NASA has plans afoot to build a second nuclear powered Mars rover, Curiosity style, and land it on the planet in 2020 with another fireball-and-rocket crane spectacular.
The rover will even have a box for samples that might be returned to Earth by some later mission.
Which is pretty cool on just about every count. And maybe we’ll get answers to questions that have been burning since long before the dawn of the space age
Assuming, of course, we ask the right ones. That’s been the problem. When the Vikings landed on Mars in 1976 they were geared to look for life-as-we-know it. The results were ambiguous and likely caused by the perchlorates that we now know saturate the upper layers of the Martian soil.
And therein lay the real issue. On Earth, if one experiment doesn’t work, you devise another and try that, based on what you learned the first time.
Not so easy when you have to transport that repeat experiment to Mars to a chorus of shrinking budgets, where ‘failure’ is likely to kill the next allocation – yet where you might have to follow your Mk II Life Detecting Lab with a third…and a fourth…
Part of the problem was that we didn’t know enough to ask the right questions. Viking’s ambiguous failure threw the issue back to basics. Had Mars even had water? Broadly, that’s where the focus has been since – and now that we have ‘yes’ to a lot of those basic questions, it’s possible to take the next steps.
To me this is a cool application of scientific method – systematically, over decades, and it’s paying dividends.
And we can speculate that even if Mars never had life – or if it did, and it’s gone extinct, it’s likely to have other life soon. Us. Maybe.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013