps, we must heat them; perhaps we could dust them with a dark powder, heating them by absorbing more sunlight, the opposite of what we do to the Earth when we destroy forests and grasslands. But the surface area of the caps is very large. The necessary dust would require 1,200 Saturn 5 rocket boosters to be transported from Earth to Mars; even then, the winds might blow the dust off the polar caps. A

better way would be to devise some dark material able to make copies of itself, a little dusky machine which we deliver to Mars and which then goes about reproducing itself from indigenous materials all over the polar caps. There is a category of such machines. We call them plants. Some are very hardy and resilient. We know that at least some terrestrial microbes can survive on Mars. What is necessary is a program of artificial selection and genetic engineering of dark plants—perhaps lichens—that could survive the much more severe Martian environment. If such plants could be bred, we might imagine them being seeded on the vast expanse of the Martian polar ice caps, taking root, spreading, blackening the ice caps, absorbing sunlight, heating the ice, and releasing the ancient Martian atmosphere from its long captivity. We might even imagine a kind of Martian Johnny Appleseed, robot or human, roaming the frozen polar wastes in an endeavor that benefits only the generations of humans to come.

This general concept is called terraforming: the changing of an alien landscape into one more suitable for human beings. In thousands of years humans have managed to perturb the global temperature of the Earth by only about one degree through greenhouse and albedo changes, although at the present rate of burning fossil fuels and destroying forests and grasslands we can now change the global temperature by another degree in only a century or two. These and other considerations suggest that a time scale for a significant terraforming of Mars is probably hundreds to thousands of years. In a future time of greatly advanced technology we might wish not only to increase the total atmospheric pressure and make liquid water possible but also to carry liquid water from the melting polar caps to the warmer equatorial regions. There is, of course, a way to do it. We would build canals.

The melting surface and subsurface ice would be transported by a great canal network. But this is precisely what Percival Lowell, not a hundred years ago, mistakenly proposed was in fact happening on Mars. Lowell and Wallace both understood that the comparative inhospitability of Mars was due to the scarcity of water. If only a network of canals existed, the lack would be remedied, the habitability of Mars would become plausible. Lowell’s observations were made under extremely difficult seeing conditions. Others, like Schiaparelli, had already observed something like the canals; they were called canali before Lowell began his lifelong love affair with Mars. Human beings have a demonstrated talent for self-deception when their emotions are stirred, and there are few notions more stirring than the idea of a neighboring planet inhabited by intelligent beings.

The power of Lowell’s idea may, just possibly, make it a kind of premonition. His canal network was built by Martians. Even this may be an accurate prophecy: If the planet ever is terraformed, it will be done by human beings whose permanent residence and planetary affiliation is Mars. The Martians will be us.

*In 1938, a radio version, produced by Orson Welles, transposed the Martian invasion from England to the eastern United States, and frightened millions in war-jittery America into believing that the Martians were in fact attacking.

†Isaac Newton had written “If the Theory of making Telescopes could at length be fully brought into practice, yet there would be certain Bounds beyond which Telescopes could not perform. For the Air through which we look upon the Stars, is in perpetual tremor.… The only remedy is the most serene and quiet Air, such as may perhaps be found on the tops of the highest mountains above the grosser Clouds.”

*There was a brief flurry when the uppercase letter B, a putative Martian graffito, seemed to be visible on a small boulder in Chryse. But later analysis showed it to be a trick of light and shadow and the human talent for pattern recognition. It also seems remarkable that the Martians should have tumbled independently to the Latin alphabet. But there was just a moment when resounding in my head was the distant echo of a word from my boyhood—Barsoom.

*The largest are 3 kilometers across at the base, and 1 kilometer high—much larger than the pyramids of Sumer, Egypt or Mexico on Earth. They seem eroded and ancient, and are, perhaps, only small mountains, sandblasted for ages. But they warrant, I think, a careful look.

CHAPTER VI

TRAVELERS’ TALES

Do there exist many worlds, or is there but a single world? This is one of the most noble and exalted questions in the study of Nature.

—Albertus Magnus, thirteenth century

We may mount from this dull Earth, and viewing it from on high, consider whether Nature has laid out all her cost and finery upon this small speck of Dirt. So, like Travellers into other distant countries, we shall be better able to judge of what’s done at home, know how to make a true estimate of, and set its own value upon every thing. We shall be less apt to admire what this World calls great, shall nobly despise those Trifles the generality of Men set their Affections on, when we know that there are a multitude of such Earths inhabited and adorn’d as well as our own.

