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Introduction to Visions of Mars

By Peter H. Smith, Prinicipal Investigator, Phoenix

February 14, 2007:
This message precedes a collection of stories and essays that are intended as a time capsule. Most of these stories come from the most famous science fiction writers of our day.  They springboard from the latest scientific knowledge to weave visionary tales of the future.  In return the stories inspire young readers to dream of magical futures and, later as adults, become part of the leading edge of scientific discovery.  This cyclical exchange between fact and fiction is the basis for the creative art of science.

Reading these stories offers us insight into the hopes and fears of society.  Burrough’s stories of conquering monsters and befriending aliens remind us of the still recent expeditions into the savage and untamed Rockies in the early 19th century.  More recent novels lead to the terraforming and colonization of Mars; ideas that clearly come from mankind’s successful taming of Nature on every continent.

Phoenix

NASA / UA / art by Corby Waste

Phoenix

What brave soul has decoded this mini-DVD after recovering it from the north polar region on Mars?  Possibly a member of a future society that has sent their astronauts and pioneers to explore the solar system will return with this treasure to a curious future civilization. Since the longevity of this disk can be many millennia, there is no way to know just who the readers are or their knowledge about life at the beginning of the space age in the year 2007.

Let me introduce myself to you, I am Peter Smith, the Principal Investigator of the Phoenix mission funded by NASA. My father, Hugh Smith, was born in 1902, an era when there was no radio or recorded music or television.  His small town had no electricity and South Carolina had yet to see a car.  His career in medical research put him on the forefront of modern medicine; he was a key member of the Rockefeller Foundation team that discovered an affordable vaccine against yellow fever.  Born in 1947, I grew up in a home that respected the intellect above all else.  I read science fiction voraciously as a child and dreamed of adventures on other planets.

Today as a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, my dreams have become reality and the visions of exploration are still very much alive.  Our Phoenix spacecraft that you have discovered is a robotic emissary, a stepping stone in our quest for extra-terrestrial life. We live within a small time window of the great river of human accomplishment. Yet this time is unique; we have developed our technology, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1850, to the point where humans have set foot on the Moon and robotic missions explore Mars.

I have seen the technology exhibited in this disk evolve from 78-rpm record disks to 33-rpms to tape players of various types to CD-ROMs to DVDs.  Now we are on the verge of doing away with these media altogether and simply pulling information directly from the internet onto tiny memory cells.  The technology represented by this mini-DVD will not be current even 20 years from now.  Yet we must try to preserve part of our culture that reveals the fascination that we have felt over the last 120 years about traveling to Mars and searching for non-terrestrial forms of life.

The Phoenix mission is a stepping stone on a path to search for habitable zones on Mars and then probe for life signatures.  Perhaps the future reader of this document already knows that life had a second genesis outside of Earth.  Entire institutes may be devoted to this topic.  But in 2007, we have yet to provide conclusive proof that Mars supports life either past or present.

Reasonable scientists can find many reasons to be skeptical on this topic.  The thin atmosphere (about 1% of Earth’s) and the greater distance from the Sun provide a dry, or frozen environment.  Liquid water, so necessary for life as we know it, is highly unstable on Mars today.  In addition, there is insufficient ozone in the atmosphere to block the high-energy ultraviolet radiation.  Without protection organisms cannot survive this radiation for very long.  Indeed, the Viking spacecraft in 1976 determined in two locations that there were no organic molecules in the surface soils.  Worse, they found evidence that oxidants sterilize the surface.  Under these conditions an active Martian biosphere is not favored.

However, the 2002 discovery that a layer of ice underlies the surface poleward of 60° both north and south gives some hope that periodic melting of the near surface ice offers a habitable zone.  A complete analysis of these surface layers to understand the chemistry, mineralogy, and geology of this unexplored environment is the goal of the Phoenix mission.  Five cameras from descent imagers to panoramic imagers to microscopes resolving down to the surface structure of a grain of sand provide the context of our site.  Small beakers accept samples provided by our arm and mix the soil with terrestrial water: saltiness, acidity, and a range of chemical constituents can be determined.  Eight ovens accept other samples which are slowly heated to 1000° C.  Vapors driven out by water release and decomposition are studied in a mass spectrometer.

