The Dead Planet

Ethan Siegel calls Mars “the obvious first step in our journey to the stars” and “part of our dreams for reaching out into the Universe.” Last year thousands of people applied to join Mars One, a proposed colonization effort slash reality show that plans to put humans on the red planet in 2023. But unless Mars One wants to achieve ratings by broadcasting the death of its crew, it may want to cool its jets. Ethan says that without some heretofore unknown, top secret-technology, there’s no hope for safely landing a capsule-full of “sensitive meatbags” (aka bachelors 1 through 3) on the surface. Launching from Earth is not likely to be a problem, nor traveling for nine months to the second-nearest planet in the solar system. But since Mars lacks a robust atmosphere, there’s very little drag to help decelerate a landing craft in a survivable manner. If humanity is serious about maximizing its reach in time and space, we might focus on sustaining our life on Earth first, and stranding photogenic pilgrims on a dead planet later.

Meanwhile, NASA continues to investigate the mysterious lump that turned up under Opportunity’s nose on January 8th.  Many commentators likened the object to a jelly doughnut, while Stephen Colbert dealt a blow to interplanetary peace by taking a bite out of an irresistible Martian ambassador.  Although NASA explains that it’s a rock, most likely kicked up by the rover’s maneuvering, PZ Myers reports that a chronic discoverer of life on Mars has declared it to be a fungus and legally impelled NASA to investigate further.  But NASA already knows there’s a lot of science to be done; they say we could be seeing the underside of a rock that hasn’t been exposed to the atmosphere for billions of years.  Opportunity also made headlines last week with evidence of flowing water and hospitable conditions in Mars’ distant past.  So although Mars may be dead, and a dead-end for human settlers, there’s still a strong possibility that it was once alive.