Going to Mars

Sueddeutsche Zeitung, November 22, 2014

Going to Mars

When mankind looks beyond its own planet its gaze usually falls on Mars. Exotic destinations like distant comets and other planets don’t interest space afficionados as much as the neighbor which is so similar to Earth in many ways. For 40 years mankind has been sending all kinds of probes to the Red Planet, dozens got stuck or lost. Many people would even take a one-way-trip there. What fuels this desire?

There is a curse on Mars. At least that’s what planet scientist first of Soviet, then of Russian origin must think. Nineteen times in five centuries they have tried to send space ships to Mars and only one of these missions can benevolently be called a success. It was named Mars 5, launched when there was still a super power called Soviet Union on July 25, 1973. On February 12 the following year the probe settled into an orbit around the Red Planet, just like it was planned, and started its programmed work. During the following two weeks it sent about 100 pictures before falling silent on February 28. A micrometeorite is thought to have hit it.

Bad luck, one could say, if it had been a singular event. The curse, is what the Russians would evoke. They have seen twelve of their space ships fail completely. A lot of them didn’t even make it off the launch pad. Others hit Mars’s thin atmosphere without braking or failed to take the correct exit on the interplanetary highway. Those are probably still in flight, orbiting the sun as artificial microplanets. Some of the probes had computer problems and one got a bad command in flight. It turned its solar panels from the light, and that was that. Without light no energy and without energy no turning back into the light.

The failure of Mars 3 must have tasted especially bitter for the Soviet space engineers. The probe had reached Mars in one piece in 1971, had managed to set out a lander which even touched down gently – only to fall silent after 15 seconds. Or take Fobos-Grunt in November of 2011, probably the most ambitious planetary mission ever. It was to land with payload instruments from China and Europe on Mars’s enigmatic moon Phobos and send back a sample to Earth, but never made it out of Earth’s orbit and finally crashed into the Pacific ocean.

The next missions from Russia are planned jointly by its space agency Roskosmos and its European counterpart Esa. 2016 and 2018 two crafts of the Exomars-mission are supposed to lift a rover and two landers to the Red Planet. Meanwhile the Russians must have gotten a jolt when India managed to send its probe Mangalyaan into Mars orbit – the first nation to have such success on the maiden voyage.

Not even the Americans have such a clean balance sheet. Still, 15 of their 20 missions are counted as a full success. Orbiters like Maven, landers like the Vikings, and of course the four rovers. Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity have become something like the beloved pets of the cosmic neighbors. But Nasa has also embarrassed itself, for instance trying to get Mars Climate Orbiter to the Red Planet. It failed because part of the design team had used metric units while another worked with ounces and inches.

It is a friendly gesture of Nasa that it refrains from taunting the Russians and highlighting the different track records since the end of the Cold War. Instead people there joke about the “galactic ghoul”, an invisible monster that snacks in Mars probes. Everybody knows of course that it prefers Russian cuisine. Peter Theisinger from Nasa has found an even more low-key way of phrasing it: “Every time you try to land on Mars you bite your nails.”

This sentiment is shared by the Japanese and the Europeans. Their nations have similar technological skill but the results of their respective Mars mission couldn’t be more different. Europe managed on Christmas eve of 2003 to place its Mars Express into orbit. It has since relayed most beautiful pictures and interesting measurements. Esa easily got over the traceless disappearance of its simply designed lander Beagle-2 in the same night.

Japan however witnessed a drama in many acts. Its Nozomi mission was launched in 1998. It was supposed to swing by Moon twice to gather momentum and to reach Mars in 1999. But something went wrong so the Japanese space agency Jaxa scheduled two Earth flybys in 2002 and 2003. On the way there a solar eruption damaged the probe. Ground staff worked for month to reestablish control. But when Nozomi finally approached Mars in December of 2003 it couldn’t fire its engine to brake and passed the Red Planet silently.

