Why we should care about Mars and Venus
It can seem silly to send a $2.5B rover to Mars to search for life and water, but it’s really important. Let’s talk.
The ultimate question we ask about our setup: why is our planet our planet? Is it unique for a planet to hold water and intelligent life? (Or even dumb life?) We seem to be the only one in this solar system, so what makes this happen? Our size? The minerals in our soil? Our salty ocean? Having a magnetic field? The fact that we’re on an axis? Having a moon? Our age? How far we are from the sun? Our elliptical orbit? The length of our day? Our tectonic plates? Our gravity?
IF ONLY WE HAD MORE DATA POINTS!! WE COULD FIGURE OUT IF WE’RE THAT UNIQUE…
Buuttttttt… what do we have here? Two data points: Mars and Venus revolve around the same star we do. They are very close to our size. Mars has a moon. In fact, it has two. Venus doesn’t have one. Understanding how these planets evolved to where they are will allow us to narrow down why we evolved to where we are. So, why don’t they have running water or (visible) life on them?
Some theorize that our proximity to the sun is critical to the development of intelligent life. What happens when we are too close to the sun? Well, let’s look at Venus (above). It’s inhospitable, with a super-thick, toxic atmosphere that’s 93 times thicker than ours. It has clouds made of sulfuric acid and winds that move at speeds thousands of times faster than Earth winds. The temperature on the surface is 467 °C, 872 °F. The theory is that greenhouse gases filled the atmosphere, holding in heat, starting a cycle of heat capture that eventually took the planet into the hot mess it is today.
Mars (above) is farther away from the sun than us. What’s going on there? The theory is the opposite: the atmosphere slowly lost greenhouse gases, forcing the atmosphere to, essentially, thin and disappear.
Well, that seems important. Is this just about proximity to the sun? Probably not. Can we replicate what happened on Venus without moving us millions of miles closer to the sun? Probably. (* ahem * climate change * ahem *) Could our atmosphere become Mars’ thin atmosphere? Maybe. Did Mars and Venus ever have water or life on them? We see ice on Mars, the topography indicates there used to be oceans and rivers. Was there life? Dunno! If so, what happened? So many questions…
These are things we answer through NASA initiatives. By the way, the benefits from these government-funded NASA projects make their way back to benefit everyone in the world. Here are some examples. Plus, we’re talking about hiring and paying (modestly) very skilled work in the US. These kind of jobs are way, way good.
There are lots of perks to projects like the Mars Curiosity Rover (which took the photo above early this morning), but basically: we have yet to realize and/or accept exactly how fragile our setup on this planet is. We need data. Total destruction of Earth can be as simple as building up too many greenhouse gases in our atmosphere so a vicious cycle of heat capture and climate change starts that we can’t stop. Then we’re all dead on Venus.
We’ll know more when we know more, and knowing more about Mars means sending things up there to observe and test. Once we figure out Mars, maybe we can take on the crazy challenge of getting to know Venus better.
This isn’t necessarily about getting humans to Mars. It’s about understanding how close Mars is to our setup… and close we are to becoming Mars.