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Mars Space Science

Why Mars Is Not the Best Place To Look For Life 298

EccentricAnomaly writes "A story over at Science News quotes Alan Stern (former head of NASA Science missions) as saying: 'The three strongest candidates [for extraterrestrial life] are all in the outer solar system.' He's referring to Europa, Titan, and Enceladus. So why is NASA spending $2.5B on the next Mars Rover and planning to spend over $6B more on a Mars sample return when it can't find the money for much cheaper missions to Europa or Enceladus?"
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Why Mars Is Not the Best Place To Look For Life

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  • by Joe_Dragon ( 2206452 ) on Saturday October 15, 2011 @05:07PM (#37726048)

    Mars is closer and easier to send people to

    • Yup, question answered. There's never been a sign of life on the moon, but we went there anyway, it's not all about finding life. In fact, that might not even have much commercial value in the long run.
      • by mrxak ( 727974 )

        It's actually a good thing if we don't find life on Mars, so we can avoid an Andromeda Strain type of situation, or War of the Worlds in reverse, when we try to set up a colony on Mars. Sterile planets are better for terraforming. If we find life on Europa, we can happily let them keep living there. We don't want a moon base there anyway.

        • "All of these worlds are yours except Europa. Attempt no landing there." - 2010: Odyssey II, Arthur C. Clarke

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Narmacil ( 1189367 )

      This is the correct answer.

      Even if we don't find life on mars, it will be important as a second establishment of civilization, this is more important than finding other life (because it will prolong the period we can look for it)

      • by Jeremi ( 14640 )

        Even if we don't find life on mars, it will be important as a second establishment of civilization

        I disagree -- Mars will never support a civilization, as a civilization would require an ecosystem to support it, and (short of terraforming) Earth-based life cannot grow on Mars. Mars might support a research outpost or two, but that outpost will be forever dependent on supplies from Earth for its long-term survival, and therefore not viable as a redundant backup location for humanity that could help if Earth was lost.

        For an example of what would happen to a Mars outpost that doesn't get resupplied regula

    • Mars ... has about 1/3rd of earth gravity. In summer at the equator it is about 20 degrees centigrade warm, even with an atmosphere of less then 10 milli bar, less then 5 even.
      In valleys, canyons the pressure goes up to 100, or even 200 milli bars. They have 10km deep canyons on Mars, can you believe this? Colorado River Canyons are dwarfed against that.
      You have the desert. The beautiful sunsets, the amazing sun rises.
      With solar panels you can harvest sun, you can melt ice to get water, you can create metha

      • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Saturday October 15, 2011 @07:17PM (#37726754) Homepage

        Mars ... has about 1/3rd of earth gravity.

        Which is something for which we don't know much about the long-term health effects of. It might be no better than microgravity.

        They have 10km deep canyons on Mars, can you believe this? Colorado River Canyons are dwarfed against that.

        It's hardly the only massive canyon in the solar system, however. The Saturnian system has some impressive ones (like Ithaca Chasma), made all the more impressive in comparison to the size of the body they're on.

        You have the desert. The beautiful sunsets, the amazing sun rises.

        Sounds more like Earth than Mars. :P

        With solar panels you can harvest sun

        Between the greater distance and the electrostatic dust that clings to everything, not nearly as well as on Earth. At least with most other bodies in the solar system, you don't get dust clinging to all of your sensitive electronic equipment.

        you can melt ice to get water

        Water becomes more abundant the further out in the solar system you go.

        you can create methane and O2 to ave rocket fuel.

        Not readily. CO2 is such a sparse gas on Mars, and the process to convert it to methane is not trivial. On the other hand, say, on Titan, you've got an atmosphere already full of methane. LOX can be burned like jet fuel on Titan. Most of the solid bodies from Saturn on out, and to a lesser extent in the Jovian system, are covered with tholins -- all sorts of various complex organic carbon compounds, nearly all of which could be used for hybrid rocket fuel much easier than trying to produce methane on Mars. On any body with ice, you can produce LOX and LH anyway; fuel is not really the issue. At least there's lots of LH engines to choose from; there aren't many methane engines out there.

        You can fly planes or ballons.

        Only with *extreme* difficulty; Mars's atmosphere is so thin it's almost negligible. It's far much easier on Titan or Venus's habitable cloud layer (there's a layer of atmosphere in Venus with a temperature similar to a hot Phoenix day at a pressure similar to that of La Paz -- and even a normal Earth atmosphere is a lifting gas on Venus, so floating colonies are not out of the question. You could even walk outside in shirtsleeves, although you'd need a mask to provide oxygen and goggles to protect your eyes from long-term exposure to the trace carbon monoxide; the small amounts of sulfur dioxide may also be an irritant).

