Thursday, April 4, 2013

Mars 2012: The Hunt for Microbes

Space: it’s not very interesting, is it? Well, alright I suppose that if you like rocks and dust and gas burning in a void it’s absolutely fascinating. But I must confess that ever since I discovered at age 8 that there are neither aliens nor robots nor warring space empires out there I’ve found it difficult to muster much enthusiasm for the cosmos.

Well, not completely. I appreciate it as a symbol of death, cold, infinity and existential emptiness; and I confess I have a soft spot for the early days of space exploration. In the 50s and 60s there was a genuine spirit of discovery, and so all those “firsts” fascinate me- from Gagarin’s first orbit, to Leonov’s first space walk, to Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Brave men, plus a few sacrificial dogs and monkeys took great risks to see just what was out there. 

But it’s not only the big names that interest me. I’m even more drawn to the pathos of those who were “second”. For instance, German Titov’s orbit of the earth was much longer and more grueling than Gagarin’s but nobody cares very much. And Buzz Aldrin’s experience as the second man on the moon left him completely bewildered as to what to do next. He took to drink, got divorced and sold Cadillacs at a showroom in Beverley Hills before sobering up. Even then, he still makes weird choices: two years ago he hosted an evening of WWE wrestling in Toronto, for instance.

What fascinates me about these early stories is the human aspect- the drama, the excitement, the risk of death. As for what the cosmonauts and astronauts actually found out there, well…. we knew most of it already. So the moon is a big rock with craters and a lot of dust on it? Check. So space is empty and cold and if you step outside you float about? Uh-huh, got it.

Meanwhile since all those initial breakthroughs- well we haven’t done very much, have we? Yes, we’ve put up a lot of satellites that are very helpful for watching TV and finding your way around in a strange town, but in terms of exploration… Valeri Polyakov’s epic 437 day stint inside the rusty Mir space station is impressive as a feat of human endurance, but aside from that, you have to really love rocks and gas to take much interest.

And that, in turn, brings me to the current NASA Curiosity rover mission on Mars. For those of you who haven’t been paying much attention, Curiosity is a $2.5 billion radio controlled car with a camcorder attached to the top that also has a scooping claw of the sort kids play with in Wal-Mart to try and pick up soft toys from the bottom of a gift bin. It can also shoot X-rays at rocks. OK- it’s a bit better than that, but you get the general idea.

Anyway, Curiosity is currently moving very slowly around the Gale crater where it touched down on August 5th, looking at rocks, searching for signs of water and- just maybe- alien life. Now when we say alien life, we’re not talking about HG Well’s evil squids inside giant metal tripods, or Edgar Rice Burroughs extravagantly busty naked babes, or even Marvin, the little guy in the Roman helmet with the brush on top from Warner Bros. cartoons. No: we’re talking about some (hypothetical) old, dead microbes. 

Apparently the old dead microbes are interesting because if Curiosity finds some then that will prove there are old dead microbes on Mars. This in turn would suggest that there may be old dead microbes elsewhere, though I suppose we’d have to send another radio controlled car further into space just to be sure. Whoop-de-doo!

This week meanwhile NASA announced Curiosity’s latest finding: it’s a bit warmer on Mars than expected. No, really- currently it’s about 6 degrees Celsius in the afternoon. “That we are seeing temperatures this warm already during the day is a surprise and very interesting," said Felipe Gómez, of the Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid. Speak for yourself buddy. According to Gomez this means Mars may be more habitable than we thought, although since you’d still float away and suffocate if you set foot on the planet without a multi-million dollar space suit on, the ‘habitable” point is moot. 

Each to his own, I suppose. Apparently Americans spent $3 billion on homeopathic medicine in 2007 so Curiosity is not that expensive, really- especially as it will be looking at rocks for nine years (if it doesn’t break down first.) But I can’t help thinking that if you really feel lonely in the universe and have an unbearable existential itch that needs scratching then old dead microbes make for poor dinner companions. Religion is so much cheaper, and not only that, but you get to look forward to spending eternity in the company of a benevolent, omniscient Deity. Plus, you can sing songs with your friends on weekends.