Monday, May 09, 2011

A Martian place here on Earth

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.


I was in Cambridge, UK this past week, for an Islam & Science symposium – more on that some other time. It was interesting to read the British newspapers there on various issues, ranging from Abbottabad to Manchester (United).
On Saturday (May 7), The Independent had a two-page story, with several big pictures (the one here below is one of them), titled “Life on Mars? No, but it’s the next best thing”. 

The story described a site in Spain known as Rio Tinto (“Red River”) in Southern Andalusia (see the little map), which in many ways resembles Mars! Not only is its landscape rust-red from oxidized iron, it contains lots of craters, many of which result from centuries of mining.
For that reason, it is now being used by at least two space agencies for simulations of Mars missions, including walks with spacesuits. The European Space Agency has been testing the “Eurobot”, a robot with two arms and stereo vision which, mounted on a rover, can perform dangerous or difficult tasks. Also, the Austrian Space Forum has been testing some equipment there.
The newspaper described the site as “a convenient substitute for the Red Planet”, due to the many features that it shares with Mars. First and foremost, the highly mineral soil of the place, rich with iron, sulfur, copper, and gold – the reason for the extensive mining there. Secondly, the river is extremely acidic, with a pH of 0.7 (yes, that’s zero point 7), whereas the neutral level of acidity/alkalinity is 7.0 (seven point zero); the closer to 0 a liquid is, the more acidic. Indeed, this river’s water is so acidic that signs are posted to tell visitors to not even wash hands in it, let alone drink any of it.
The reporter thus concludes that this place resembles an early version of Mars, before the red planet lost its surface water and its magnetic field.

The most interesting part of the story was that a peculiar bacterium has managed to thrive in such an extreme environment (such forms of life are usually referred to as “extremophiles”.) Even more interestingly, tests conducted by scientists in Madrid have shown that this organism can survive in the Martian conditions.
So one understands why, except for gravity (Mars’s is 37 % that of Earth), this place is ideal for conducting training of astronauts and robots, picking samples, searching for organisms, etc.
Readers of Irtiqa may recall that in my report from last February’s AAAS meeting, I had devoted a couple of paragraphs to talks that were given there on the search for extraterrestrial life, mostly focused on Mars, and I had referred to Andrew Steele’s The Search for Life on Mars: Mars Science Laboratory and Mars Sample Return, in particular.
One issue that had also been raised at that AAAS session was the problem of “contamination”, that is how to make sure that equipment from Earth is devoid of any bacteria or viruses, so that if when we analyze samples on the red planets, we do not mistake any hitch-hikers from Earth for Martian organisms. One of the exercises conducted in the simulations of Mars walks and sample collections in Rio Tinto is precisely this issue of contamination.
Another goal of these mock missions is to test the spacesuits and humans’ ability to function well inside them, including bodily functions, etc.
But when will a real mission to Mars actually take off? That depends on both budget and scientific/technical progress, but the date one usually hears is “sometime after 2030”. Anyone wants to guess?

5 comments:

Mohamed said...

Nidhal. I’m all for going to Mars, and I hope it happens sooner rather than later. But what is the rationale behind sending humans when robots can replace humans for the most part---and do it cheaper and safer too? Is it just the lure of adventure? Also, have you heard of Paul Davies’ proposal to send humans on a one-way mission to Mars? Do you know if any space agency is considering that idea seriously?

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Hello Mohamed.
On the rationale of sending humans instead of robots, usually one is told that humans are capable of improvising when something goes bad or at least is unexpected, and robots are not (yet). Plus, we do want to explore things ourselves and see how far (literally and metaphorically) we can take things. For various reasons, we may not be able to count on Earth for ever, so we should familiarize ourselves with other worlds.
Yes, I know of Paul Davies's proposal to send humans on a one-way mission. I think he discusses that in his book (The Eerie Silence), which I previously reviewed, but I can't find my copy right now. I'll add info when I find it. I have not heard of any space agency that has taken the idea seriously, though I'm sure many humans would sign up.

Akbar said...

Some ethical issues:

1. Would that be a fair step to actually send some microbes (extremophiles) to Mars and let them get a foothold there (if it is plausible, contrary to my understanding that Mars is still far too hostile for any living thing to survive)? We haven't yet ruled out the possibility of any native life there (life as we define and know) that might get exterminated by an ecological disaster brought by this step of ours.

2. Is that ethically feasable to consider one way manned mission to Mars (provided the current technology may only permit one way mission)? Would that be a fair trade to get a new wealth of knowledge at the cost of precious lives?

To me, both are very creepy propositions.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Akbar,
You've raised some very interesting questions.
First, I would think that finding out whether any form of life exists on Mars and the extent to which it is similar or dissimilar to life forms known here on Earth would be considered a more pregnant question/query than whether extremophiles from Earth could prosper on Mars. (If they can, then what?) And I’m not sure that our little steps on Mars could exterminate any bacteria that might be living up there as best they can. What ecological disaster are you thinking about?
The second issue, of a one-way trip, raises two sub-questions: why a one-way trip, and is it OK for people to volunteer for a short-term, life-ending mission. My understanding is that two-way trips are certainly possible, but they place strong constraints on the mission, in terms of what can be carried, how many people can go, how long the mission would last, etc. With one-way trips, many more possibilities open up. And so the question becomes: would anyone volunteer, and would that be acceptable? As I’ve said, I believe many people would gladly sign up (for various reasons, including an opportunity to become a hero and be known for the rest of history), but is that ethical?
Remember when we discussed euthanasia? Of course, it’s not exactly the same, but… when someone says “I happily wish to end my life, especially if it serves humanity”, the ethical dilemma indeed becomes intense.

Akbar said...

Nidhal:

Your answer to my second question is more pertinent in current circumstances. Certainly a well-prepared and well-trained manned mission to Mars has no substitute in the field of robotic explorations. And if it is a dire need to execute such a mission, even if it would be one way, it is still conceivable. It all depends on the intended outcome. But agian I would say it is a chilling concept for me.
I think a return manned mission to Mars would include a lot more life support equipment than Lunar missions. What we are talking about is a couple of years long journey I presume, and then a lift off from a planet that has considerable gravity too. So added facilities for a long journey, return fuel, and preventive shield for astronauts to withstand prolonged stay outside of Earth's protective magnetic shield, all add up to make an immense payload.

Regarding my first question, what we are talking about are extremophiles, not just common microbes. If there happens to a delicate natural biome on Mars, what that would be dealing with is the most extreme form of life from Earth which have survived and literally won a fierce competition for resources for billions of years. We are cautious to bore further over the Lake Vostok in Antarctica for similar reasons, aren't we?

I think the answer to both dilemmas is one successful robotic return mission to Mars with plenty of soil, and ice sample to study in some form of quarantine in ISS or similar facilty in Earth's orbit to rule out the presence of life or something similar, before considering mankind's next giant leap.