Why do planetary scientists submit to these emotional rollercoaster rides? Why didn’t the Russians for example just give up and concentrate on their rather successful Venus, Moon and comet missions? That is a question the German researcher Gerhard Neukum, who passed away in September of 2014, was in the best position to answer. He had witnessed his rather elaborated stereo camera go down with the Russian Mission Mars 96. But in 2003 an identically constructed device made it safely into orbit on board Mars Express. He had the jitters, he confessed later, when that European probe was launched once again on a Russian rocket. Outside of Earth’s orbit, however, Esa mission control took over.

To have an identical instrument sitting in the lab ready to go was a great coincidence, of course. But supplied with the necessary funds Neukum would surely have built a new camera on the double to achieve his goal to get high-resolution stereo images of all of Mars – just because it is there. Still, the answer that human curiosity mixes with human pride not to be subdued by technical adversity may be somewhat lacking. There is another element and it’s connected with mankind’s eternal search for meaning: Why are we here? This question could easily be rephrased to ask: Why we are not on Mars?

In the early days of the solar system the Red Planet had similarly good – or rather bad – chances to become home to living organisms as young Earth. Mars is smaller and further from the sun but it had a firm surface, a thin atmosphere mostly of carbon dioxide, a magnetic field, volcanism and a water cycle. Its day which scientists call Sol is somewhat longer than Earth’s, its year twice as long and it possess similar seasons.

Still, according to current knowledge it didn’t work out. If life ever evolved there it had no future. That is why every news item about Nasa having found traces of water in a forsaken crater is exciting to scientists even if lay people tend to get bored.

To find out what went wrong on Mars sends shivers down the spines of the involved scientists. The magnetic field on the neighboring planet disappeared, it could not keep its atmosphere from being ravished by the solar wind and its water from evaporating or freezing. The evolution of life on Earth, by contrast, was spared such disasters and still depended on myriads of little, highly improbable coincidences to bring forth intelligent bipeds after four billion years. As they ponder their position in the universe and the path there they can be sure of maybe just one thing. These particular organisms couldn’t have evolved on Mars.

Whether there are other living beings there, which even might be hostile to mankind, has held science and popular culture in its grip for a long time. Antique philosophers saw the red tinted light in the night sky as an ambulatory star and gave it the name of the Roman god of war. After that there was nothing good to expected from the neighbor. At the end of the 19th century the British writer H.G . Wells fed the anxiety with his novel “The War of the Worlds” which started its publication chapter by chapter in magazines. The plot has highly intelligent and ruthless Martians with tentacles in their faces try to subdue Earth and eradicate mankind with tripod fighting machines.

Wells’s central inspiration probably came from the scientific observations of Giovanni Schiaparelli some 20 years earlier, after whom Esa is now naming its planned Mars lander. In the 1870s the Italian claimed to have seen a network of ditches on Mars through his telescope. The Italian word “canali” was soon mistranslated as “channels” which in the world view of the beginning industrial era indicated the work of intelligent beings. The American entrepreneur and astronomer Percival Lowell heated up such speculations with a book in 1895. He claimed that Martians had been forced to build those channels to grow food on their planet that was in danger of becoming a desert. That kindled the thought the inhabitants could try to escape the ecological crisis on their home planet and take over fertile Earth.

In 1938 the young actor Orson Welles – who still had to crown his career with the movie Citizen Kane – terrified the listeners of an American radio network when he presented Wells’s novel as a news broadcast. It was not until 1965 that the myth of Schiaparelli’s channels and the fear of an invasion died down. The Nasa craft Mariner 4 had sent the first close-up shots of Mars on a successful flyby mission.

Today an invasion the other way around is much more likely. If there is a future for life on Mars that life might well be seeded from Earth, except it wouldn’t be called an invasion but a settlement. At the moment no national space agency has any concrete plans to bring astro-, cosmo- or taikonauts to the Red Planet. But Russians and Europeans had a dry run of such a mission in 2010 and 2011 to figure out the psychological burden on interplanetary voyagers. In a hall in Moscow the Mars-500-experiment erected a suite of containers where a crew of six volunteers was isolated for one and a half years. They even had extravehicular activities in a sandbox after “landing”.