In these early stages of exploring Mars we are still ignorant about the polar weather conditions and the changes of climate with season.  A meteorology station will record temperature, pressure and cloud properties throughout our operational phase in the summer of 2008.  In particular, we wish to know how the atmosphere and the subsurface ice interact.  Humidity and wind direction can give us some idea of how water vapor is transported with season.  Our surface mission is part of a global strategy for exploring Mars and other landers, rovers and orbiters allow discoveries to be placed within a regional context.

Peter H. Smith

University of Arizona

Peter H. Smith
Principal Investigator, Phoenix

These goals may seem primitive to future readers who are likely already far advanced in their knowledge of all things Martian.  The world at the turn of the 21st century is in a renaissance in space science, medicine, biology, and technology.  We have just decoded the human genome, modern medicines have secured long life for much of the world.  We have or are in the process of robotically visiting every planet and selected asteroids and comets even bringing back samples for our laboratory scientists.  From the interior of the proton to the unimaginable scope of the Universe, the underlying principles and processes are being understood and documented.  Yet each new discovery opens new avenues of investigation; the search for Truth continues.

Are the readers of this disk a continuation of this noble endeavor?  That would mean that we are of the same culture and perhaps my children or grandchildren are involved.  Otherwise, you may be from an indeterminate future.  If thousands of years from now, then we will have no common language.  America will be in the realm of ancient history and technology will have radically developed.  Future technology would mystify us just as a laptop computer has no meaning to Attila the Hun.  The discovery and decoding of this disk may be a surprise window into an ancient time.  Today’s world civilization will have vanished leaving few clues to its complexity in a distant future.  Yet this disk, protected from the rapid decay on Earth, may still be in pristine condition.

After all, looking back in history several millennia puts us at the dawn of written history, the very beginnings of civilization.  Flashing forward at high speed to the present takes us through the rise and fall of numerous civilizations worldwide.  The great accomplishments of the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Ottomans, the Chinese, and the Aztecs all come quickly to mind.  Our modern civilization in American did not begin until the revolution against King George III of England in the 18th century.  While we tend to think that we will survive forever into the future, lessons from the past do not support this prediction.

Already there are signs that the future will not be a peaceful advance in culture, technology, and science.  The forces of discontent are everywhere.  We see populations migrating away from their traditional homelands.  We see the rapid expansion of major world religions. Political instabilities threaten peace; nuclear war was narrowly avoided just 25 years ago between USSR and America yet all these highly destructive weapons still exist.  There is a growing separation between the wealthy and the poor.  Hatred and distrust seem to result whenever different cultures interact.

We measure an exponential growth in world population, twice as many people since I was born--about 6.5 billion.  It is clear that this growth cannot be sustained: it overburdens the Earth’s resources. The loss of rain forest threatens animal and plant species with extinction.  Our consumption of fossil fuels has reached a rate that future generations cannot continue. The increase in greenhouse gases is warming the Earth to the point where polar regions will lose their ice caps and glaciers will raise the sea level high enough to flood the low lying cities of the world.  Mass migrations, starvation, over-fishing of the ocean, and inadequate agriculture are future realities that may lead to major wars.  It is already too late for us to return to the ancient hunting and gathering mode of our ancestors.  It may be too late to return to the family farm—there is just not enough arable land for all.

Doomsayers are often wrong.  Offsetting disastrous scenarios are the opportunities to correct and prevent the worst case predictions.  Population pressures can be reduced through planned parenthood programs.  Global warming can be lessened when people band together to reduce the use of fossil fuels.  Tensions around the world can be relieved through diplomacy and good will toward neighbors.  The golden rule--do unto others as you would have them do unto you—is more important now than ever in history.  Charles Dicken’s opening lines from “A tale of two cities” say it all for this pivotal era, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” 

As our team puts our shoulders to the task of sending a mission to Mars we have created something of lasting value for society.  Members of our Phoenix group come from far and wide.  Scientists from around the world, assembled at the University of Arizona during the mission, have contributed their experience and knowledge.  The Jet Propulsion Laboratory has managed the mission and Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest aerospace company, built the spacecraft.  Other countries have contributed, Canada is building a complex lidar for studying clouds and a weather station, Germany helps with the camera systems, Switzerland build the first atomic force microscope to fly in space, Denmark added magnets and a wind sensor.  Nearly 300 people have worked on this endeavor: scientists, engineers, managers, and technicians.  The level of skill and depth of experience is exceptional.

Representing this diverse team, I salute you future astronauts and wish you good fortune in your explorations.  We trust that the small contributions from the Phoenix mission have helped you on your path.

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