Friday, 6 June 2008

Martian Chronicles

Pictures of sand and rock don't normally excite. But when they've been transmitted across 40 million miles of void, they're something a bit special. The latest Mars lander, Phoenix (so-called because it rose out of the ashes of previous missions) landed on the planet on 25th May. Its mission is to dig into the Martian desert and analyse the soil and ice the scooper unearths. Over the next six months it will gather more data on the planet's geological and climatic history; and spend time prospecting for future colonisation and exploration.

But perhaps most importantly from a scientific point of view is Phoenix will help determine if life ever arose from Mars' rusty landscape. No one's expecting alien imperialists in tripods running around with heat rays (fortunately), but there's a good chance bacteria could be suspended in the sub-surface ice. If they are detected by the on-board laboratory, it is a very significant finding for a whole host of reasons. Leaving aside the philosophical, theological and moral fall out from the discovery of alien life, from a strictly scientific viewpoint the presence of Martian microbes will confirm terrestrial biological observations that where there is water, life isn't far behind. If it turns out the two worlds orbiting our sun's 'goldilocks zone' (the distance from the star where water can exist as a liquid - Mars orbits its outer limit) have life, it is reasonable to assume life could exist on extra-solar planets orbiting analogous regions around their stars. Life's relationship to water will be shown not to be a unique property of the Earth.

At a cost of $386 million Phoenix hasn't come cheap. One could argue space exploration is yet another wasteful and socially useless way of disposing of surplus capital. There is indeed something obscene about people dying of hunger while sophisticated robots are scrubbing around in the Martian dirt. But at the same time, given the balance of class forces existing in the world today, and there being absolutely no chance NASA's budget will be cut to fund US welfare and infrastructural programmes in the immediate future, is it not better to see funds channelled in this direction than more tax cuts for the rich or more cash for the military?

No one believes the immediate interests of our species depends on the colonisation of the Moon, Mars, etc. But you can argue past and present space exploration has continually raised the bar of scientific endeavour. This is not a crude endorsement of RCP-style progress for progress sake. It is important socialists distinguish between space exploration and the militarisation space. However you don't have to be a Trekkie to realise the long-term survival of our species depends on spreading beyond the Earth. But the character of the social system we take to other worlds is up to us.


Anonymous said...

I saw the title of the post "Martian Chronicles" and assumed you were reviewing Ray Bradbury's bk....

Phil said...

Sorry to disappoint!

I have read the Martian Chronicles, albeit a long time ago. I remember thinking at the time that it was good to read a piece of sci-fi expressly motivated by worldly concerns ... and then was shocked to find Bradbury is a Neo-Con! If they do find bacteria on Mars, I can guarantee they'll have better politics than the man.

Phil said...

While we're talking about spacey-spacey stuff, there's this item on the BBC here. Am I the only one not hot on the idea of calling a military satellite 'Skynet'?