#103 March 1997
Section 126.96.36.199.103.of the Artemis Data Book
The Space Advocacy Movement has been so conditioned to the politico-economic reality of fixed and shrinking budgetary pies that taking sides, Moon or Mars, seems the only logical framework for action. It has always been the posture of MMM that we "have to" find a way to do both, or we will end up doing the "winner" badly This month's editorial and the first three articles this issue address this critical patient "choice for both".
One or two robotic missions to Mars targeted on the basis of long range site assessment will only yield a "garbage in, garbage out" picture of early life on Mars. - "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right!"
Relevant Reading from past Issues of MMM
MMM #83 MAR '95, p. 7: "Searching for Old Life on Mars"
MMM #93 MAR '96, p. 3: "MMM's Platform for Mars"
In college, you cannot take calculus without first having taken algebra, geometry, and trigonometry - these are course "prerequisites" and without a reasonable familiarity with them a student cannot be expected to grasp the essentials of the new course. So it will be, "going to school on Mars" in search of an understanding of its presumably extinct life-forms whose traces may be found here and there by "lucky strikes" in the geological record. We need to prepare ourselves for this study and search by prerequisite work in contextually relevant areas.
Admittedly, we are still discovering ever more and more about the geological context of paleontology research on Earth. But our present picture of Mars is not advanced enough to earn the rating of "sketchy". Any "Report on Fossil Evidence of Early Mars Life" would be of "C- high school caliber" if basic geological and topographic precursor missions have not been undertaken, and their data analyzed before-hand. Such precursor missions will be even more important for the success of any proposed human fossil-hunting expeditions to Mars, lest we waste exceedingly expensive "man-hours" on a world it has cost us so dearly to reach.
The following missions would give robotic and human fossil hunters both a better idea of where to look, and a better understanding of what they are seeing, when and if and wherever they find some apparent life-trace:
Geochemical ground truth probes, needed to qualify and calibrate readings from orbit could double as fossil-hunting probes. The same goes for permafrost ground truth probes. But in both cases, we will now have orbital information and on site readings that shed light on what we see with whatever fossil-detecting instruments we have on board.
Presumably, our consensus international goal in this effort is not just to find incontrovertible on site confirmation of ancient microbial life on Mars. We will want to develop a[n always tentative] picture of its levels of attainment and evolution, of its diversity, even of its eco-systems. And we will want to ferret out which nucleic acids it was based upon, and what systemic genetic similarities and differences there are between presumably native aboriginal Mars life, and presumably native aboriginal Terrestrial life. In so expensive and long-term an effort, we should aim high. For indeed, only the most shallow will find their curiosity sated by an affirmative answer to the first question.
If we agree on this, we must agree that a simple probe or two, however capably instrumented, will hardly do the job. This is a long term, open-ended project of great depth and scope and will require a supportive commitment on Earth with a "cathedral-building" dedication and mentality.
We will begin this effort with robotic probes. but we must realize now, that any thorough investigation will not only require humans-on-the-ground, but humans at the end of sustainably and repeatably short logistics lines. That is to say, this project can only be done justice as part of a continuing scientific investigation of their new "home planet" by humans who will have settled Mars. Not only can we not do it by proxy probes, we cannot do it (well enough) by proxy human scouting expeditions.
But we must start somewhere. Keep in mind that we will not be looking for "bones". It is most extremely unlikely that native vertebrate type creatures could have evolved in what is at best a billion year long window for evolution on Mars. We will be looking instead for traces of inorganic body parts like shells and glassy cases (as in our diatoms) or spicules (as in our sponges). We will also be on the lookout for correlative evidence like crawl and wiggle tracks preserved in petrified mud.
Here is a trial balloon proposal for an introductory [pre-settlement] endeavor:
(1A) ORBITAL detection of likely sedimentary deposits followed by
(1B) SURFACE rover drill-core sampling for
(2) SURFACE rovers perusing ancient beaches for
As we have suggested, Robotic Rover (drill-core) sample Retrievers should have Expert Analysis Programs on their on board computers, and deposit their hoards in tagged, beeper-activatable piles along their route for future collection by on-the-surface human crews. Only a very few samples could be rocketed back to Earth, yielding a very expensive and totally inadequate hit-and-miss result. The cost-benefit ratio of such a plan deserves rejection. We must, if we truly want to "know", commit to the open-ended incorporation of Mars into the Greater Human World as a human settled frontier.
There is no way to adequately explore what remains of the presumably extinct Martian Biosphere, except by a permanent, on-site, largely self-supplied human population.
The prospects for recovery of even partially intact DNA-type remains are small. Coming across a Martian equivalent of sample trapping amber is all but inconceivable. But we will not know anything really significant about Mars Life until we know if the nucleotide bases on which its DNA equivalent is based are the same four upon which all terrestrial life is based [A-adenine, T-thymine, C-cytosine, and G-guanine] or upon a partially [25%, 50%, or 75% commonality] or wholly different set. Stereo mirror versions of one or more are also possible. The implications of the answer, should we be able to uncover it, will be enormous.
IF the nucleotide base set is wholly the same, the implications will be either that this is the only workable possibility, or that both Mars and Earth have been seeded from the same pre-biotic source and are fraternally related or that one is an offspring of the other.
IF Mars' nucleotide base set is even partially different, the implications for the cosmos-wide diversity of life beyond "life-as-we-know-it" are profound. In that eventuality, we would be even more driven to discover everything possible about this "different Genus of Life" on ancient Mars.
Whatever the truth be about genetic metatype commonality and difference between Martian and Terrestrial Life, we will want to know how far along Martian life got before geological forces prematurely closed this epic chapter.
This is a partial sketch of work that will consume and absorb all the energies of university Mars-biology departments into the indefinite future.
So we begin our search for answers by robot probes. What should we do to protect sites in which they make positive finds? Those sites that by their geological nature promise to yield much more sample "evidence", we may want to designate and protect as "temporary" "Do Not Disturb!" set-aside zones, at least until reasonably thorough on site "human expert" perusal has been undertaken. If temporary paleontological preserves were established only on the basis of sound evidence, very little of Mars 55 million square miles ([as much as all the dry land on Earth!) would be excluded from the first round of frontier development. As these sites became more thoroughly explored by paleontologists, and the picture of local Mars life becomes more complete, this protection might be removed. Thus a "sunset" provision with renewal procedures could be part of the initial legal proclamation.
This Section of a future Mars Frontier Treaty could be agreed upon separately, well in advance of consensus or compromise on other more politically and economically controversial sections.
There is work to be done, work that in the end will absorb many people over generations. If we do not commit to doing it, it will be to our eternal shame as a sapient species.
Contents of this issue of Moon Miners' Manifesto