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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Alana Firl (03/10/04)

This week in class we covered basically what is currently known about Mars, and compared it to the Moon and to Earth.

One thing that especially stood out to me was how extreme the timescale is. Judging from the way the Mars time periods are divided, Mars has been around for roughly 4.6 billion years. We've only known about Mars for about 0.000000217 billion years, and to us, that seems like a long time, when it really isn't. This especially interests me, as it would appear that Mars does not have plate tectonics, and yet it has mountain ridges and valleys, like the more geologically active Earth. Olympus Mons has been active long enough and recently enough that it is 25 km high. Does this mean that Mars used to be like Earth and simply has cooled off over time? It is further from the sun, and perhaps it never was quite as hot as the Earth, but could it have had plate tectonics—or something more low-key but similar—at one time or another?

I have little knowledge of geology. I seem to recall learning that the pressure increased the closer you came to the center of the Earth, and with the increased pressure came increased temperature—enough to melt rock—and the convection currents of the molten rock was what caused the plates to move. I have no idea if that is the case, and I might have just made that up. Either way, if Mars had volcanic activity, that indicates some sort of activity under the crust. And since it is in a colder part of the solar system, perhaps it cooled off faster, and perhaps the plates (if indeed it ever had any) were larger and more sluggish to begin with, which is why everything is on a larger scale than Earth's.

I skimmed over a book in chemistry once when I wanted to feel intelligent. I recall reading that the iron atom is special in that all other atoms tend towards iron; something to do with the energy levels, I am ashamed to have forgotten the specifics. I find it interesting that Mars is covered in iron oxide. However, since I am ignorant, I don't know how to put these two together, or even if they CAN be put together. But yes; why is there so much rust on Mars? I'll look that up sometime.

Of course, the fact that water did exist on Mars is especially interesting. And the ability of life to exist under pretty much any conditions on Earth is also interesting. We look at the bacteria at the deep sea vents and we exclaim, impossible! How do they do it? And yet, they'd say the same of us. They wouldn't exist for a moment out of their environment. Just because something is wildly different from humans doesn't mean it is especially unusual; it is only perceived as unusual because of the anthropocentric viewpoint we so unconsciously use. So if life did exist in some “bizarre” situation on Mars, it shouldn't be all that surprising. Oxygen is a rather destructive molecule; the fact that humans breathe it is the result of very adept symbiotic evolutionary relationship between photosynthesis and respiration. Pure oxygen is not necessary for life, I wouldn't think. All I am saying is that ALL the “requirements” for life as we know it may not actually be requirements. Some should hold true—like the significance of carbon is very clear, but Mars has the near-equivalent of silicon. And also the polarity of water is very important, and we see that Mars has water, and perhaps if the atmosphere was different x number of years ago, it could have had liquid water on it in the past. We've seen the riverbeds.

The time is what seems to be most disconcerting. We simply don't know what has happened, but we DO know that time heals all wounds, and I'd say a billion years can destroy pretty much anything that once existed. Mars may be on a faster time scale than Earth, since it is further from the sun. Perhaps at one point it was like Earth, and simply aged faster. I wish I were more educated so I could make these claims without sounding like an idiot. (I believe I shall use this motivation to study for all my upcoming midterms.)

As for Bliny Night (thank you Jim!), I really enjoyed listening to the Russians. I managed to ask Basilevsky about getting involved in research, which is something I would really like to do both during and after college, and (along with a basic run-down of how he got into research) he offered some helpful insights, the most important of which was that any successful research must have practical applications, and must be in demand. I'll be keeping that in mind as I try to decide upon my concentration.
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