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Aug 5 / Claude Pruneau

The Mars Space Laboratory and Curiosity Mission

Mars is incontestably the most popular planet of our solar system. It is the planet most written about in both fiction and non-fiction books. It has been the subject or the basis for countless movies. And it is by far the most explored planet – beside earth of course. Why such a popularity?

Perhaps we will never know for sure. But one man can be credited for popularizing Mars  and the notion that intelligent beings might have once inhabited the planet. His name is Percival Lowell.

Percival Lowell (1855-1916) was born of a rich Massachusetts family. He had a successful career as businessman and counsellor for the United State government. He travelled extensively in the far east and wrote about his observations of the Japanese society. He became enamored with Mars after reading the book by Camille Flammarion’s La planète Mars.  The canals of Mars, as drawn by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, particularly attracted his interest.

His interest in Mars became so strong, he actually abandoned all prior activities and devoted the rest of his life towards the study of Astronomy. In 1894, he invested his fortune in the construction of an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. A pioneer of his time, he was the first to choose an observatory site based on its seeing qualities: at an altitude of 2100 meters, with few cloudy nights, and far from city lights, the Flagstaff site was an excellent site for astronomical observations.

Lowell spent the next fifteen years in the study of Mars. He observed Mars night after night to map out its surface. He made detailed and intricate drawings of structures he saw on Mars surface through the eyepiece of his telescope. He saw long canals crossing the surface of the planet. He imagined oases at the intersections of canals. He imagined beings building these canals and living off them.  He wrote about his observations and his thoughts in three books: Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908). He was convinced these canals were the product of an advanced civilization struggling to survive and using canals to carry water from the icy polar caps to irrigate the Martian surface.

Astronomers of his time were at odds with both his observations and ideas. They did not see the same structures and canals, and they could not embrace his conclusions about the presence of a civilization on Mars. Lowell and his observatory were largely ostracized. But Lowell was a true enthusiast. He persisted in his work, and the popularization of his ideas.   He is in fact credited for providing inspiration for H. G. Wells’ very influential book The War of the Worlds which logically inferred that inhabitants of a dying world might seek to invade Earth.

The matter of canals finally came to rest when the NASA Mariner 4 and Mariner 9 missions took the first close-up pictures of Mars in 1965 and 1972.  Mars was then seen for what it really is, a rocky barren desolated planet, with no liquid water on its surface.

Yet, till this day, we humans continue to wonder. What if?

Given the preeminent polar caps, was there ever liquid on Mars’ surface? Pictures taken by recent missions in orbit around Mars suggest water flows aside mountains and the existence of large lakes in a distant past. What if?

Water is a precious ingredient for life as we know it. If there was once abundant liquid water on Mars, perhaps the conditions were ripe for the emergence of simple forms of life.

A hundred years after Lowell’s observations of the Martian’s surface, we now know for sure there are no canals on Mars. We also know the soil of Mars is laden with super oxides which readily destroy organic molecules. Yet, we still do not know if Mars ever hosted life. Perhaps even today are there hidden crevasses where liquid water flows. Maybe organic molecules, the basic ingredients of life, were once abundant on the surface. Perhaps one can find traces of such molecules in places where there was once abundant liquid water.

Tonight, with a little bit of luck, and an amazing load of sophisticated technology, the Mars Space Laboratory (MSL) will deliver the Curiosity Robotic Rover on the Martian surface. Curiosity will not the first rover to roam the planet. But it will be the largest and most sophisticated of them all. Weighing about a ton, it is the size of a jeep. Its delivery mechanism to the planet surface is by far the most sophisticated ever built.  Curiosity is packed with sophisticated instruments designed to explore and poke the surface, study its chemistry and search for organic molecules. It will not be searching for life but for life’s ingredients. Was Mars once hospitable to life? Could it be colonized?

Percival Lowell was dead wrong about Martian canals. Yet he has inspired generations of astronomers and engineers in the pursuit of a dream: exploring Mars and ever pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. I bet that if Lowell was still alive today, he would be quite excited about the mission and would not go to sleep tonight before NASA receives Curiosity’s signal that it is safe and sound on the Martian surface.

The landing is scheduled at 10:31 PM PDT tonight (Aug 5, 2012). That’s 1:31 AM EDT, Aug 6 for us on the east coast.


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C. Pruneau

Director of Wayne State Planetarium