Image Credit: NASA
Martian exploration is unquestionably a hot topic right now. Mainstream media outlets have largely focused on the most visible efforts of the Curiosity mission, and that’s a good thing. While people might be thrilled with the photographs that they have an opportunity to view on their screens however, they may be less familiar with the implications of this research for the future.
For instance, previously little was known about how the Martian permafrost segments melted, and some researchers weren’t even convinced that significant melting occurred. Mars has no visible oceans, and that means that there really isn’t anywhere for huge amounts of fluid to flow. Thanks to current research efforts, data collected thus far has put together a more complete image of the melt patterns of sedimentary rocks on the Red Planet.
This data is useful in helpful in determining whether life once existed on Mars. While permafrost melt patterns aren’t really able to confirm or deny astrobiology theories, they’re an awfully good start. Although it’s not possible to determine if there were ever organisms that evolved as a result of these flows simply by looking at them, some researchers may argue that further probes are necessary to delve into this area further.
Outside of the search for life (current or prior) on Mars, the seasonal melting model also suggests that oceans could eventually be constructed on the planet. This is particularly exciting where terraforming projects are concerned. With stores of carbon dioxide readily available in the Martian atmosphere, it may be possible to produce something similar to a greenhouse effect. Once this occurs, plant life would be able to produce readily available supplies of oxygen (that stuff we humans need to live) while cooling off the planet in the process.
The research efforts currently under way may help scientists to determine more efficient methods of accomplishing this Martian overhaul. For instance, scientists currently know that seasonal melts could provide the necessary ingredients for seasons that are somewhat similar to those on Earth. Winter phases might be useful for helping to reduce the planets’ cooling process as well.
Tracking weather patterns on the Red Planet might also help researchers who would prefer to manipulate the Martian climate with lenses or shields. Once enough is known about weather and geological patterns on Mars, large lenses could be built in geostationary orbit. These would increase the amount of sunlight directed towards the planet. While engineers would have to be extremely careful not to pump dangerous levels of ultraviolet radiation towards colonists, these mirror systems might help to provide necessary light and heat for the planet once we’ve colonized the planet.
Detecting salt solutions have also helped researchers to better understand the chemical composition of the Martian surface. Industrial facilities may some day work mines on the planet to retrieve resources that are necessary to sustain human colonists. This could, in essence, create an economy on the planet. Additionally, as mineral resources continue to become increasingly rare on Earth, these materials could prove invaluable to future Earth-based citizens as well. Rovers actually prove that mining on Mars could probably be done with current technology – yet another benefit derived from current research efforts.
Few will deny that we are witnessing history almost daily as results from the Curiosity mission are released to the world. While this is without question an amazing time, I think it’s important that we recognize the amazing research being conducted in the process – research that could potentially impact the future of humanity in ways we are currently unable to understand.
Peters, G., Smith, J., Mungas, G., Bearman, G., Shiraishi, L., & Beegle, L. (2008). RASP-based sample acquisition of analogue Martian permafrost samples: Implications for NASA’s Phoenix scout mission Planetary and Space Science, 56 (3-4), 303-309 DOI: 10.1016/j.pss.2007.10.001
Amato P, Doyle SM, Battista JR, & Christner BC (2010). Implications of subzero metabolic activity on long-term microbial survival in terrestrial and extraterrestrial permafrost. Astrobiology, 10 (8), 789-98 PMID: 21087159
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