Sunday, June 05, 2005

Better Dead And Red

The discovery of methane in the atmosphere of Mars last year has puzzled scientists and led to claims of life on Mars. Methane can't last long in the Martian atmosphere so it has to be replenished. The two common producers of methane are life and volcanic activity. The planet appears not to have volcanic activity so some have suggested there must be life on Mars now.

These stories in Nature and New Scientist suggest that the methane could be produced by a mineral that we know is very common on Mars: olivine. (Click here and here for stories.)

This is probably a minority view but I, for one, would be very pleased if the methane turns out to come from olivine and not from life.

The possibility of life on Mars is very much a two-edged sword for human exploration. On the one hand, the discovery of Martian life is a very good reason to spend the money needed to go to Mars. Finding life on Mars would be the greatest scientific discovery ever with implications for all of society. On the other hand, the risk of "contaminating" the planet is often used as an excuse not to send humans at all. In addition, the fear of back-contamination of Earth by Martians microbes is very real.

If the long-term objective of going to Mars is to create another home for humanity, it's better if Mars were dead not alive.

A living Mars is a Mars with owners. Owners who will have no shortage of people here on Earth willing to speak on their behalf to protect them from a human invasion. A Mars with life is a Mars that will be reserved for the Martians alone or for a select group of scientists. A Mars with life is a Mars that is likely to be off limits to settlement.

A dead Mars is a Mars without owners. It's a new world open for the taking. And if the olivine theory is correct, it's also a world with lots of subsurface water. The cost of space travel eventually will become affordable for ordinary people. It'd be a tragedy if the planet were off-limits to human occupation when that day comes. This blog's motto is "one day all this will be ours" for a reason. The heliosphere is our home. We just haven't moved into all the rooms yet. So I'm rooting for the olivine.

-tdr

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