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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Lillian Ostrach (04/08/04)

Fundamental questions arise when we, as humans, ponder our origins. Moreover, with the current study of Mars, it is important to remember that so much of what we currently know is a result of exploration. The question: What exactly is exploration, and can we give it a concrete meaning, place it neatly into a mold and satisfy all opinions? was asked in seminar, and instead of being a lead-in to discussion of Mars, it became a full-blown discussion of the motivations, ideas, beliefs, revolving around the world exploration. In this week's seminar, more than any other time, I think we really focused and discussed a topic in great depth with many relevant presented details. Although we didn't proceed very much into the current exploration of Mars, I think the discussion about exploration as an idea, as an action, and its implications was very beneficial because the entire class participated and voiced personal opinions. Moreover, I think the discussions of personal opinions was important because not only were they personal opinions, but people provided examples and proof to further their own beliefs as opposed to leaving them “empty arguments,” so to speak.

So what exactly is exploration and what purpose does it serve? First, I think it's important to ask one's self, “what does the term “exploration” mean to me?” There is no correct answer to this question. Personally, I believe (as do many others) that exploration is a method of discovery and experimentation to attempt to explain the unknown. Humans, like many other organisms, are quite inquisitive and curious, so it follows that, as a result of natural instincts, we will traverse and try to become familiar with our surroundings. Humans also like to have answers to everything…so by “exploring,” answers to this unknown might be found.

When we think of exploration, many thoughts come to mind, however, can the idea of exploration be confined to a single idea? Many times we think of individual explorers, like Neil Armstrong, who was the first man on the Moon. Sometimes we think of George Washington Carver, who explored the peanut during cotton crop failures in the South. It's not uncommon to think about the Puritans and Pilgrims who left England to find a more accepting home. And we mustn't forget men like Hitler and Mussolini who “explored” other countries in search of power and political control. There are infinite examples of exploration—indeed, it is possible that the majority of events occurring in history, as well as in a person's life, can be considered to be exploratory endeavors. I mean, why are we at Brown? I am at Brown because I was ready to open myself up to new experiences and opportunities, as well as pursue an academic career that interested me. All of these ideas, as well as more, contribute to the big picture that gives rise to a definition for the word EXPLORATION.

In seminar, we did have a little time to discuss the current Mars program, which held my interest because so much of our exploration of the planet can be broken down into simple questions such as “what will we do there?,” “how do we get there?,” “what will we learn there?.” These questions stem from dissecting the idea of exploration as a whole in order to break it down into segments of specific goals, access to these goals, support of said goals, relative roles of the goals, and the results and legacy from the exploration. It is not easy to sit down and rank what goals are the most important at the start of an exploratory mission, however, the time spent completing such a task is time well spent. If certain protocol is not created and followed to the letter, lives can be lost, monetary support can be suspended, and science, as a result, will take a step backward. A scientist always has a procedure for an experiment, s/he would never think to throw the instructions away and randomly mix chemicals, in fact, that's just looking for trouble. Systematic experiments and studies will reap the benefits of specific scientific endeavors. It is known by geologists and engineers alike (as well as other scientists) that our exploration of our planet, the Moon, and other planets by automated and human missions have taught us that the Moon and Mars, specifically, hold clues to Earth's past, as well as future. I think that, above all, this fact must be kept in the front of our minds as we not only learn more about Mars in seminar, but as we receive new data and images from Spirit and Opportunity. The two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have made countless contributions to knowledge about Mars up to this point in time. They are truly explorers of the Red Planet, however, I believe that quite often we forget that, while a primary focus is on finding life (or the absence of it) on Mars, the data sent back to Earth will help us learn more about our planet as well.

This mistake is made quite frequently and I believe that it is a shortcoming of exploration. Because we must define specific goals when we go “exploring,” it is quite easy to forget about the big picture and how this specific information relates to the larger scale model. The specific bits of data hold almost no significance on their own and require a base upon which to compare. This is true with the search for life—we know life on Earth is based upon specific substances and cannot survive in their absence, however, this knowledge is our only basis for determining if life exists elsewhere. If we did not have this benchmark, we could not define a goal on Mars as being a search for life since there would be no meaning to the term, “life.” Since this is so, we must always make a concerted effort to maintain focus on specific goals and ideals in addition to the application of gained knowledge to a larger scale. This synthesis is a key part of exploration and, if forgotten, invalidates the search in its entirety.
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