Mars Up Close
IN August 2003, Mars came within 35 million miles [56 million km] of our home planet, its closest approach in nearly 60,000 years. On the astronomical scale, that put the red planet practically in our backyard, much to the delight of sky watchers.
By early 2004, a number of spacecraft had converged on Mars. Some studied the planet from its surface, and others from orbit. What have these missions taught us about our planetary neighbor?
Surveying the Red Planet
The orbiter Mars Global Surveyor arrived at Mars in 1997. It discovered that Mars once had a strong magnetic field. The orbiter also accurately mapped the topography of Mars, revealing, among other things, that the distance from the lowest spot on the surface of the planet to the highest exceeds 18 miles [29 km], compared with just over 12 miles [19 km] for the earth.*
The lowest spot on Mars is in the vast Hellas basin, which was evidently formed by the impact of a gigantic asteroid. The highest point is the summit of the immense, 13-mile-high [21 km] volcano Olympus Mons. A camera onboard Surveyor also recorded boulders that appeared to be more than 60 feet [18 m] across, as well as large shifting fields of sand dunes and freshly carved gullies. Another instrument determined that most surface rocks are of volcanic origin.
Although in November 2006 communication with Mars Global Surveyor was lost, three orbiters—the 2001 Mars Odyssey, the Mars Express, and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter—continued their surveillance of the red planet.* Using more-sensitive cameras and detectors, they examined the Martian atmosphere and space environment and even discovered and mapped abundant ice at the planet’s north pole.
This ice is a focus of the Phoenix Mars Lander, which dropped down flawlessly on the red planet on May 25, 2008. The Lander is equipped with highly advanced instruments to analyze both the atmosphere and the permafrost at the polar region. Scientists hope to learn whether the icy soil has ever supported microbial life. However, the search for life—or at least conditions favorable to it—had begun earlier.
The Rovers Spirit and Opportunity
Two Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, arrived on Mars in January 2004, their landing sites chosen on the basis of data acquired from earlier missions. The rovers—each about the size of a go-cart—slowed their descent through the Martian atmosphere by using heat shields, parachutes, and rockets. When landing, they bounced on the surface, encased in a cocoon of air bags in much the same way as their smaller predecessor, Mars Pathfinder, had in 1997.*
The surface of Mars has about the same area as the dry land on earth, so it provides a broad scope for robotic exploration. The site chosen for the rover Opportunity was Meridiani Planum, a plateau of ancient layered rocks containing the iron-rich mineral hematite. Spirit landed on the other side of Mars to explore the depths of the giant Gusev crater, which some researchers believe may have contained an ancient lake. The objective of the dual mission, says a NASA fact sheet, was “to assess the history of environmental conditions at sites that may once have been wet and favorable to life.”
“Geologists” on Mars
When Spirit arrived at its destination on January 4, 2004, it was within a barren, rubbly landscape marked by shallow circular depressions. The rover studied the landscape much the same as a human geologist would, by inspecting various soils, rocks, and landforms. Scientists guiding Spirit determined that its landing area was strewn with volcanic rocks and pocked with hollows caused by meteorites. Spirit then drove 1.6 miles [2.6 km] to investigate a group of small hills. There, it discovered unusual rock forms and ledges of soft layered rocks that might have a volcanic origin.
Meanwhile, on January 25, 2004, Opportunity, after traveling 283 million miles [456 million km], landed a mere 16 miles [25 km] from the center of the target area. The air-bag-encased rover bounced on the flat Meridiani surface and rolled straight into a small crater. A scientist likened the landing to an “interplanetary hole in one” golf shot!
Opportunity explored a number of craters that contain layered rocks encapsulating small, hematite-rich spherules nicknamed blueberries. Although not truly blue, their gray color is a contrast to the background of reddish soil and rock. Certain rock layers form ripples and patterns typical of sand deposits in flowing water. Some scientists feel that these patterns, along with the chlorine and bromine found in the rocks, suggest that salt water was present at one time.
The 2008 Phoenix Mars Lander mission has provided more data on the Martian surface, especially its icy region. An arm has scooped down below the surface to the ice, feeding soil and ice samples to Phoenix’s two onboard “laboratories” for analysis. The mission, however, was designed to be relatively short-lived because just months after the completion of the lander’s work, explained Science magazine, the Martian winter would “wrap Phoenix in a thick blanket of carbon dioxide frost.”
That scientists can actually explore other planets hundreds of millions of miles away shows what can be done when people work together toward a single goal. Such achievements are also a credit to human ingenuity. Of course, space exploration—indeed, science as a whole—is only possible because of the consistent and totally reliable physical laws that govern the universe. These laws did not create themselves but were established by the Grand Architect of the universe, Jehovah God.
Twelve miles [19 km] represents the distance from the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean to the top of Mount Everest.
The 2001 Mars Odyssey and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter were launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the Mars Express was launched by the European Space Agency.
See the article “A Robot Explores Mars,” in the June 22, 1998, issue of Awake!
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IS THERE LIFE ON MARS?
Sir William Herschel and Percival Lowell, 18th- and 19th-century astronomers, suggested that the red planet teemed with intelligent life, and Darwin’s theory of evolution seemed to bolster that notion. But all those views have been shattered. Satellite observations have revealed a barren landscape and a thin atmosphere made up mostly of carbon dioxide. In 1976, experiments carried out by the Viking 1 lander discovered no life on the Martian surface.*
Yet, scientists continue to look for signs of life, the Phoenix Mars Lander being their latest endeavor. Because some microbes are able to survive in extreme environments on earth, scientists feel that similar organisms may exist in certain places on Mars. The Beagle 2 craft, attached to Mars Express, was equipped to test for organic substances in Martian soil, but the landing failed in late 2003. The following year scientists detected traces of methane in the Martian atmosphere, fueling speculation as to whether the gas was of biologic or volcanic origin.
Can life arise spontaneously anywhere in the universe? The Bible answers, saying: “With [God] is the source of life.” (Psalm 36:9) Yes, life can come only from life, the original Life-Giver being the Creator, Jehovah God.—Acts 17:25.
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The robotic arm—with scoop, probe, and camera—of the Phoenix Mars Lander
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Color-enhanced photo of the “blueberries”
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The extinct volcano Olympus Mons, 13 miles high
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The rover Spirit drilled and also scrubbed the surface of this rock
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Top left: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University; top right: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems; bottom left and right: NASA/JPL/Cornell