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Mars: The Mysterious Red Enigma

“I remember being transfixed by the first lander image to show the horizon of Mars. This was not an alien world, I thought. I knew places like this in Colorado and Arizona and Nevada. There were rocks and sand drifts and a distant eminence, as natural and unselfconscious as any landscape on Earth. Mars was a place.”

—Carl Sagan, “Blues for the Red Planet” Cosmos series

For decades scientists have debated whether human life on the planet could ever be a feasible option considering Martian geology, water reserves, and other obstacles to be overcome in a future colonization. Despite these concerns, many still insist Earth’s frozen friend could be a new frontier. But as the idea is explored, it provokes some curious questions. Are we really prepared to think about Mars?

When it comes to candidates for future colonization, Mars is a promising place. It’s comparatively close and accessible—a whole lot more welcoming than what we would probably find exploring dozens of planetary systems at far greater distances. As far as other contenders, it’s a better candidate than our moon, according to Robert Zubrin, former chairman of the National Space Society.Perhaps because humankind has long been able to actually see Mars in the night sky, some believe that fate has favored humanity with a possible second home.

Even so, the red planet still remains some distance from our Earth, such that modern technology has yet to place a single human being on its soil. The result is a kind of intimacy barrier in that this seemingly close acquaintance we have so ingratiated has never become a true friend. The data we have tells us that its surfaces are frozen and its atmosphere is currently too inclement for human life, but it may not have always been that way. Experiments on the Martian surface, and the thousands of photographs and resonance images sent from orbiting satellites, have shown us with almost total certainty that Mars had at one time possessed liquid water. There is evidence for a Martian past with rain, rivers, lakes, and even a modest ocean. Mars is also rich in carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen—essential resources for supporting life. These are the characteristics that most distinguish Mars as a definitive candidate for future colonization.

While the Martian atmosphere does show some promise, its –58 F below zero temperatures and ultraviolet radiation would make even a brief stay rather uncomfortable.  Some have suggested thawing the Martian icecaps and the banks of water hidden under its powdery surface to make the planet more inhabitable. But even so, water is not the only mystery hidden within the planet. There is still much to know about our red neighbor, though the answers often elude us.

Since the 1960s, Mars has seen dozens of orbiters, landers, and other earthly visitors, but most have ended in varying degrees of failure. Some jokingly blame the “Galactic Ghoul”—a fictitious space monster intent on stopping exploration of the red planet—for the costly setbacks.


Another mystery to ponder is the distant Martian past, as some believe that civilizations have already existed there. Aside from what appears to be pyramids and other structures seen on a part of the planet known as Cydonia, many are intrigued by what appears to be a giant face planted on Martian soil. While the European Space Agency has insisted that the “face” as seen in a photo taken during the 1976 Viking mission is simply a photographic distortion, the former curator of Astronomy & Space Science at the Springfield Museum of Science in Massachusetts, Richard C. Hoagland, believes otherwise.

“Long before men looked at Mars and dreamed of going there one day, someone may have looked at Earth and watched it rise, green and sparkling, before a Martian dawn.  We have seen the evidence—a collection of enigmatic artifacts lying in the reddened Martian sands—and it is staggering: the possible ruins of a City, crumbling for all too many years back into the windswept wastes of the fourth planet of the sun,” writes Hoagland in the introduction of his 2002 book, “The Monuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever.”


Whether Mars enjoyed a past civilization is up for debate, but most agree that to make future colonization a reality, extensive research and exploration is still required. In the last few years President Bush has proposed a manned mission to the red planet, but the cost for such a project would be astronomical.

Till the end of his life, the astronomer Carl Sagan was an outspoken advocate for a manned mission to Mars. He was not daunted by cost, arguing that public officials had lost comparable sums in the savings and loans scandal. Yet Sagan remained practical concerning loftier goals.“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand,” writes Sagan in his 2004 book, “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.”

Maybe a colonized Mars will one day be a reality—a solution to the dilemma of the population explosion that nips at the heels of humanity. But for now, still too little is known about the inhospitable red planet to turn it into a trustworthy friend. Aside from actually getting there, fundamental problems of obtaining food and energy resources would also be significant hurdles to overcome. Even within our small blue home called Earth, we continue to struggle with these issues.

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