        You can make a greenhouse and plant groceries.

        You can do that anywhere. But it's not nearly as simple of a process to do sustainably as you're imagining.

        On Europe: ... On Enceladus ...

        It's far too simplistic to declare Europa and Enceladus's surfaces as being *all* ice. And it's not like anyone would live on the *surface* of such a world when you could so readily go underground for radiation shielding. And those are but two bodies amount the vast many possibilities in the solar system. And who says that colonization needs to occur *on* a solid body anyway? It could just as well be done in space, with only mining done to solid objects (which might not even be planetoids/moons), so you don't have to have your people locked deep in a gravity well. And if you're going to choose a gravity well, why choose a deep one when it might not actually offer any health benefits?

        Anyway, this is a whole red herring, because this was a discussion about exploration and the search for life. Colonization is so far off of a topic it shouldn't even warrant consideration at this point in time.

      • Woah, Europe is that inhospitable? /sarcasm

      • by dbIII ( 701233 )

        You can fly planes or ballons.

        Those 400 knot takeoffs and landings will be exciting, and you can forget about balloons in such an atmosphere. []

    • Plus there is no evidence that the Martians ever moved to Europa, Titan, and Enceladus.
    • by t2t10 ( 1909766 )

      There is no point in sending people to Mars; people can't do anything that a rover can't do cheaper and better.

  • Certainly it would be easier getting humans there than the outer solar system places.

  • is on Europa. I hope I live long enough to see whether I lose that bet.
    • .. would the tea party support a NASA budget that wants to spend money for going to Europe.
    • by tsa ( 15680 )

      My money is on the Earth.

  • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 ) on Saturday October 15, 2011 @05:13PM (#37726086)

    Mars is closer to us than Europa, Titan, and Enceladus. Not just physically, but culturally. Literature, film, etc, Mars has played a big role in the past 50-75 years. If you hear "little green men", the average person is going to immediately think "Mars". More people are more likely to know the name Mars as opposed to some moons orbiting Saturn ( and yes, I'll admit I had to look in the article to double check that they are in fact moons of Saturn). If you are trying to get funding for something, you go for something people will recognize, because they will be more likely to support it. Ask for something they've never heard of, and they might start wondering if it's really all that necessary. It's sad, but it's true.

    Also, people might confuse Europa with a continent, and Enceladus with a Mexican dish. :)

    • More people are more likely to know the name Mars as opposed to some moons orbiting Saturn ( and yes, I'll admit I had to look in the article to double check that they are in fact moons of Saturn).

      Should have looked more closely, Europa orbits Jupiter [].

      Arthur C. Clark would be rolling in his grave...

      • by Nidi62 ( 1525137 )

        More people are more likely to know the name Mars as opposed to some moons orbiting Saturn ( and yes, I'll admit I had to look in the article to double check that they are in fact moons of Saturn).

        Should have looked more closely, Europa orbits Jupiter [].

        Arthur C. Clark would be rolling in his grave...

        See what I mean? Unless it's something you are actively interested in, it's easy to get them wrong. If you are trying to change peoples' priorities, you have to start with something they know. Then you can move on to things they might be unfamiliar with.

        • I get what you are saying, but when it comes to matters of science, I don't think we should demean it by marketing it like a soft drink or brand of clothing.

          I think we should instead focus our energies on educating people as to why these places make good choices, instead of trying to cash in on pop culture tropes that have no scientific basis.

          I admit, though, that the latter method is usually more effective, at least here in the U.S., anyway...

          • The average person is ignorant (stupid?), short-sighted, and primarily interested in personal enjoyment/amusement. If you cannot market science to this audience you will never get funding to do science.
    • by Jimbookis ( 517778 ) on Saturday October 15, 2011 @05:39PM (#37726232)

      Mars is closer to us than Europa, Titan, and Enceladus. Not just physically, but culturally. Literature, film, etc,

      Yes, that I have never quite gotten into or understood that Europan tentacle porn as much as I have the Martian three fingered face hugger porn. Titanian porn makes me feel inadequate.

    • Bingo! This is all about public relations and nothing about the scientific justification. Taxpayers want to dream they will a day send someone (even just to die) on Mars, they feel it is a great way to spend money, while sending a probe on Saturnian moons seeking for life indications there isn't that great for them. In fact, people don't care that much about extraterresterial life, they care much more about going somewhere else to prove they are a so marvelous creature capable of spending ressources on usel

    • by JustOK ( 667959 )

      Mars has a better PR team.

    • by EdIII ( 1114411 )

      In all fairness Enceladus does sound like Enchirito, but a lighter, healthier version.

