Well, the Curiosity Mars rover has been launched and is on its way.
That’s quite a feat. The rover is as big as a car (though NASA didn’t say what kind of car and that includes some variation, from a Mini Cooper to a Ford Excursion), and it’s expected to roam around Mars for about two years after it arrives in August of next year. It might be expected to do more, though, because the two smaller rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, launched in 2004, were given life spans of only a year, yet they lasted well beyond that. Spirit got stuck in a pile of loose Martian soil over a year ago and is now pretty much dead, but Opportunity is still going strong, still exploring way beyond its expected lifetime.
Curiosity is supposed to determine whether Mars once supported life. That’s a big order, and not a simple feat to perform. Actually, it will be looking for organic compounds, not life itself. Biologically, Mars may be dead now. Life may have existed in its rusty soil in the past, millions if not billions of years ago. Mars almost certainly was wet in the past–there are indications of flowing water which may even continue today–and the presence of water and organic compounds back then could have led to the formation of living, although microbial, life. I’m waiting for the results. This could change the concept of life on earth from a unique situation to that of…well, use your imagination.
But Mars isn’t the only planet or moon that is so fascinating. I’ve watched the images and data coming in from probes that have been sent to the outer planets and their moons over the past 40 years or so. Ever since the Voyager probes that exited our solar system and the Viking landers that plopped down on Mars in the ’70s. Now we’ve found out a lot about those bodies, and the fascination level just increases. To travel out there and see them first hand would be, to me at least, a compelling and enchanting trip. Anybody else want to go? Look at these:
The atmosphere of Titan (a moon of Saturn), totally unbreathable since it’s made of mostly methane, and the methane lakes that dot its surface.
The geysers of Enceladus, a moon of Jupiter, that spurt miles into the sky of the moon. Way unlike any thing we have at Yellowstone.
The huge oceans of Europa, pure water, locked beneath a thick crust of ice, and perhaps hundreds of miles deep. A perfect breeding ground for life, though it is awfully cold down there.
The volcanoes of Io, another moon of Jupiter, that shoot sulfur miles into the sky.
The deserts of Mars (virtually the entire planet is one big desert), so tremendously different from anything we have on Earth, and so completely lacking in obvious vegetation. I have trouble visualizing that sometimes.
And there’s undoubtedly more out there that we haven’t seen yet. I’m sure it will be hundreds of years before we can get a man to the outer planets to see them–it may even be fifty years or more before we get a man on Mars–but the first explorers will have a tremendous vista to stare at when they get there. I’d love to be there. How about you?