The Red Planet has fascinated almost anyone who’s ever scanned the nighttime sky and wondered about the universe beyond our tiny planet. Science fiction has long proposed advanced civilizations on this planet from H. G. Well’s “The War of the Worlds” (1897) through Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series (1912-1941) to classic golden age syfy such as “Stranger in A Strange Land” (1961) by Robert Heinlein. While modern science has extinguished any belief in civilizations on Mars, the question remains about whether or not some type of life forms existed or even still exist on that planet. Once considered completely arid and desolate, spectroscopic analysis and NASA rover missions have confirmed that large quantities of frozen water remain on Mars. Not only are there large polar ice caps, but in 2016 NASA detected a huge underground ice deposit in a region called Utopia Planitia. The presence of water, even in a frozen form, increases the likelihood that some type of microbial life developed on Mars and might even still exist. Next year will see an exciting attempt to answer this questions with the Mars 2020 rover mission. This rover mission will launch next July with a landing date of February 18, 2021 at a site believed to have been conducive for development of microbial life. Besides drilling deeper than ever before, this rover will collect and stash samples for eventual return to Earth by a future mission. This mission is a huge step forward and will be the most impressive attempt so far to identify any traces of extraterrestrial life. You can even have your name sent to Mars aboard this rover if you enroll today!
Also in Martian news, plans for a manned mission to the Red Planet continue to develop. NASA proposes to land humans as early as 2030, and Elon Musk has announced an even more ambitious schedule with a 2024 manned landing. Both the federal and private initiatives raise the intriguing question of possible permanent colonization of our sister planet. Another staple of syfy has been the terraforming of Mars to make a planet more Earth-like and habitable. While seemingly an impossibly daunting task, a recent paper in Nature Astronomy proposes an elegant way to start the process on a small scale. The authors propose using a roughly one inch thick silica gel sheet to create a greenhouse effect. Their experiments suggest that large sheets of this material would block harmful UV radiation, raise the temperature beneath the sheets sufficiently to melt ice, and still provide enough light for photosynthesis. Using this simple material and easy to construct support structures could provide localized conditions supportive of algae and plant growth, the first steps towards creating a habitable environment. So even if there is no native life on Mars, maybe someday humans will stake a claim to Mars and form that dreamed of Martian civilization.