New new world

Illustration by Katy Read

You may have heard this before, but: Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how mindbogglingly big it is. And far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy (one among billions) lies a small un-regarded yellow sun. Orbiting that sun is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended lifeforms are so primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. But what Adams did not need to mention, was the utter insignificance of a little red-red planet which lies, at best, 33.9 million miles from our own, and has just been visited by a probe from a primitive sect of that primitive ape-descended lifeform.

The probe belongs to NASA, to be more precise; itself belonging to that sect known to us as the United States of America. It marks the renaissance of that innately mammalian desire to explore. To boldly-split-infinitives-and go, as they say. For we have entered the Decade of Mars.

For despite that almost disabling primitivity inherent in even the greatest members of our species, pockets of genius and ingenuity have emerged which drive our species away from digital watches and mutual annihilation and towards collective advancement. Or in some cases (perhaps most cases) the desire for mutual annihilation itself – over issues such as the right god, the wrong politics, or at which end one cracks one’s eggs – has led to significant progress. Either way: despite the genocidally ignorant nature of our species, the aggregate movement is one of progression; and a migration to Mars seems the next step.

And how mindbogglingly amazing that is. Take for example the suggestion given by Daniel Everett, in his very enjoyable book How Language Began, that Homo erectus managed, without anything we should recognise as language, or any form of civilisation, to cross a vast body of water to reach the island of Flores less than 800,000 years ago. Within a million years a descendant of that enterprising species would be fashioning tools to travel across a body of empty space to land not on a new island, but on a new planet. Or, fast-forwarding through that infinitesimally short 100,000 years of our species’ existence, the point can be emphasised further: only a few thousand years ago did the agricultural revolution occur, and nomadic hunting was swapped for farming; a few hundred years ago women were burnt alive on the orders of a verse from an immaculate book, the religion of an ape who claimed to be both God himself and his only son, and a Holy Spirit; and only a few decades before an ape walked on the moon the wonder of flight was as alien to our species as it was in the days of Socrates and Plato.

Even now, when one looks at the awe-inspiring images taken by the newest Mars Rover from the vast loneliness of an alien planet, one wonders how those principles of the enlightenment can coexist with insular nationalism (in all its Orwellian forms: Religious, Political, Sporting.) And these images are not alone.

Last month China released magnificent footage from its Tianwen-1 (“Questioning the Heavens”) probe. It is China’s first to reach Mars; the mission consists of three spacecraft, with an orbiter, lander, and rover riding together for the seven-month voyage to the Red Planet. The mission will perform additional orbit adjustment manoeuvres before attempting a descent to the Red Planet’s surface in May or June. The solar-powered rover will investigate surface soil characteristics and search for potential water-ice distribution.

This itself was preceded by the images of the planet taken from the UAE’s Hope spacecraft. This represents the first mission to Mars by any West Asian, Arab, or Muslim-majority country; which only underlines and highlights the necessity of exploration and investigation for its own sake. The principles of solidarity and human progress are the clear subtext of quotes from Omran Sharaf, mission lead for the Hope spacecraft; “Going to Mars was not the main objective”, he told, “It’s a means for a bigger goal: to expedite the development in our educational sector, academic sector.” And on the website for the mission, it reads, “From our pursuit to find extra-terrestrial life to someday expand human civilization to other planets, Mars serves as a long-term and collaborative project for the entire human race.”

The entire human race indeed. After its first venture into space, India plans to send another probe to Mars, with the intention to land; Japan has ambitious plans to send a lander to mars, and investigate the Martian moon Phobos; and Russia and Europe will unite to send the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover, after a two-year delay owing to the pandemic – any mission to Mars must coincide with the period in which the orbit of Mars brings it nearest the Earth, which is every twenty-six months.

While we should expect the chances of life in the form of those Wellsian invaders to be much scanter than a million-to-one (they say), the search for signs of life on Mars is promising. The NASA rover will investigate the Martian area of Jezero, which was home to a lake and a river delta in the ancient past. Not only was that ancient environment potentially habitable, but river deltas here on Earth are good at preserving biosignatures, mission team members have said. And the Rosalind Franklin rover will likely land in Oxia Planum, a plain in the Red Planet’s northern hemisphere that shows lots of evidence of ancient water activity; and will use its instruments to search for morphological and chemical signs of ancient Mars life. These rovers will eventually bring samples back to Earth for proper scrutiny; but not before the end of the decade.

The ultimate aim of all these projects is to land apes on our celestial neighbour. It seems that a new space race has begun; and it is a two-stage event. First to the moon, then to Mars. NASA plans to land a man and woman on the moon by 2024, and the agency says it “will use what we learn on the Moon to prepare for humanity’s next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars.” And the European Space Agency, Russia, India and Japan are also planning missions to the moon this decade. But the most optimism belongs to Elon Musk, whose company, SpaceX, is developing a giant, reusable rocket-spaceship combo known as Starship to make colonization of the Red Planet economically feasible. Starship could end up helping set up a million-person city on Mars within the next 50 to 100 years if all goes well, Musk has said. Then again, the prescience of Musk must always be questioned (cf. this tweet.)

For now we must digest the new images from the now-roving rover on Mars. The incredible view of human-made tracks on an alien planet. And we must not forget our place in the universe; our titanic insignificance. The thought arrives that night sky we know so well – that which has sobered our conceit since Galileo breathed and God said, “Let Newton be!”, and filled our minds with curious wonder and that desire to explore further and to question more – has never been viewed from the position of those tracks. And then think on the sobering words of the Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees:

“Most educated people are aware that we’re the outcome of nearly four-billion years of Darwinian selection, but many tend to think that humans are somehow the culmination. Our sun, however, is less than halfway through its lifespan. It will not be humans who watch the sun’s demise, six-billion years from now. Any creatures that then exist will be as different from us as we are from bacteria or amoebae.

So let’s enjoy it all while we are briefly here.

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