Friday, February 25, 2005

Finding Life

There have been several stories in the recent news about discoveries on Mars that "hint at the possibility of life." Headlines aside, we're finding that space might be almost as interesting as we've imagined it to be. In a few short months, we've gone from using a language of skepticism on the subject of extra-terrestrial life to one of confidence; Peter Jennings himself did a two-hour Primetime Special on UFOs, flying saucers and little green men. This type of sensationalist fodder was previously reserved for the likes of Geraldo Rivera, and definitely wouldn't have taken up two hours of midweek airtime. If I were one for conspiracies, I'd think that the Feds already knew something and were prepping us for the news...

But I'm really not expecting any bombshell news quite yet. It's going to be a while before we can get our collective poop in a group and do some no-kidding search for life out there. Right now, the height of our science-- the beloved Mars rovers-- can't tell a water stain from a fungus fossil, and every interesting new discovery by the twins creates a flurry of arguments back on Earth about what it means and where it came from. However much I'm fascinated by all the fantastic pictures and other data that's coming back from the Ares-ian plains, it frustrates me that we can't be more sure about what we find there.

One More Robot, Then Send People

The big brother to the rovers Spirit and Opportunity is the Mars Science Laboratory. What it lacks in a catchy name, it makes up for in capability. It has instruments on board to look for organic compounds, further hints at the possibility of life past and present. It even has a high energy laser beam, ostensibly for vaporizing rocks so we can study how they're made up. What's not being said is that it could also be used for defense in the event of an encounter with the aforementioned little green men. Lock and load, baby, we're goin' to Mars.

All kidding aside, discovery of extra-terrestrial life is close; you can smell it in the air, literally. And, even though that life will very likely turn out to be strictly bacterial in nature, we should be making plans now to send people up there to study what we find. I don't mean paper studies of feasability concepts that keep consultants fat and NASA's budget drained, but actual build-a-ship-and-fly-it planning that will put people on the Martian ground within a decade.

Of course, left to their own devices, the risk-averse U.S. government will worry themselves into a state of inaction over the situation and send someone back to the moon instead. I expect Robert Bigelow to be there setting up hotels by the time NASA's ready to land and check in, and the two luxury suites will already be booked by Jeff Bezos and Burt Rutan. The moon's ready for mining and tourism; science needs to find another specimen.

Prizes seem to be the way to motivate people to do things. Indeed, Mr. Bigelow announced America's Space Prize on the heels of Rutan's company winning the Ansari family's X-Prize. How about a prize for going to Mars and back? Greg Benford seemed to like the idea enough to write a novel about it. Thirty billion U.S. dollars seems like enough to entice a lot of people to make the attempt, and with The Mars Society's head start, they would probably see a funding infusion that could ensure that they cross the finish line first.

Finding Life

However we get there, we need to get there sooner than later. We're beginning to fall in on ourselves, wallowing in squalor of our own creation. After the apogee of technological development, all we can do is consume resources until we've crumbled into a dark age that we might not crawl out of. Discovery of life on another world, particularly one right next door to us, would create a fundamental change in the way we view our creation, our universe, and our place within it. That critical change will be the driving factor for the next age of technological and sociological growth. Heck, if we're lucky, it will reduce the number of wars we have when people realize that we have more in common with each other than we do with the confirmed-to-exist space aliens, however microscopic they might be. Okay, so that's asking for a lot, but it could happen.

And what about the seas of Europa? It's been speculated that there are icthyoid-ish creatures swimming about there, surviving in the cold depths of a frozen-over sea on a tiny moon of a gas giant. If we find life there, what are we going to find orbiting Alpha Centauri, Altair or Tau Ceti?

We'll never know unless we go.