David Whitehouse

The alluring prospect of life on Mars

If you happened to be standing today on the reddish sand of Meridiani Planum – a vast, flat, expanse just south of the Martian equator – you might well spot a dark spec in the distance against the peach-coloured sky, moving towards you. In the next few hours, the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli probe will make its final, six-minute decent through the Martian atmosphere. If it succeeds in touching down safely, the probe will be one of the very few to make it to the Martian surface. But after a journey of 500 million kilometres, it’s only then that the probe’s work will really start: scientists hope the Schiaparelli lander will act as a Martian weather station, sending data all the way back to earth in preparation for a future, more ambitious probe.

The Schiaparelli won’t be alone on the surface of Mars: fourteen probes – some wrecked – litter the Martian landscape. Two – the US built Curiosity and Opportunity – are still working. Opportunity has been roving the surface since January 2004 and is only about 42 kilometres from the Schiaparelli lander, but the two will never meet. In the future, nine orbiters could crash onto Mars after their missions end. Still, it seems, the allure of Mars remains strong.

No planet has embedded itself into our culture as deeply as Mars has. To our ancestors, it became a fire star in the sky, to the ancient Egyptians, it was Horus the red; to other, it was the blushing star. But for many, Mars looked simply like a drop of blood in the sky. The red planet was war and ruin, pain and death. To Victorian astronomers, it seemed obvious that it was another kind of earth. With an atmosphere and markings on its surface, including what appeared to be polar ice caps, and a ‘day’ that was only 41 minutes longer than ours, it wasn’t surprising that humans wanted to try and contact Mars.

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