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I’m off to Mars! (Sort of)

I never win anything.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I once won a calculator in a school fund drive selling chocolate bars (I frantically sold the entire box to my relatives the night before the deadline, much to my parents’ annoyance). But normally, I’m a no-luck kind of person.

So, being the space geek that I am, can you just imagine the excitement, the thrill, the utter joy when I found out that I was one of the lucky people chosen to attend a Tweetup hosted by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to watch the Mars Science Laboratory (nicknamed Curiosity) land on Mars? Sure, I could watch it on the web if I wanted, but not at the CANADIAN SPACE AGENCY. I am beyond excited for this opportunity (not to be confused with the rover Opportunity which is still beaming back images from Mars, which — if you’re interested — you can view on your iPhone with an app called “Mars Images”). I get to go to Montreal with my daughter and share this historic moment with her (as well as showing her gorgeous Montreal).

But there’s one problem: the Mars success rate.

Infographic copyright Bryan Christie

About two-thirds of the missions to Mars have FAILED.

What’s the issue with getting there? Well, there are many: rocket stages have failed; descents have gone awry; computers have failed and — my favourite — engineers once failed to convert imperial units to metric (or was it the other way around?). Oops.

(Check out the Planetary Society’s summary of Mars missions by clicking here.)

With such an incredibly slim success rate, why do we continue to spend billions of dollars on trying to explore a planet that clearly isn’t too thrilled about having unexpected visitors?

Humanity has long since held a fascination with the red planet. Mars, named after the Roman god of war, was known to the ancients. Greeks named it after their god of war, Ares (with the Romans following suit). The ancient Egyptians called it “her desher,” which means “the red one”; the Chinese called it the “fire star.”

In the late 1800s, American astronomer Percival Lowell believed that Mars contained canals and waterways made by intelligent life. Of course, we now know that there is evidence that there was once river beds, flood plains and perhaps even an ocean. But no Martians lazily rowing down a waterway in their gondolas.

But still . . . why the fascination? Why weren’t there thousands of stories written about Saturnians (Saturnites?) invading our planet? Or Jovians? Why Marvin the Martian?

Perhaps it’s because Mars is one of our nearest planetary neighbours. Also, those canals, polar ice caps and mountains (Mars’ Olympus Mons is the highest peak in our solar system) somehow makes it seem more like home. It’s like taking a look at a fixer-upper and thinking, “Sure. With a bit of work, I can see myself living there.” And now we believe that, of all the planets in our solar system, Mars is the one planet that most likely possessed some sort of life billions of years ago. It’s nice to think that maybe we had neighbours. It’s nice to think that maybe we’re not so alone in the universe, even if what we find is a tiny piece of life that we can barely see.

So, regardless of the success rate, we push on. We look to Mars to see if there are traces of life. And NASA has set out this goal for Curiosity: “Investigate whether conditions have been favorable for microbial life and for preserving clues in the rocks about possible past life.” So I can’t wait to watch as Curiosity lands. This could be the rover that finds life. And I was there, in the building of our national space agency — a contributor to the mission — to watch it arrive.

 

To find out more about the Mars Science Laboratory, visit the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s website.

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