  • Mars is where the little green men are from! The other planets and moons are obviously uninhabited.

    • You are joking, but I fear this is the actual reason. People are somehow enchanted with Mars and will never let go until they find something.

  • The invaders came from Mars in "War of the Worlds", written in 1898, and people have been fixated on it ever since.

    Don't expect either the U.S. military or NASA to update their plans for invasion based on almost 115 years of scientific research.

    Seriously, the plan was to go to Mars since JFK's time, because he thought the Russians might beat us to the moon. NASA never updated the roadmap.

  • We could learn a lot from exploring the planet closest to us, before venturing out to other places.

  • Mars is a desert where humans cannot live. Even if NASA found dinosaur bones in the dirt on Mars, or whatever other proof that there has been life on Mars millions of years ago, who will benefit from that other than a few scientists who will publish the discovery in Science? Mars is inhospitable for vertebrates, and even for plants. Maybe they hope to find oil there, but Earth has not run out of oil yet. Europa, Enceladus, and Titan, on the other hand, might harbor different very life forms, perhaps even s
    • by Salvo ( 8037 )

      Humans have lived in deserts before. Common Theory is that Homo Sapiens evolved in the grasslands of Africa and thrived in the deserts. Bedouin Arabs still roam the deserts of the Middle East.

      Of all the planets in our solar system, Mars is (theoretically) the easiest to Terraform. It has lots of carbon dioxide and Water Ice, which (with the right bacteria) could be used to establish a carbon-based ecosystem. It's Day is only a half-hour or so longer than 24 hours so it wouldn't be too much of a cultural sho

  • Europa (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MrVictor ( 872700 ) on Saturday October 15, 2011 @05:43PM (#37726256)
    Yes, Europa has a probably has a better chance of having life in its subsurface oceans but there is that wee problem of penetrating through its icy crust. How the hell are you going to penetrate through 20 kilometers of ice (minimum estimate) without using a massive thermonuclear bomb? And then if you did, any life in the vicinity of the blast would be annihilated and then the thawed hole would freeze over before a probe could find anything. Yea, forget about Europa.
    • Seems to me it's much, much easier than all that.

      You need a base station and a penetrator. The penetrator is hooked to the base station via a tether that can play out. It has a nuclear power source that allows it to heat its exterior above the melting point of ice. The penetrator melts a hole, gravity pulls it down, and the tether gets nicely secured above it as the ice refreezes. Keep melting and playing tether out until you hit water, then do whatever - deploy a sub, sit around and look, etc.

  • This seems unfair (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JoshuaZ ( 1134087 ) on Saturday October 15, 2011 @05:45PM (#37726266) Homepage

    This seems unfair at multiple levels. First, we understand the basic Martian environment a lot better than other environments so sending things there are easier. Second we know from the Viking probes that Mars has weird chemistry going on in its surface. We still don't know what exactly happened there. The basic results of the Viking experiments seemed to be consistent with life but no complex carbon compounds were found. We now know that this may have been due to the presence of perchlorates in the surface material which could have destroyed the organic compounds when the samples were heated. Mars is still one of the most promising locations for life.

    That said, there are less good reasons why Mars is a frequent target. Sending things to Mars takes a lot less time than sending things to the outer systems. That means if one is a scientist one would rather work on a project that sends something to Mars than something that goes far away. Second, Mars has a place in the popular mind that these various moons do not.

    The real question that should be being asked is not why there's so much funding for Mars compared to other locations but why there's so little funding in general. The repeatedly canceled Europa missions would be in the cost range of a few hundred million dollars. This is a tiny amount when one compares it for example to how much money the US spends on Afghanistan monthly. The US has messed up priorities. That's why even as we speak, the Russians are doing a sample return mission to Phobos which will launch in a few weeks []. If the Russians were still dirty commies the US would be in an absolute panic and we'd have congressional hearings asking why the US isn't doing something similar. I hope that as China becomes more of a boogeyman the US will start taking space seriously again, if not for the good of humanity, at least for old-fashioned xenophobia. And I suppose that in the long-run I really would prefer that functioning democracies explore and colonize space than other countries, but that's so far in the future at the current rate of exploration that it doesn't seem to be immediately relevant. Right now, we need to just get some people substantially interested in exploring beyond our little rock.

  • All these worlds are yours, except Europa.
    Attempt no landing there
    Use them together
    Use them in peace

    • by Jeremi ( 14640 )

      All these worlds are yours, except Europa.

      Meddling crotchety old aliens can bite me. We'll go where we damn well please.

  • is, why Venus seems like a tabu for exploration and research?

