Will the red planet be our saving grace?
Scientists have been on the hunt for exoplanets and extraterrestrial life since the 1890s when Nikola Tesla suggested that electrical signals could be used to communicate with beings on Mars. Historically, the search for habitable planets has been curiosity-oriented research, with scientists mainly focusing on the understanding of the universe. However, in recent decades, the search has shifted to searching for habitable planets that could be an alternative home for humans given the rapidly increased threat of climate change.
The top contender planet for life away from Earth is Mars (Venus might soon be contending for this spot). The main reasons why Mars is a favourable planet for hosting humans include: the evidence of water extracts from the soil, the available mineral resources, it has a gravitational pull sufficient for humans to adapt, and it’s positioning from the sun results in bearable temperatures. There have been many missions designed to explore the red planet. These missions can be categorised into four groups: flybys, orbiters, landers and rovers.
Flyby missions main aims were to capture photographs of Mars in close proximity, the flyby spacecrafts were not designed to enter Mars’ orbit but just to pass in the vicinity of the planet. The first successful launch was of the NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft which collected the first planet images from space; it also mapped 1% of Mars. The first successful orbiter mission was launched in 1971 by the Soviet Union. The Mars 2 spacecraft was only in orbit for a few months but successfully measured the surface temperature and the atmospheric composition of the planet. Vikings 1 and 2 were the first spacecrafts to land on Mars successfully; the lander missions perform all experiments at a single location. Besides taking photographs and collecting other science data on the Martian surface, the two landers conducted three biology experiments designed to look for possible signs of life; from these experiments, scientists concluded that the dryness and oxidising nature of the soil did not permit the formation of living organisms on the Martian soil.
The most famous of the missions, of course, are the rovers. Rovers are robots that are designed to travel across the planet upon arrival. Sojourner, the first rover to land on Mars, took 550 images and performed more than 15 chemical analyses of rocks and soil and extensive data on winds and other weather factors. Findings from the investigations carried out by scientific instruments on both the lander and the rover suggest that Mars was at one time in its past warm and wet, with water existing in its liquid state and a thicker atmosphere. Many other rovers have landed on Mars, including the infamous Curiosity; these missions have enabled scientist to have a broad understanding of the climate and geological structures of the planet. These findings have resulted in missions that seek to send humans to Mars with the hope of having humans settlements. The most famous of these missions’ are the Mars One (which dismally failed) and Space X. However, my personal favourite is the Proudly Human project, founded by UKZN alumni Adriana Marais. Although embarking on an ambitious mission of off-world settlements, Proudly Human also seeks to uplift youth that is already living in extreme conditions.
As a scientist, I’m pro any explorative research that advances our understanding of the universe, however, when it comes to the colonisation of Mars, I tend to have a different view. I believe that the plan of escaping Earth will not work in the long run, not because of the dull and monotonic scenery of planet Mars, but because the problem was never the planet but humans. It is humans that have, on numerous occasions, chosen greed over humanity. Hence, whatever planet we are headed to would eventually be doomed for destructions unless our actions change.
I am excited whenever I see young climate activists boldly speak out on how government and industries should adopt environmentally friendly policies. Individual behaviour is what will collectively change the state of this planet; then there will no longer be a need to seek refuge on other planets. In the famous words of the late king of pop, ‘I’m looking at the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways’. Our individual deeds, no matter how insignificant they may seem, will save our beautiful mother Earth.