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Argument: Mission to Mars holds inspiring possibility of finding life

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"Mars beckons..?" Cumbrian Sky. July 21, 2009: "The only good reason to send people to Mars would be to make their mission a dedicated, focussed search for life on the Red Planet.

Why? Because, at the end of the day, all this space stuff, it’s all about Life. As a species we are fascinated by Life. We are driven, with a ferocious, insatiable hunger, to learn all we can about its origins and fate, strengths and frailties, limitations and possibilities. Justifiably, we spend vast amounts of time, and money, trying to find ways of extending Life. Perversely, we spend even more time and money inventing, building and selling to others weapons to use to destroy Life.

And we look for Life with an obsessive passion. For centuries we have travelled the globe looking for new forms of Life in dense jungles, under the ocean and now beneath the ice. We are now, with ambition and optimism, starting to search for Life beyond Earth, and are fascinated by the possibility of its existence. That’s why I get such a thrill looking at the sky on a clear night. Whenever I look at Saturn I know that two of its moons, Titan and Enceladus, may be homes for alien. Whenever I look at Jupiter, flickering and flashing in the sky, I feel a giddying tingle when I think about all the places Life may be lurking in that mini solar system of exotic worlds: perhaps underneath the icy crusts of its moons Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, perhaps even within the storm-wracked clouds of the mighty gas giant itself… If some optimistic exobiologists are right, then perhaps even the acid-saturated clouds of Twinned-With-Hell Venus, the gorgeous Morning Star which blaze above the mountains and fells of my Lake District home, may harbour hardy alien microbes…

And now, while some astronomers search for primitive Life on the surfaces of Earth’s sister planets with robots, others are designing telescopes that will one day take pictures of Earth-like worlds orbiting other stars. Within a decade we could have the first photo of a “New Terra”, and when it appears on websites, TV screens and the front pages of newspapers around the world that first image of a tiny blue-green world shining like a painted marble against the blackness of deep space will have the same impact as the first Apollo photo showing Earth as a whole disc. And of course, as you read this, SETI astronomers are aiming sensitive electronic ears at the sky, straining to detect whispers from advanced alien civilisations on planets orbiting distant, mysterious stars.

So, you see, in the end, it’s all about Life. Understanding, encouraging, creating Life – that’s what we, as a species, do. It may even be, in the grand scheme of things, why we’re here in the first place. Maybe the scientists who dedicate their lives to solving the hallowed Drake Equation are wrong, and there are no other civilisations Out There. Someone has to be first, after all. If it’s us, Man, then it might be our role, our responsibility, to spread life across the stars, across the Galaxy, who’s to say otherwise?

And it’s only the quest for Life, and our desire to understand it, that will take us to Mars."


"Why we must go to Mars." On to Mars: "In the summer of 1996, in one of the most exciting announcements in history, NASA scientists revealed a rock ejected from Mars by meteoric impact that showed evidence of life on the Red Planet in the distant past. If this discovery could be confirmed by finding actual fossils on the Martian surface, it would, by implication, suggest that our universe is filled with life and probably intelligence as well. From the point of view on humanity learning its true place in the universe, this would be the most important enlightenment since Copernicus. Although unmanned rovers can conduct a certain amount of the search for life on Mars, the best fieldwork requires the ability to travel long distances across very rough terrain, climb steep slopes, and do both heavy lifting and delicate sorting, as well as exercise on-the-spot intuition. All these skills are far beyond the abilities of robotic rovers. Field paleontology requires human explorers, live rockhounds on the scene."

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