Geo016 - Exploration of Mars

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Geo016 / Exploration of Mars / (M) 3:00-5:20 / Lincoln Field 105 / Prof. James Head

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Andrew Baum (04/08/04)

We hit on a lot of different points today in class, many of which interested me a lot. First we mentioned the re-entry process of landing on Earth, and then how we might use the same method to land on Mars. I previously knew about heat shields and parachutes, etc., but I always wondered how they decided that was the best way to approach landing. For example, who came up with the idea to have astronauts just freefall back to earth as a large fireball? I don't know enough to suggest an alternative, but I just figured that scientists and engineers are usually very concerned about the lives of astronauts, and I would think that falling as a fireball would pose some sort of threat. But….it has worked for them so far, so who am I to second-guess?

We next began a discussion on the atmosphere of Mars. I knew from articles earlier in the semester that Mars' atmosphere contained a lot of methane. I didn't know where it all came from. I took away from the discussion that possible sources of the methane could be from volcanoes, life, or shooting stars (meteorites). I think that there are certain tests that could be done to better figure out where the source of methane is. We could test near volcanoes on Mars and see whether the methane is more concentrated there. We could analyze the methane and determine whether it is that same composition to that of life causing methane. Maybe we could even find concentrations of methane on the meteorites surrounding Mars and determine if that is the source. I think in time, we will develop techniques that will allow us to get a better idea of where this methane in Mars' atmosphere originated. Someone mentioned that we should do a test on the heat shield that fell off and was found in the rover's picture, because it was hit by many meteorites while soaring through Mar's atmosphere and may have clues about the source of methane in the atmosphere. Professor Head said there aren't any tools we can use to test it because scientists were not expecting to come across it again. This adds to my belief that human exploration is necessary to get the most out of an exploration. Maybe if someone was up there, they could somehow take a sample, or perform a test that wasn't programmed into the Rover, that could test for methane around the heat shield.

The class then got into human exploration again, more specifically finding meteorites in Antarctica. I never really thought that meteorites are falling all over the earth, and the only reason we find them in Antarctica most often, is because they are easier to spot there as they contrast the white snow and ice. I thought that for some reason, having to do with the orientation of the earth, or maybe some magnetic/ orbital/ gravitational field caused them to fall on the tip of the Earth, Antarctica. I was surprised to hear that they are falling all over the place just as much as in Antarctica, but we just cant find them anywhere else (in large quantities).

For the next segment of class, Lillian discussed her spring break, and her involvement in a NASA space exploration program. I have always heard about those planes that take people into a simulation zero gravity, and thought they were really incredible. It has always been something that I want to try, but in all likelihood will probably not end up doing it. I thought her stories were fascinating, especially about what happens when you become hypoxic. I have a funny suspicion that I would either be one of the few to pass out, or burst out laughing. I would be curious to see how it actually affected me. I never knew the actual flight pattern that the plane took. I always thought that it went up really high, and then took a steep turn down, and while in that steep descent you would feel weightlessness. The idea that the plane flew in a parabolic motion surprised me. I think it is cool because in that flight pattern, you would be able to experience zero G's and two G's. I liked listening to the experiments that were tested and which ones worked. It got me thinking what experiment I would design if I had the opportunity to be in this program. I would probably want to involve animals somehow, but I don't know why that would be necessary for space travel…so it probably wouldn't end up happening. After hearing Lillian's stories, which I thank her for sharing, I am even more jealous of her exciting NASA experience.

We then got the joys of listening to “A Signal From Mars.” My feelings are pretty much what I mentioned in class. I was expecting a rather fierce march. I expected it to have a threatening sound to it and be heavy and loud. This was more like a merry-go-round! I was really shocked when I listened to it for the first time. It is too happy to be how the general population thought of aliens in that time period. It is a pretty standard march, nothing that unique about it, except for that there is a lot of repetition throughout the piece. I enjoyed the music, and may actually want to pursue investigating it for a final project. I am glad I could share that with the class, though, because it gave a change from our regular class setting. If anyone wants a copy, let me know and I can arrange to get you one.

The last segment of class, we discussed the President's Initiative, and human exploration. I was shocked to hear the figures for the amount of money spent on Mars exploration, International wars, and education. I almost feel like the US's money is sometimes being allocated in the wrong areas. I think our society could afford to put some more money into the educational system, but that is just my personal opinion. I was also surprised to hear that some of the money NASA takes in is “given back” to the society in the form of consumer products. That helps justify giving money to NASA, if they are working for their program and for the rest of us.

Our discussion on why we explore was interesting. Some reasons we came up with that I agree with were curiosity, power (leaders of the world), competition with other countries, power (selfishness), we want resources, we must find something else to explore, and we have a fear of not knowing/ having an explanation for everything. I think these are all valid reasons why us as humans want to explore and learn more. I think a major influence in outer space exploration is competition with other countries. We are still involved in the space race, and we want to be the first to make the next giant leap for space exploration. Yes, we are curious also, but I think we want others to look at the US as the best, most powerful, most advanced, and respect us for that. I always wonder how much more advanced we, as an entire world, would be if every country worked together and shared information. It will never happen, but I often wonder if there would be a significant change, increase or decrease, in our universal knowledge as humans. I agree with what Professor Head said also, that exploration and discovery is a continuum. Once we find one thing, it leads us to many more unknowns that need to be discovered. However, even though we have this motivation to go right to Mars and explore with humans, I don't know if we are ready to go. We still have sooooooo much more to learn about the planet, and are making new discoveries each day. Maybe in several years, when they are planning on having the mission, we will be ready, but we certainly are not ready now, and we may not be for some time. I think if we jump the gun by sending people to Mars too quickly, and let the space race influence our actions too much, than we will not get the most out of the mission. If we take time to prepare and learn more about the planet first, we will have a better idea of what to do when we are up there, what to expect, and what we still need to learn. But, I trust that when the time comes, we will be well ready to go to Mars. I look forward to hearing about it too! It will be a story I can tell my grandparents some day…I watched the first person walk on Mars. Probably by then it will be old news and we will be walking on Jupiter or Pluto!
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