Discussion and news about the modern effort to understand the nature of life on Earth, finding planets around other stars, and the search for life elsewhere in the universe

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Overcoming preconceptions and received wisdom is central to making progress in science, and to be quite honest in pretty much anything else as well. I was reminded of this after a somewhat doleful conversation following last week's burst of exoplanetary adrenaline. It went along the lines of 'even if GL 581g was full of intelligent and occasionally amusing aliens, we're just not a spacefaring race and we'll never get to meet them'. Most of this statement is certainly true, but I was struck by the glum expression of certitude about our Earth-bound nature.

A while ago National Geographic published one of their terrific graphic illustrations that summarized 50 years of human space exploration. I can't do it justice here, so go take a look. The incredible thing is just how much space exploration we've actually tried (and often succeeded at). One target is particularly evocative, and that is Mars. I think it's fair to say that going to Mars has always been far less about politics than some other destinations. Mars looms big in our imaginations, the red planet, awfully familiar, yet awfully different. There is incredible poignancy in the list of missions to Mars. A majority have been failures, years of effort and extraordinary technological know-how thrown to the sacrificial plinth of the void. Yet those that succeeded have genuinely transformed both our understanding of this other world, and transformed our relationship to space exploration.

Here's the list, starting in 1960: Marsnik 1 (failed), Marsnik 2 (failed), Sputnik 22 (failed), Mars 1 (failed), Sputnik 24 (failed), Mariner  3 (failed), Mariner 4 (flyby), Zond 2 (failed), Mariner 6 (flyby), Mariner 7 (flyby), Mars 1969A (failed), Mars 1969B (failed), Mariner 8 (failed), Cosmos 419 (failed), Mariner 9 (orbit), Mars 2 (orbit), Mars 3 (lander), Mars 4 (failed), Mars 5 (orbit), Mars 6 (failed), Mars 7 (failed), Viking 1 (orbit/lander), Viking 2 (orbit/lander), Phobos 1 (failed), Phobos 2 (failed), Mars Observer (failed), Mars Global Surveyor (orbit), Mars 96 (failed), Mars Pathfinder (rover), Nozomi (failed), Mars Climate Orbiter (failed), Mars Polar Lander (failed), 2001 Mars Odyssey (orbit), Mars Express (orbit), Beagle 2 (failed), Spirit (rover), Opportunity (rover), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (orbit), Phoenix (lander).

Each of these launches, each chunk of alloy and package of electronics, was made to reach across interplanetary space. There was nothing glum about this. Bottles cast into the currents full of tentative human optimism and love and care. All the hallmarks of a space faring species negotiating its first steps. All for a minuscule fraction of resources across the years compared to wars, financial crises, pharmaceuticals, and political shenanigans. To my mind we are already a space faring species, we just haven't quite realized it yet.

This has a direct bearing on our search for life in the universe . Even as the next generations of giant telescopes and advanced optics are being built on terra firma,  the ultimate goal has to be placing instruments in space - away from atmosphere, unstable environments, and with room to stretch out. Whether it's an occulting optic on a 200,000 mile virtual optical bench, or an array of interferometric mirrors, the high mountaintop of space remains where we need to go if we ever want to truly study, even map, another Earth-type planet or a related species. 


Eniac said...

Let us not forget what I think is an at least equally enthralling story about space exploration, the Soviet exploration of Venus:


A fascinating read.

Anonymous said...

Great post, but please, don't use the term "Marsnik". Soviet probes where called Mars (in Russian the planet's name is the same as in English)

Caleb Scharf said...

Thanks for pointing that out - I hadn't realized 'Marsnik' was a western invention - I guess Mars 1M was the official designation.