Ever since the late 1800s, there have been theories about whether life exists on our neighbor Mars. Some people went so far as to propose the idea that the canals were irrigation canals built by a supposed intelligent civilization on Mars. Percival Lowell was a strong proponent of this view. In 1894 Lowell chose Flagstaff as the home of his new observatory.
Arizona is a particularly good state for astronomical observations. My former mentor, Mel Martin, lives in the state, and his astrophotographs are among the best in the business. Mel lives in an area where there are few cloudy nights and is far from city lights, with 300 clear nights in a year being the norm.
For Lowell, Flagstaff was an excellent site for astronomical observations. This marked the first time an observatory had been deliberately located in a remote, elevated place for optimal seeing. From 1894, for the next fifteen years, Lowell studied Mars extensively, and made intricate drawings of the surface markings as he perceived them. Lowell more than anyone else popularized the long-held belief that these markings showed that Mars sustained intelligent life forms.
Fast forward to 1976, when two Viking landers touched down upon the surface of the red planet. The Viking landers were the first completely successful spacecrafts to land on Mars. Previous to this time the USSR had made several attempts of landing on the planet. The Soviets’ Mars 2 soft lander crashed on the surface. The Mars 3 soft lander made the first successful landing, but only transmitted 20 seconds of data before it failed. The Mars 6 lander returned some atmospheric descent data, but failed during the descent. The Mars 7 lander missed the planet entirely.
Nasa’s Viking 1 sent the first on-the-ground images of Mars. Below is a panoramic view which looks like a barren desert on earth with a rock-covered surface.
Then came the rovers, Sojourner in 1997, Spirit and Opportunity in 2004, and Curiosity this year.
Currently only two rovers are actively in operation … Opportunity and Curiosity. Opportunity has been trekking the Martian landscape for eight years, snapping stunning images of the planet.
However, most of the attention now is focused on Curiosity. With its HD camera it is sending back amazing pictures of the Gale Crater.
The above image is of Curiosity’s landing site.
The image above depicts surrounding terrain. Other images have been sent back in 3D. (Click on both for a larger view.)
However, the primary mission of Curiosity is to find out if there was, or is, life on the planet. Curiosity has detected no methane in its first analyses of the Martian atmosphere — news that will doubtless disappoint those who hope to find life on the Red Planet.
Living organisms produce more than 90 percent of the methane found in Earth’s atmosphere, so scientists are keen to see if Curiosity picks up any of the gas in Mars’ air. But the 1-ton rover has come up empty in the first atmospheric measurements.
“The bottom line is that we have no detection of methane so far,” Chris Webster, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told reporters today.
“But we’re going to keep looking in the months ahead since Mars, as we all know, may yet hold surprises for us,” added Webster
This initial testing of the atmosphere came up with results different than conclusions reached in 2003.
Substantial plumes of methane in the northern hemisphere of Mars were noted by Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
In contrast, the composition of Earth’s atmosphere contains 78.1 percent nitrogen, 20.9 percent oxygen, 0.9 percent argon and 0.1 percent carbon dioxide and other gases. It is obvious that carbon dioxide levels are much too high for animals and humans, but nitrogen levels are very low also, something that many people do not realize. Plants require CO2, but also need nitrogen to survive.The atmosphere of Mars is not the same as the atmosphere of our own planet. Whereas Earth has a sizable amount of nitrogen and oxygen, with small amounts of carbon dioxide and other gases, Mars is composed mostly of carbon dioxide (95.3%), with nitrogen (2.7%), argon (1.6%), oxygen (.2%), and other trace gases. This obviously presents a serious problem for Martian colonization. Humans cannot survive in such an atmospheric composition even if the air pressure were at Earth sea level.
Our latest rover will have two years to study the geology and atmosphere of Mars. It certainly will live up to its name.