Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Life on Mars? Yes, when the Mars Hilton Convention Centre finally opens

Well, Phoenix lands on Mars on Sunday at 68 degrees north, well away from previous sites, to take samples of soil and underground ice.

Here is an artist's conception of the landing, courtesy of NASA.

One can't help wondering if the Vatican astronomer, Fr. Funes - who mused recently that there might well be space aliens - timed his musings to coincide with the Phoenix touchdown.
NASA's aims are, of course, more modest than a SETI alien search - ultra-modest, in fact:
One research goal is to assess whether conditions at the site ever have been favorable for microbial life. The composition and texture of soil above the ice could give clues to whether the ice ever melts in response to long-term climate cycles. Another important question is whether the scooped-up samples contain carbon-based chemicals that are potential building blocks and food for life itself.
These aims are so modest that at least one of them is likely to be met, which is ideal both for future funding and speculation about life elsewhere in the universe.

My fellow journalist and parishioner David Warren has been thinking a lot about the basic issue: Are we alone?
Sentient life must either be extremely common in the universe, or absolutely unique to Earth. The latter is plausible only because we observe it. "No biological life in any form at all" is the easy statistical likelihood, given the apparent age & size of the universe. Not in this universe, & not in any of the next quadrillion or so similar universes, if we want to keep rolling the dice.

There is a school of (bad) reasoning which tries to get around this by arguing there must be some probability barrier or "Great Filter" that causes any species that reaches the human level to become extinct a moment later in geological time.

This won't work. For we should then expect a (large) number of earth-like or alternatively habitable environments to have at least produced earth-level radio or other detectable technology which we could read when the signals reach us even if they perished X years ago.

He also believes,
Still, many people would rather entertain aliens in flying saucers than God, so they'll keep bashing their heads against that probability wall until they die.

Of course, Phoenix could just crash and burn, too, as NASA prudently warns,
"This is not a trip to grandma's house. Putting a spacecraft safely on Mars is hard and risky," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Internationally, fewer than half of all attempts to land on Mars have succeeded."

But the Mars Society (whose acknowledged goal is "ever more aggressive government funded Mars exploration programs around the world") is ecstatic:
"This is a very exciting mission," said Mars Society Executive Director Chris Carberry. "Phoenix will tell us a great deal about water on Mars, including whether it is readily accessible today as ice within the Martian soil. Additionally, if successful, Phoenix will demonstrate the many benefits of NASA collaboration with academia and the private sector, including improved cost efficiency and innovative new design concepts."

Did I mention the Mars Hilton Convention Centre? Well, in the end, who cares if we find life on Mars - can't we just bring our own?