How a few inches of soil and some leaking cannisters set back space exploration by nearly three decades
Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit for the sake of a good story, it’s an old family tradition. My dad does it, my granddad was one of the best, so I’m in good company. And this is an interesting story, and a wonderful illustration of how even scientists can get trapped by their own assumptions. As I recently mentioned, there have been two recent amazing discoveries in the Solar System. It turns out, to coin a phrase, “there’s water in them there hills.” Yes, despite all indications to the contrary it appears that water is far more abundant on the Moon and Mars than scientists previously thought.
Scientists for awhile have known there was water on Mars in the past, and the recent rovers have shown there was lots of water on Mars in the past. How much water remained though was a bit of a mystery. There is some at the poles, and some indications there might be more elsewhere. Then the recent Mars Polar Lander scraped down into the dirt, and hit water. OK, they hit ice, to be more precise. The clincher though was images like the one above. Mars is frequently hit by meteorites since it has little atmosphere for them to burn up in. And our latest generation of Mars orbiters has been able to spot a number of small recently formed craters. And in many cases, scientists saw something like the above. Right after the impact there would be a lot of ice blasted from the crater, and over the following weeks it would disappear as it sublimated, that is to say it turned into water vapour without going through a liquid phase. And from the amount of ice scattered around these new craters, there must be a lot of water on Mars, all frozen just under the surface in the northern and southern latitudes.
Even more exciting and unexpected was the discovery of water on the Moon. It was so unexpected that scientists waited until three different probes had confirmed it, but the evidence was unmistakable, water was clearly present in surface soil on the Moon, especially in the polar regions. In fact it was being created or transported somehow, since the surface was “wettest” in the Moon’s morning but had dried out by the end of the Moon’s day. Now of course I’m not talking about liquid water, I am talking water bound up in minerals in the Moon’s soil. Tiny tiny amounts, but still, water is water. This makes the Moon a lot more attractive as a way station or a location for scientific bases, since water is not only indispensable for drinking, it can be converted into Oxygen and Hydrogen, the former for breathing, and both for use as rocket fuel. Having your own air, water, and rocket fuel available makes the Moon (and Mars) vastly more habitable since you don’t have to haul the same from Earth at fabulous expense. In fact the fuel for the return trips from Mars will likely be manufactured right on Mars by robots before the first astronauts arrive, since not having to haul rocket fuel to Mars for the return trip will mean vastly larger expeditions can be mounted.
However, I digress. There is another thing about these discoveries that is also fascinating, it turns out both of them could have been discovered in the 1970s. In the case of the Moon, astronauts brought back a lot of Moon rock and soil, why didn’t scientists detect the trace amounts of water in it? Well, turns out they did. However, the canisters the Moon soil and rock samples were returned to Earth in weren’t as air tight as had been planned. So when scientists detected trace amounts of water, they assumed it had to be contamination from air that had seeped into the storage cannisters. I mean, they knew there was no way that there could be water on the Moon, so what else could it be?
On Mars the situation is even more tragicomic. In the 1970s the Viking landers set down on Mars to look for life or at least the building blocks of life in the Martian soil. However, the soil samples they dug up didn’t appear to indicate any sign of life. And the pictures coming back from orbit sure seemed to indicate that Mars was very dry and had been so for a long time. However, as the recent meteorite strikes and the Mars polar lander have shown us, if the Viking landers had been able to dig just a few inches deeper, they would almost certainly have hit ice. And to put it mildly, scientists would have been thrilled and amazed. Instead, in the case of Mars, scientists just had bad luck. And in the case of the Moon, they were blinded by their own prejudices. So the result was that scientists concluded in the seventies that both the Moon and Mars were barren dry “dead” planets, no water meant little to no possibility of life and little reason to consider sending follow-up missions. So exploration of the Moon and Mars literally languished for decades as scientists went on to study the far more interesting (or so they thought) outer planets like Jupiter and Saturn.
What would have been the result if scientists had realized in the seventies that Mars or the Moon had significant amounts of water? To put it mildly, there would have been vastly greater interest in exploring and examining both. In fact it’s even possible that manned trips to the Moon would have continued, and there certainly wouldn’t have been a decades long delay before sending another lander to Mars. That’s how science works though, there are often halts or delays because of misconceptions or the merest of chances. Sooner or later it corrects itself though and our understanding of our world and the Universe around us increases once again. For example, scientists just discovered that a number of dinosaurs … never existed at all!
How the hell did that happen? You guessed it … it’s a topic for a future post.
(The above images of craters on Mars are being used in accordance with NASA guidelines, they were taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2008. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona. The crater is about 6m (20 ft) wide and knee deep. For a picture of a much larger crater with a permanent ice lake at the bottom of it, click here. Look at it closely, see any ruins? Me neither, but at least one person does. I think the fellow has an exceptionally vivid imagination, how’s that for being diplomatic?)