    • is, why Venus seems like a tabu for exploration and research?

      872 degree F surface temperature, 93 bar surface pressure, a bunch of hydrochloric acid that, along with the temperature and pressure melts everything in a few minutes.

      What's not to like?

  • by Hentes ( 2461350 ) on Saturday October 15, 2011 @06:13PM (#37726422)

    other than just looking for life. Also, Mars probes can operate for years not just for hours like the one on Titan.

  • NASA isn't there to find extraterrestrial life, it's there to get funds to do exploration. On that basis, do you think it will be easier for them to finance a mission to Mars or one to some distant rock that nobody outside the scientific community has heard about, cares about or could find on a map?

    If they fail to find life on Mars (despite the David Bowie song), they can recover by saying "we haven't failed, we just haven't succeeded YET". However if they "waste" billions on a mission to one of the more l

    • That's part of it, but looking for life on Europa is a mission FAR beyond our current state of the art. It's not going to be on the surface, far too much radiation and no atmosphere. It's postulated to be in a postulated water ocean postulated to be buried under a tens or hundreds of miles thick ice sheet. We have no direct evidence that the ocean is there, we have no direct evidence of how thick the ice might be, and to some degree, what it's made of.

      Even taking all the presuppositions as ac

      • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Saturday October 15, 2011 @07:28PM (#37726806) Homepage

        1) The simplest boring device is merely a boring (pardon the pun) RTG or nuclear reactor, melting its way in slowly over the course of years.
        2) You don't have to bore to get to the subsurface; ice volcanism brings it up for you. Heck, an Enceladus probe doesn't even have to *land*, thanks to its geysers. BTW, Enceladus isn't the only Saturnian moon with ice geysers -- just the one with the biggest ice geysers.
        3) Please propose an alternative Europa hypothesis to a subsurface ocean.

        I noticed you didn't discus Titan. Titan should be an incredibly easy body to explore due to its combination of a thick atmosphere and low gravity -- hot air or helium balloons, powered blimps, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, variable-pitch wing aircraft, autogyros, etc. While the Delta-V requirements to get there are certainly high, they're tempered somewhat by the very easy aerocapture. It's an ongoing laboratory of organic chemistry due to the photocatalytic chemical reactions in its upper atmosphere (likely creating the tholins found all over the Saturnian system -- which we really know very little about, apart from that they're complex organic chemical compounds). It has seasonal and permanent organic lakes, ice volcanism dredging material up from the warmer subsurface, tectonic activity, and on and on. Honestly, of all the bodies in the solar system, I think Titan calls out the most for exploration.

    • by Rei ( 128717 )

      Find on a *map*? Of the solar system? Is that a joke?

      You really think a lay person can't understand "a moon of Saturn" or "a moon of Jupiter"?

  • by scorp1us ( 235526 ) on Saturday October 15, 2011 @07:15PM (#37726740) Journal

    NASA has no real scientific focus. It's just all over the place. If I were in charge, I would give it one primary mission, and a secondary mission, and then have a tertiary agenda.

    1. Detection and defense of incoming bodies, including the development of better D&D technology. Eventually this will be fulfilled and go into maintenance mode, where Agenda 2 then gets primary funding.
    2. Find life using existing technology including the development of better D&D technology. While this will never be complete (once we find it we can keep on finding it) we will look for more and more sophisticated forms. (I assume extraterrestrial bacterial detection would happen first, then complex organisms)
    3. All other efforts on determining the nature of the universe. JWST, Hubble, etc.

    As far as I am concerned NASA has no reason to send humans off planet. We should be developing Avatar-like technology for near earth operations and AI driven tech for stuff where the lag is too long.

  • Just try looking a bit harder. You may wish to check out the leads at []

    Then again, would you really want to find life there and open that bag of worms?

  • In fact, it's cold as hell.

  • Seriously, if we're going to consider best places to search for life, then Earth probably has to be on the top of the list. It's the closest planet to us and very easy for us to study, it's solidly in the temperature zone necessary for water-based life and even has liquid water oceans on its surface, and finally, we already know there's life there and what it looks like. So if we're going to look for life based solely on which place has the best chances of finding it, then we need not look past Earth.
  • Really - the Moon landings were also a political stunt and nothing more. The uppity-ups are not interested in science. Just in trophies. Titan, Europa and other moons of the outer planets are just too unknown by the average Leno Jay-Walking crowd who can barely tell you who the first president was but can tell you every word Snookie spouts out on a given episode. Mars, tho, is a viable trophy because even with the intelligence drain that is sucking the brains out of the average public citizen while they bak

Things are not as simple as they seems at first. - Edward Thorp