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 (04/14/04)

The bulk of this class was spent listening to Jim Garvin's narration of his slideshow, and then asking him questions.

First of all, I was impressed with how easy it seemed for the guy to communicate with a class that he couldn't even see. If I were in his position, I'd be tempted to repeatedly check to hear if people were still listening. Garvin's probably used to this sort of thing though, but still, his presentation (even in the absence of him ) was incredibly seamless.

One of the many things that were mentioned especially stands out in my mind, which is the potential problem of contamination of Mars. It would be extremely misleading if a sample brought back to Earth by a probe were somehow contaminated with traces of earthly life—the ancient fossil bacteria on Martian meteorites in Antarctica caused quite a stir because people were uncertain as to whether the bacteria truly came from Mars, or if it grew on the meteorite after it hit the Earth. And that's on Earth ; the remoteness of Mars makes it even more difficult to prove whether it was contamination or not.

I thought Garvin's solution of taking people to Mars (instead of Mars to people) was fairly ingenious, despite the complications surrounding human space travel. It does seem extremely difficult to send people on that long of a mission. The proposed 200-300 metric tons that must be launched does seem very cumbersome. Also the worries about a safe Martian landing—it would be quite a disaster to safely reach Mars only to crash land. Too bad people are so delicate—the range of conditions that a human can survive in is relatively narrow. It seems as though what humans have in terms of biological complexity is compensated by their relative frailty. I recall Garvin mentioning that he would have liked to practice landing spacecraft in Antarctica. Could Antarctica be used as a possible practice site for humans if they were to go into space?

Also interesting is how subjective the Mars exploration program is. It's too bad that governmental defense spending has always been so high while science usually gets shoved onto the back burner, although at least in America and other European countries scientists know how to work together. That's funny how the USSR effort was competitive instead of collaborative. I wonder if Khrushchev would have an alternate opinion to offer for that perspective on the Soviet space program.

The rock that Spirit was last observing—the windswept one—must have been there for a very long time. I wonder how dynamic the surface of Mars is—do things move around very much? We know that there is a lot of dust, and that the ice caps may be receding due to a current high obliquity, and that there most likely was water at one time or another, and that the volcanoes were active in the fairly recent past, but without plate tectonics, there surely wasn't very much surface change that occurred from beneath. It sounds like a very static planet—was it always like that?
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