Life Science The search for life on Mars: What’s in it for Earthlings?
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The search for life on Mars: What’s in it for Earthlings?

Digital image of NASA's Mars 2020 spacecraft carrying the Perseverance rover as it approaches Mars. Photo: AAP
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Every day the news is rich with death or, at the least, deadly downers. But this week, we dramatically touched down on Mars, with a rhino-sized buggy, to drive about in search of life.

Does the NASA mission all but pay for itself by cheerfully asking one of the big questions: are we alone?

If we’re not – and there’s a yet-to-be discovered microbe clinging on to pitiful existence deep down in the distant red dirt – then apart from the ‘geez’ factor, what’s in it for the rest of us back on Earth?

Putting our focus closer to home

In recent years, most of the heavy lifting in exploring the universe has been done by new generation telescopes gathering beautiful, mystifying images from stars and planets a few hundred lights years away.

It’s light, but not as we know it. News from the Hubble Telescope was very strange sometimes. Here the massive galaxy cluster Abell 2744, nicknamed Pandora’s Cluster, takes on a ghostly look where total starlight has been artificially colored blue.
Image: NASA/ESA/IAC/HFF Team, STScI

The Hubble Telescope alone has made discoveries so unusual as to overturn the expectations and understanding of cosmologists. When NASA talked about the Hubble seeing the “ghost light” from dead galaxies, astronomy seemed wrapped up in mysticism.

Just last week, new data from the Hubble led “to the first measurement of the extent of a collection of black holes in a core-collapsed globular cluster.”

What the…?

And think of all those thousands of exoplanets – 4352 confirmed so far – orbiting faraway stars. Touted so often as potential homes for when humankind has irreversibly ruined itself, and yet hopefully developed interstellar transportation that can get us to a nurturing elsewhere.

So many of those planets are almost, but never quite right, for sustaining life – and, after a while, too many for regular folk to take an interest in.

In short, Earthlings are overdue a meaningful space adventure not too far from home. Something vaguely human that might give us the feels and answers a simple question.

Like answering the Mars question, once and for all

Glen Nagle is public outreach manager at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, part of NASA’s Deep Space Network.

Mr Nagle told The New Daily there were “a range of reasons” for going in search of alien life. One is that “it’s certainly a fundamental question we ask ourselves as human beings: are we alone?”

It began, he said, around our ancestral fires, looking at the skies, conjuring up ideas of gods to keep us company and fill up the mystery of what else is out there.

Plus, for NASA and other space agencies, there’s a side benefit to asking that question: “It’s an easy one for people to understand.”

Not just for mums and dads, but for politicians who put up the money.

“That might sound cynical but it’s true in a way,” Mr Nagle said. “You could talk about all the great science that’s being done on the mission: the materials science, the atmospheric studies.

“But really, they (the politicians) , are asking the same question you’re asking: what’s in it for us?”

And answering that fundamental question is important because it “touches on philosophy, theology, our overall place in the universe.”

Technology developed for space is useful on Earth

CAT scans, scratch-resistant glasses, LEDS, landmine removal technology camera phones and the damn internet are just some examples of technology that were developed by NASA and used first in space exploration. Wireless headsets, memory foam, better quality artificial limbs and freeze-dried food also. See more here.

As Glen Nagle puts it: “The real benefit… is the technology created to find that life.”

One of the breakthrough gadgets being carried by the Perseverance rover is PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) an instrument that looks at the very fine scale structure of rocks and soil.

Developed by an Australian scientist, Dr Abigail Allwood, formerly of the University of Queensland Technology (UQT), now at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, PIXL is a tool the size of a tissue box, doing the work of a big laboratory.

“Technology like that has uses on earth,” said Mr Nagle. “When we’re looking for bio-hazards in soil or looking for diseases in our plants, instead of needing a big lab,you have a small instrument that can do the work on the end of a robot arm.”

Go Aussies. See more here about UQT’s involvement on the mission.

Show me the money

The history of space exploration has been dogged by one big question: couldn’t all that money be spent on much needed social infrastructure or medical research closer to home.

The Apollo moon landings were as contentious as much as they were celebrated. One of the most famous critiques was given by the Black poet Gil Scott Heron in ‘Whitey On The Moon’:

I can’t pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still.
(while Whitey’s on the moon)

This image of an Earthrise, our planet coming over the horizon of the moon, was taken from Apollo 8, and is credited with starting the international environment movement. Photo: NASA

How many poorer Americans might feel similarly today about the Perseverance rover project, conceived in 2012 and costing US2.4 billion? Glen Nagle said Americans spend that amount on feeding their pets every 10 days.

The total cost of the project cost each American the price of a cup of coffee.

Sounds about right. But once you start talking about money, questions of meaning and the big picture feel a little tainted.

Perhaps the space mission to remember is Apollo 8, when man first orbited the moon and photographed for the first time an Earthrise: our planet coming over the lunar horizon. The image is credited with starting the environment movement.

This was at the end of 1968, a terrible year: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, race riots, protests against the Vietnam War which was going nowhere.

Of all the letters of congratulations received by the Apollo 8 astronauts, the one that mattered most was one that read: “You saved 1968.”

Which suggests that sometimes, what these missions give us Earthlings, is a little boost, a little hope.

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