This weekend marks the opposition of Mars and it is the closest one since 2003. However, this opposition has Mars low in the southern sky, not good for observers in the Northern hemisphere. On top of that, there is a dust storm going on that is obscuring the view of the surface features. One side effect of the storm is that Mars is appearing a bit brighter than expected.
So, in honor of the opposition as well as the recent discovery by the ESA Mars Express probe of a deposit of liquid water (though it could very easily be a layer of thin, salty mud) about a mile underneath the Martian South Pole, here is a post about one aspect of the Red Planet that still persists amongst many in society even to this day.
The recently past July 20th marks two space anniversaries. The better known one is the 49th anniversary of the late Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landing on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission. The men who took part in that mission are American heroes and their deed deserves to remembered. Unfortunately, there isn’t a holiday for it. My late father felt that, if Columbus could get a holiday, the landing on the Moon should be likewise honored. But this blog post is not about Apollo 11.
Also on July 20th, back in 1976, the Viking 1 lander touched down on Chryse Planitia on Mars, the first probe to successfully land on Mars and function (the Russians landed a probe a few years earlier, but they only got a few seconds of useless telemetry from it before they lost contact. It is generally thought that the probe landed during a global dust storm and a gust of wind caught the still-attached parachute and toppled the probe over). Viking 2 landed later in Utopia Planitia. After a hiatus of a number of years, orbiting probes, landers, and now even rovers have been sent to Mars. A good number are still operating after years in the Martian environment and we know pretty much what conditions are like there. The atmosphere is only about one-percent that of Earth, the temperature is sub-zero during the day, but can get as low as -150 degrees F. at night, liquid water cannot exist at the surface, and the conditions at the surface are extremely hostile to all known forms of life. But does everybody know?
It seems that there are quite a few people who through stupidity, lack of education, or willful ignorance, still hold on to the old discredited ideas about Martian conditions even after all these years of Martian exploration.
One recent example is from a man who should know much better. Ben Bova wrote a series of books where it seemed there was life all over the solar system. In a couple of them, the discovery of an ancient civilization on Mars figured into the plot and Bova implied that it met its demise fairly recently (in geological terms). These stories were written back in the days when the Internet was mostly text and Sci-Fi Channel (I prefer the spelling they had back then instead of that “SyFY” they use now) had online chat sessions with authors and other such notables. I actually confronted Ben Bova about this, pointing out that all the available evidence indicates that the period of time that Mars may have been able to support life was billions of years ago and that the window of time such conditions existed in was extremely short, therefore any such civilization was totally implausible. He essentially pooh-poohed my comment.
Another more recent example was in the series “Supergirl”. I’ll grant that the show is a fantasy. Since the protagonist comes from a planet far from our solar system with different characteristics, they can be excused as well. However, one character proves that the writers have zero knowledge of our own solar system. On the show is a being known as the Martian Manhunter who is a bit over 300 years old. He seems to function well on Earth, which would indicate that he lived under somewhat Earth-like conditions. Yet, most of us (especially people intelligent enough to read this blog) are well aware that Mars was in the condition we see it now for a very long time. Three hundred years ago, Mars was no different than today. One would have figured that they would have changed the character’s planet of origin to a planet in another solar system and neatly solve the problem. But they didn’t.
Some folks do get it right though. The recent film “The Martian” is a prime example of an accurate depiction of Martian conditions, though the winds of the dust storm were far stronger than anything that could be produced under current conditions. There have been books and short stories that have been accurate as well.
Why is it that, with Mars having been explored robotically for about 40 years, some people still cling to the idea of Martians? Centuries ago, people wrote wild stories about creatures that existed in very far off lands. Yet, once those lands were explored and those creatures were found not exist, the stories stopped. Yet, in the case of Mars, we still have die-hards. One reason I suspect is due to lack of imagination. Imagining things on a planet in another solar system takes some work. But it is easier to ignore science and set your action closer to home. Another reason is that interstellar flight is nearly impossible in reality. So, writers would rather not imagine implausible interstellar travel and imagine an implausible Mars to give Earth humans a chance to interact with (or at least discover evidence for) aliens. It could also be that the writers perceive their audiences as stupid and ignorant. Therefore, they wouldn’t mind a Mars that runs counter to everything we know about it.
Of course, there could be other reasons that I have missed. If you have any, please post.