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Missions To Mars: Mapping, Probing And Plundering The Red Planet


In the first month of 2020, Forbes was all
excitement about fresh opportunities for plunder and
conquest. Titled “2020: The Year We Will Conquer Mars”,
the contribution by astrophysicist Paul M. Sutter was less
interested in the physics than the conquest. A potentially
very crowded scene was described. Various countries would
send
their cluttering devices to “orbit, rove, sample,
dig, and probe as much of that precious red dirt as they
can, delivering untold (scientific) wealth and scope out
potential future landings sites.”

This year is
already proving ferociously busy, with orbiters and rovers
being deployed to map and extract from the planet. Much
thought is being given to such trendy terms as In-Situ
Resource Utilisation (ISRU), which entails the potential use
of Martian mineral sources that would reduce the costs of
exploration. The United States Geological Survey, in advertising
a research position
last year connected with the
process, was not shy in describing it. The research position
as part of the Mendenhall Research Fellowship Program
entails “Evaluating mineral resources on Mars for
exploration and colonization.”

The USGS explains
how researchers are currently investigating ways “of
harvesting minerals from the surface of Mars to produce
habitat infrastructure that would protect inhabitants from
gene-damaging solar radiation, cryogenic-like night time
temperatures, and micrometeorite bombardment.” A veritable
smorgasbord is on offer: clays, glass and fibreglass could
be made from quartz; antifreeze from perchlorates. Water ice
would supply drinking water and hydrogen from electrolysis.
This could “combine with atmospheric CO2 to produce fuel
or plastics for use in 3D printing equipment and spare
parts.”

Much of this tallies with the ventures of
such space conquistadores as Elon Musk, whose SpaceX is most
optimistic
about subjugating inhospitable conditions.
The planet had “decent sunlight”. Yes, it was cold,
“but we can warm it up.” Plants could be grown by
“just compressing the atmosphere” and “you would be
able to lift heavy things and bound around” given that
gravity was a mere 38% that of Earth.

Potential
colonialists are coming in from all quarters. There was the
United Arab Emirates-developed Al-Amal (Hope) orbiter, which
should have told you all you need to know about this Mars
gambit. Resources are in the offing and there is no reason
why Gulf States cannot have their slice.

The
Khaleej Times cooed with contentment
at the entry of the device into Mars’ orbit on February 9.
“The success of the Hope Probe Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI)
has brought the UAE under the spotlight once again with
#ArabsToMars topping trends: a whopping 2.7 billion
engagements around the world.” There was nothing
scientific in this; what mattered was Arabs making their
mark on space exploration and getting in with the best of
them. The Mars mission “marked the Arab world’s entry
alongside global [heavy]weights in the space race and
catapulted the UAE as the first Arab nation, and the fifth
in the world, to reach the Red Planet.” Arab News
also
noted
that the Hope probe’s entry into Martian orbit
made the UAE space agency the “fifth… to successfully
reach the red planet’s gravitational zone, joining NASA,
the former Soviet Union, the European Space Agency and
India.”

Politicians similarly could not give a fig
about the science. “The overwhelming media coverage of the
Mars Hope Probe reflects,” claimed
the delighted Minister of Cabinet Affairs, Mohammad Al
Gergawi, “the significance of the historic event as a
milestone in the inspiring story of the Emirates.” Mindful
that his words would be reported widely, the minister took
care to tag on what is essentially a self-interested venture
a broader human purpose. “The Hope Probe is a national
achievement that brings pride to every Emirati and Arab and
an inspiration for each individual in the world who believes
in the role of science in creating a better future for
humanity.”

The propaganda outlets were also glowing.
The UAE Government Media Office even went so far as to praise
itself
through its head, Saeed Al Eter, who claimed that
the information furnished to media outlets “reflects the
vital role that media plays as a fundamental pillar that
shares the UAE’s story with the world.” Pity there was a
total absence of critique of this function, though Omran
Sharaf, project manager of the Mohammad Bin Rashid Space
Centre, was prim and proper in emphasising
that this was a “science mission” replete with
“scientific instruments” which needed “to provide
accurate data to the scientific
community”.

China’s Tianwen-1 combination orbiter
and rover also put in their appearance. On February 10,
Tianwen-1 made its entry into the planet’s orbit. Film
footage
has been relayed back to Earth showing Mars’
atmosphere, or “atmospheric limb”. The state news agency
Xinhua offers
a more detailed description. “The video fully recorded
Mars gradually entering the field of view, the slight
vibration of the probe after the engine was ignited, and the
probe’s flight from Mars day to Mars night.” The China
National Space Administration was sufficiently pleased to
claim that the probe had sent “blessings from distant Mars
on the occasion of Chinese Lunar New Year.”

On
February 18, NASA will hold up the US side of the show with
a landing of the Perseverance rover inside the Jezero
Crater. Its remit: to search for signs of life and gathering
several dozen samples. These will be returned to Earth via a
joint NASA-European Space Agency effort.

Remarks on
the Mars missions are heavily sanitised and curated in the
name of human endeavour and excellence. This conveys an
artificial impression, clouding what are essentially
scrambling efforts to conquer and carve up a planet. Earth
is doomed; there are other options on the table of the solar
system. Ryerson University’s Sara Mazrouei, a planetary
scientist, does not deviate from the theme. “Each of these
missions have different goals,” she
told
CTVNews.ca via telephone, “but ultimately it’s
to learn more about the habitability of Mars and whether
it’s suitable for life, or was suitable for
life.”

The US-based non-profit Planetary Society is
convinced
that multiple missions by several space powers
can only be a good thing. More countries exploring Mars and
moving into space meant “more discoveries and
opportunities for global collaboration.” Earth realities
featuring geopolitical rivalries will play no part. “Space
exploration,” comes the blunderingly naïve observation
“brings out the best in us all, and when nations work
together everyone wins.”

Thank goodness there are no
Martians to see this fabulous, winning future.

Dr.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College,
Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:
bkampmark@gmail.com

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