Perseverance!

Humans aren’t going to Mars anytime soon. There’s no reason to. Robots are much better suited to such endeavors.

NASA put another rover on the Martian surface today. It was a superb display of engineering and technical prowess. It’s also proof that complex, interdisciplinary problems can be solved. Obviously something like climate change is much bigger than this as the social, political, ecological, and economic constraints are greater. Not to mention more fluid and unpredictable. But that doesn’t negate the point—when people set their minds to solve something they can do great things.

Humans can do OK in earth orbit. They can live reasonably well in a low-flying spacecraft. They can stay in shape for several months to a year in the free-fall (“microgravity” in NASA-speak) environment. Individuals have to be selected carefully for such missions. The technical skills alone are daunting, not to mention the close-quarters living and separation from loved ones. Kind of like submariners, although they can always surface and get some fresh air. Not a choice for the astronauts and cosmonauts!

Supply of such vessels is a big task. Rockets can send about 50 to 100 tonnes of material per launch into a low-earth orbit. The Saturn V of Apollo days is still the king with a 140 tonne payload. A tonne is 2200 pounds (1000 kg), so 50 tonnes is 110,000 pounds and 100 tonnes is 220,000 pounds. SpaceX is supposedly developing a 150 tonne lifter this year.

How much is that? A Ford F-150 pickup weighs between 4000-5000 pounds so let’s call it 2 tonnes. So a 100-tonne lifter could bring 50 Ford pickups to the space station! That would be a big help, eh?

100 tonnes of water, good old H2O, is 100,000 Liters. That’s 50,000 2-L PET bottles! If you could gather that 100,000 L of water into a cube, it would be about 15 feet on a side. That much water takes one whole rocket launch.

You can imagine all the things the occupants of a space station need to survive, not to mention keeping the thing in working order and being able to do the work you are up there to do. 100 tonnes is really not that much stuff. The average American, by the way, creates about four pounds of trash, per day.

So you see that robots are far better for space exploration. I think there is a good chance that Perseverance or some other remote probe of Mars will find living things. I think it will happen in the next few years. There won’t be any little green men or Martian monsters (so disappointing!) but there will be something. It will not be “intelligent” in the sense we mean. And we mean that to say “like us.”

No, it will be more like something we find growing in acid mine drainage. Or perhaps at deep-sea hydrothermal vents. There are lots of extremophiles on earth, creatures like tardigrades that can survive and even thrive in extreme environments. You must check out methane ice worms!

Something is alive on Mars. Dormant, perhaps. Well hidden, to be sure. But I’m convinced we will have our “close encounter,” it will just be done remotely with a 20-minute time delay. That’s a good thing. If one of us was up there, fretting over our oxygen supply or return-launch window or any of the multitude of things worth fretting about, we might miss it. The instruments on the rover have a much better chance of getting the job done.

Good luck to ’em.

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