White scars on the red planet

Mars’ difference is what makes it interesting

Mars is our cosmic neighbour and like the nosey neighbours that humans are, we have been fascinated by it since we first looked up at the night sky. It took the role of the god of war for the Romans and millennia later excited our imagination for the unknown in countless science fiction tales.

Stories of canals and Martians grew, leading us to imagine Mars as our next home. How could it not arouse our curiosity? We, as a species, have always sought expansion and Mars taunts us, just out of reach.

In reality, Mars is an unwelcoming place.  Its carbon dioxide snows have led to rovers being destroyed. Its magnetic field is weak allowing the atmosphere to be stripped away and with it the protection against the emptiness of space. The difference in gravity raises many questions, for example, we have no idea what the result of a pregnancy in a gravity different from earth would be and experiments with jellyfish born in space showed they were unable to function properly when introduced to earth’s gravity.

Even if sustained life were possible we probably can’t get a person there and definitely can’t get them back. The likely way in which we will become a space-faring species is through space stations with artificial gravity created by rotation; not by making uninhabitable worlds habitable.

However, a recent discovery by Dundas, from the United States Geological Survey, and his team is being touted by some as a big step towards colonization. There are massive deposits of water ice on Mars lying just one or two meters under the dusty surface and continuing down more than a hundred meters.

This means that, were you to set foot on Mars you would be walking on dust and dirt but in many places, just a short distance below your feet there would be glaciers. The deposits were identified with the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), which is on the Mars reconnaissance orbiter. Using HiRISE, and other imaging systems which employ different spectra of light, they studied eight sites where ice is visible as a result of erosion.

It is known that a third of the surface of Mars has shallow ground ice. What the visible ice shows us is the extent of it and allows for the researchers to get a better understanding of the formation and makeup of the ice. So far, the ice looks pure and plentiful. However, the steep structure of these icy outcrops means that rovers can’t get there to test, and for now distant observation will have to do.  We also know that the ice is retreating due to the evaporating of ice directly into gas (sublimation).

This discovery has a number of implications. Ice records climate history very well, this is why we use ice cores to reconstruct episodes from the earth’s past.  Mars’ ice could allow us to do the same thing. Using the information stored in the ice we could recreate Mars’ past climates, giving us a view of the red planet before humans even existed.

Potentially hydrogen could be extracted for fuel assisting us to become a truly space-faring species and it could be a source of water for future Mars missions. Having an easily mineable source of ice could help with the issues of water or fuel. It is these points on which most of the outlets reporting this have focussed but it is still theoretical.  The problems of Martian exploration persist. An analogy here on earth would be the Antarctic, we have people there year-round but survival on the continent without constant resupply would be impossible and Mars is just a little further away.

By thinking about Mars as another home, a future earth, we ignore its most intriguing quality, its difference. Mars gives us a system fundamentally different from Earth it allows us to explore and understand an environment, unlike anything we have ever seen. Let’s instead of expansionist colonisation have expansive learning on Mars. Mars could be used to open up new worlds of scientific discovery, it can challenge our intellect and arouse our passions, or it can be a pipe dream of an unlikely new home. The choice is ours.