—Christiaan Huygens,

The Celestial Worlds Discovered, c. 1690

This is the time when humans have begun to sail the sea of space. The modern ships that ply the Keplerian trajectories to the planets are unmanned. They are beautifully constructed, semi-intelligent robots exploring unknown worlds. Voyages to the outer solar system are controlled from a single place on the planet Earth, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Pasadena, California.

On July 9, 1979, a spacecraft called Voyager 2 encountered the Jupiter system. It had been almost two years sailing through interplanetary space. The ship is made of millions of separate parts assembled redundantly, so that if some component fails, others will take over its responsibilities. The spacecraft weighs 0.9 tons and would fill a large living room. Its mission takes it so far from the sun that it cannot be powered by solar energy, as other spacecraft are. Instead, Voyager relies on a small nuclear power plant, drawing hundreds of watts from the radioactive decay of a pellet of plutonium. Its three integrated computers and most of its house-keeping functions—for example, its temperature-control system—are localized in its middle. It receives commands from Earth and radios its findings back to Earth through a large antenna, 3.7 meters in diameter. Most of its scientific instruments are on a scan platform, which tracks Jupiter or one of its moons as the spacecraft hurtles past. There are many scientific instruments—ultraviolet and infrared spectrometers, devices to measure charged particles and magnetic fields and the radio emission from Jupiter—but the most productive have been the two television cameras, designed to take tens of thousands of pictures of the planetary islands in the outer solar system.

Jupiter is surrounded by a shell of invisible but extremely dangerous high-energy charged particles. The spacecraft must pass through the outer edge of this radiation belt to examine Jupiter and its moons close up, and to continue its mission to Saturn and beyond. But the charged particles can damage the delicate instruments and fry the electronics. Jupiter is also surrounded by a ring of solid debris, discovered four months earlier by Voyager 1, which Voyager 2 had to traverse. A collision with a small boulder could have sent the spacecraft tumbling wildly out of control, its antenna unable to lock on the Earth, its data lost forever. Just before encounter, the mission controllers were restive. There were some alarms and emergencies, but the combined intelligence of the humans on Earth and the robot in space circumvented disaster.

Launched on August 20, 1977, it moved on an arcing trajectory past the orbit of Mars, through the asteroid belt, to approach the Jupiter system and thread its way past the planet and among its fourteen or so moons. Voyager’s passage by Jupiter accelerated it toward a close encounter with Saturn. Saturn’s gravity will propel it on to Uranus. After Uranus it will plunge on past Neptune, leaving the solar system, becoming an interstellar spacecraft, fated to roam forever the great ocean between the stars.

These voyages of exploration and discovery are the latest in a long series that have characterized and distinguished human history. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries you could travel from Spai

n to the Azores in a few days, the same time it takes us now to cross the channel from the Earth to the Moon. It took then a few months to traverse the Atlantic Ocean and reach what was called the New World, the Americas. Today it takes a few months to cross the ocean of the inner solar system and make planet-fall on Mars or Venus, which are truly and literally new worlds awaiting us. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries you could travel from Holland to China in a year or two, the time it has taken Voyager to travel from Earth to Jupiter.* The annual costs were, relatively, more then than now, but in both cases less than 1 percent of the appropriate Gross National Product. Our present spaceships, with their robot crews, are the harbingers, the vanguards of future human expeditions to the planets. We have traveled this way before.

The fifteenth through seventeenth centuries represent a major turning point in our history. It then became clear that we could venture to all parts of our planet. Plucky sailing vessels from half a dozen European nations dispersed to every ocean. There were many motivations for these journeys: ambition, greed, national pride, religious fanaticism, prison pardons, scientific curiosity, the thirst for adventure and the unavailability of suitable employment in Estremadura. These voyages worked much evil as well as much good. But the net result has been to bind the Earth together, to decrease provincialism, to unify the human species and to advance powerfully our knowledge of our planet and ourselves.

Emblematic of the epoch of sailing-ship exploration and discovery is the revolutionary Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century. Having recently declared its independence from the powerful Spanish Empire, it embraced more fully than any other nation of its time the European Enlightenment. It was a rational, orderly, creative society. But because Spanish ports and vessels were closed to Dutch shipping, the economic survival of the tiny republic depended on its ability to construct, man and deploy a great fleet of commercial sailing vessels.