Apart from such somewhat professional tests interested amateurs are refining their plans. A prominent example is Mars Society founded by the space engineer Robert Zubrin to push his concept for settling on the Red Planet. The enthusiasm of his fellow campaigners has them run test missions in training camps. One of them is in the Utah dessert, the other in the high Canadian arctic of the Nunavut territory. At both sites the space travelers in waiting have erected cylindrical living quarters. When they leave them, they don overalls in lieu of spacesuits and put Lucite helmets on their heads.

If Nasa adopts Zubrin’s plans it should first send a small chemistry factory to Mars which takes a little imported hydrogen and the carbon dioxide of the local atmosphere and transforms that to oxygen for astronauts to breathe and methane to fuel their spaceship for its return trip. Only when it’s done astronauts with their life support module and living habitat should follow, land by the chemistry factory and stay for 18 months before heading home using the fuel supplied by the advance unit. This concept would greatly simplify the mission, Zubrin maintains, because the fuel for the flight back doesn’t have to be transported to Mars using lots of more fuel.

Somewhat more radical in their plans are the people of Mars One. The organization has been founded by two Dutch citizens and wants to save on the fuel for the return trip by skipping the return trip altogether. Selected astronauts are expected to live out their life on Mars. 200,000 people applied, even though nobody knows yet if the Mars curse also applies to manned missions.

Sidebar: The Facts

Who was there first?

The American probe Mariner 4 sent the first close-up pictures in 1964. Seven years later Mariner 9 was the first space ship to reach Mars orbit. The first landing was achieved by the Soviet mission Mars 3 the same year. The lander fell silent after 15 seconds, however. The first rover once again was American: Sojourner in 1997. But much earlier terrestrial microbes could have come to Mars, scientists speculate. According to the calculations of American astrobiologists bacteria enclosed in a three meter big rock could survive a ten million year long trip in space. The most recent opportunity to hurl such a rock from Earth to space and finally to Mars would have been the impact of the asteroid that doomed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

An unfriendly climate

Minus 65 degrees centigrade (minus 81 Fahrenheit) is the mean temperature on Mars. It can get as cold as minus 140 centigrade and as warm as plus 30 (-220 to 86 Fahrenheit). When the light comes up in the morning or dusk settles in the evening temperatures jump like in deserts on Earth. The atmosphere is very thin and contains 96 percent of carbon dioxide. There are snow showers of frozen CO2 and massive sandstorms that can wrap the planet. According to planetary scientists there is an upside, however: Weather forecasts are in principle much easier. Water on the surface is probably only available in permanently shaded craters at the poles. Seasons on the northern hemisphere of Mars are dampened by its orbital parameters but are much more pronounced on the southern hemisphere than on Earth.

Timekeeping on Mars

The Red Planet is smaller and rotates slower than Earth. The combined effect is that its day, called Sol, is just a little longer than Earth’s: by 39 minutes. The rover drivers at Nasa who follow the day and night pattern of their vehicles thus have work hours that keeping shifting with respect to their families’s. Future colonists would probably adapt quickly. They could follow the darian calendar an American engineer has proposed. The Mars year, which is almost twice as long as that on Earth, would have 24 months with 27 or 28 days each. There would be a leap day more often than every second year. The count would begin with Earth’s 1609 when Galileo Galilei first pointed his telescope at Mars.

Little green men

It took a long time for the stereotype to settle how other planets’s inhabitants, especially Martians, are supposed to look. In 1912 the novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about tribes having green or red skin in “A princess of Mars”. Later, reacting to Orson Welles’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds”, newspapers began to write sarcastically about little green men. Soon they were found in comic books and movies. Usually they have an oversized head to mark their superior mental abilities and a small body. The reduced gravitation on Mars would easily allow longer limbs, however.