Mystery Object Spotted on Mars
No, not in this picture…
The Phoenix has landed! Yes, the first powered landing on Mars in decades has succeeded in getting down safely. This is the first probe to land in Mar’s polar regions, and has made history in other ways as well. It was photographed as is descended toward the ground by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the first time a probe has photographed another probe arriving on a planet. Already starting its mission, the Phoenix has sent back the first pictures. What do they show? Frozen mud, as far as the eye can see! In every direction! This is why this probe isn’t a rover, frozen mud is going to be pretty much the same all over the Mars polar region, what would be the point of roving around in it? Plus, this allowed more weight for other instruments.
Still, $400 million for a picture of frozen mud seems steep by even current government standards. I am amazed in fact by the number of letters in the local paper decrying the “waste” of money spent on space exploration. The amount of money spent on NASA is peanuts compared to the trillions poured into the ever expanding military rathole, but people are moved to complain about NASA? No wonder the country is such a mess.
It’s a fair question though, what does spending on space exploration get us besides cool pics of far away places? For starters studying other planets helps us understand Earth better, which helps is all sorts of ways like weather prediction, finding minerals, and and predicting Earth’s future. In the long run of course humans will someday move into space even if just to utilize the abundant resources there. (There are asteroids that not only contain more of certain rare elements than have ever been mined on Earth, they contain more of these elements than could ever be mined on Earth since they are so rare in Earth’s crust.) However, more on point, space spending has yielded a vast array of practical applications that are in use all around us. Someday maybe I’ll dedicate a post to it, for now check out this link, it’s surprising really. The bottom line is that a case can be made that space exploration is some of the most cost effective spending the government engages in and is one of the few areas where government spending actually does yield long term practical benefits.
It should also be pointed out that the Phoenix lander is one of NASA’s new “faster, better, cheaper” probes. The theory now is to use off-the-shelf equipment to build probes, including spare parts from previous probes. This is far more cost effective than the old method, which was to design and build each probe from the ground up. Missions like those cost a billion dollars or more each, and resulted in some very expensive failures. So people criticizing NASA spending are missing the boat in two ways. They are missing the actual benefits of NASA spending, and they are ignorant of how much trouble NASA has taken to to squeeze the absolute last drop of science out of each dollar spent. I defy anyone to find another government agency that works so hard to make their spending cost effective.
Why land in Mars polar region anyhow? Conditions there are so harsh that the Phoenix is expected to only last about six months before the Martian winter basically freezes it solid. If we are lucky we will see images of the frozen carbon dioxide snow that will start to fall when winter starts. Well, basically there are two reasons for this mission. The probe will use a scope to dig into the ground and bring samples into a lab on the probe for study. Scientists want to know abut the history of water on Mars, which will help understand Mar’s climate and Mars today. And they are looking for a potential “habitable” zone under the surface where conditions suitable for life may exist or have once existed. No, Phoenix is not looking for life per se, just conditions where life might exist. And whatever Phoenix finds, it will add immensely to our store of knowledge about Mars and guide NASA as to where further exploration will be fruitful.
In any event, I promised a mystery pic on Mars. The above pic is not a mystery, it’s part of a beautiful picture in more or less real colour showing the surface of Mars out to the horizon. (Yes, the sky on Mars is butterscotch, not the familiar blue of Earth.) The full size original picture, as well as all other Phoenix images, can be viewed here. Most of them are about as one would expect, pictures of frozen mud from various angles. And also as one would expect, various people including every conspiracy theorist on the planet, have carefully inspected every image released with the proverbial fine tooth comb. And this is what they discovered:
See the little white thing near the horizon at the upper right? What the heck is that? No one knows. It’s probably one of the parachutes used to land the Phoenix, or maybe it’s just a technical blip in the photo. No one is too excited yet because these first pictures are low resolution images shot by a cheap camera just to assess the situation around the lander. In a few days or weeks much more high resolution pictures will be taken with a better camera, and we will likely discover what this is.
And honestly, I hope it really is something mysterious and exciting. No matter how much thrill I get out of space exploration, it still takes my breath away that we can send these probes to the far reaches of the solar system, the little boy in me is still hopes to see the Martians and space monsters of my youthful 50s sci-fi movie days. Is that too much to ask?
(Both of the above images are public domain under US copyright law and may be used and reproduced in any way so long as they do not imply that NASA is endorsing any commercial venture. Since my taxpayer dollars paid for these pictures, they damn well better be public domain. The way things are going now though who knows what the future brings. Corporate sponsorships and naming rights? Will Pepsi and Coke sponsor competing missions to Mars?)