The Spark of Life

English: Taken during mobility testing, this i...

English: Taken during mobility testing, this image is of the Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, inside the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scientists say that life on Earth began spontaneously–but “spontaneous” is a loaded word.  What precisely caused it?  What range of conditions need to prevail in order to get life going.

The critters on this planet, including us, seem very well suited to its particular patterns of night and day, heat and cold, and light and dark.  Our moon also, with its particular mass and distance, helps generate the dynamo inside the Earth that produces the magnetosphere that protects us from cosmic rays.  Does the spark to start a planet like this one, vibrant with self-sufficient life, require such a rare, seemingly random cosmic combination, or are the physical requirements broader?

That is the question that Mars can answer.  There are places here on Earth that support microbiological life in hostile conditions similar to those on Mars, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that similar conditions can START life. The Mars Science Laboratory is the latest, most capable attempt to ask Mars that question. It might be the last chance to get a good answer too, because very soon there could be so much human built hardware heading for Mars that any life found could be suspect as to its origins.

One question Curiosity has already answered defines the survivability of the journey.  It measured the cosmic radiation on the way to Mars, and continues to measure it on Mars. Those results seem to show that humans can get there and back with currently available space flight technology quickly enough that the radiation wouldn’t kill them. This will eliminate one of the major persuasive barriers to a human mission to Mars and open up new discussion on the capabilities and timeline for such a project.

Curiosity is great, but with its landing last week, and the science that it has already done, I think it has put Mars at the limit of what a probe can do.  More appropriately, it has put Mars within the human envelope, making the inconvenience and slow working up period of any more rover missions burdensome.  If some people can call a manned mission to the Moon “been there done that” then I think that the same can now be said for robotic missions to Mars.  I heard that Curiosity carries at best a 2 megapixel camera, not because NASA scrimped on the imagery budget but because 2 megapixels was pretty good back in 2004 when the MSL project was put together and proposed and the tech for it was etched in stone. Aboard the ISS, astronauts just bring their cell phone cameras with them when they go. Not only that but Mars is more than 7 light minutes away.  These are isolated examples of the trouble with robotic probes…the work moves very slowly.  We go to a lot of extra trouble and uncertainty to prepare dumb machines to function autonomously, with slow, inflexible and limited tools and computers that become outdated long before we send them far from the real brains involved in the effort. Humans have never built a machine that can replace them by more than a fraction of a percent but we still need to learn how to go it ourselves safely.  I think the best way to learn is like my daddy always said, “Roll up your sleeves, put on your hip-boots, and jump in!”

Another thing…just because Earth possessed the “spark of life” once before doesn’t mean it will always have it.  It is true that Mars remains a poor substitute for Earth, no matter how bad Earth can get, but the things that some of us can learn while living on Mars might come in handy for humanity some day if conditions on Earth deteriorate.  A single species-killing meteor or type 8 caldera eruption could plunge this planet into a ten year long ice age.  As a species we might survive such a disaster, but would so many die that our culture becomes lost?  Or are we even worthy to survive if all we have learned to do is sit contentedly on the ground and watch the sun pass overhead while we send robots to do the jobs of men?

We all saw how excited everyone was to see a robot land on Mars…imagine how much bigger the cool factor will be when we send a team of humans.  That is because real people possess the spark of life and robots don’t.  That spark has a purpose…it gives us breath, but then it sets us moving in interesting directions.  The target we call Mars abounds with phenomenal  accomplishments, but it is also littered with the bones of failure.  Now that we have proven repeatedly that we can succeed on Mars, will our final failure be a lack of  initiative to follow up on those successes?  Will we save our spark of life because we set out and took chances and learned how that spark works, or might we just vanish into the oblivion of the mega-fauna of this planet that weren’t equipped to adapt?

Or is that what the spark of life is all about after all…the willingness and ability to grow?

~ by Bill Housley on August 11, 2012.

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