“Now is a good time for this book” – The Red Planet by Simon Morden

IMG_23Aug2021at142034Now is a good time for this book. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk wants to send a million people to Mars by 2050. He feels it is important for humanity to become a multi-planet species as a kind of life insurance policy in the event that we should either destroy ourselves entirely or be subject to a natural calamity, such as a major meteorite strike or some other Earth threatening event. He anticipates terraforming Mars to support human life, and plans to build cities under vast glass domes and ship people to them by the hundreds in reusable spacecraft that may one day become as regular as chartered flights to holiday destinations. It seems like the stuff of science fiction but Elon Musk seems pretty convinced that he can do it.

Author Simon Morden is also fascinated by the planet Mars. Called the Red Planet because of the iron oxide in its rock, Mars is Morden’s missed opportunity. He ordered a piece of a meteorite from NASA’s collection when, as a young student, he had just completed a doctorate on the magnetic properties of meteorites. It was rusty and unpromising so he tossed it aside and found another subject. This must have been one of those occasions when you’d want to find the nearest crater and bury your head inside it, because what he actually had was a meteorite from Mars, one of a tiny group of Martian rocks that had landed here on Earth at some point in the past. Devastated by the lost chance, he abandoned his research and started writing science fiction. That was 30 years ago. Today, Simon Morden is reaching out for Mars again.

Morden has a Master’s in geophysics, and his descriptions of the Martian landscape are anchored by his knowledge of geology. There are moments when the boundary between fiction and science seems a little fluid, but there is so much conjecture around Mars and how it formed that certainties about the history of the planet are complicated by competing theories. But whatever the history of Mars may have been, in its present state the planet does not have the Goldilocks advantages of Earth. Mars is mostly made up of carbon dioxide and its atmosphere is 100 times thinner than Earth’s, so you would die within minutes if you took your spacesuit off. Recently, NASA has succeeded in oxygenating Mars’ atmosphere by heating the carbon dioxide and stripping out the oxygen. The result so far has been ten minutes of breathable air for one astronaut – so not quite enough for a stroll outside one of Elon Musk’s dusty city domes. Food would also be an issue, so cargo ships containing supplies would have to ship goods in from Earth until someone finds a way of growing vegetables, as in Ridley Scott’s movie, The Martian. No surface water has been found on Mars, although there is certainly evidence that there was once water, and permafrost exists trapped in the ground as ice. So the atmosphere is unbreathable, the soil is toxic. There is too much radiation, and far too much dust to breathe in safely, but, as Morden admits,

“The first humans on Mars would always be one step from disaster…(…)…We could put large, thin, silvered mirrors in orbit and reflect the sun downwards. If we melted the polar ice, we’d immediately double the current air pressure”.

It still all seems the stuff of science fiction.

Historically, the motivation for space travel has always been to discover the origins of life and perhaps even the presence of life on other planets. It is becoming increasingly clear though that life, if it exists elsewhere at all in the universe, is way beyond our current reach to find. In The Red Planet’s chapter titled ‘Life’, Morden doesn’t give us clear-cut answers about whether there is life on Mars because the jury is still out on that. We haven’t yet explored beneath the surface of the planet. But he does give us tantalising indicators. Life usually requires water, but the atmosphere of Mars today (though all the evidence of the surface rock formations point to water having been there in the past) “is too thin and too cold to permit it”. Instead the ice bypasses its liquid state and vaporises directly into gas, only to settle again as ice on some other hostile mountain of this stunningly inhospitable red planet.

The winning feature of this book is that the chapters are set out as individual stories about aspects of Mars, each with its own narrative and varying from the very nerdy to the slightly science fictional. But the writing is a triumph, and the descriptions make you think that you’re on Mars already.

“It’s cold. So cold that the frost glittering on the rocks has been wrung out of the air itself, frozen and turned to ice. The Sun won’t rise for another hour, but it’s already light enough to see by, although too diffuse to cast shadows. Above you is a sky of pale pink and pastel blue, shot through with white, hair-thin streamers that might be high clouds chasing away from the dawn.”

But the fundamental question in the end must be, why do we even want to colonise Mars, apart from as a life insurance policy for our species? Well, perhaps for the same sorts of reasons that the Romans were lured to Britain in 55BC: tin, iron and gold. The red planet gets its name from iron oxide, which is sprinkled on its surface. But there are other metals on Mars, including gold, so clearly exploitation has to be an issue. As Morden himself admits, “Humans are successful not because we fit in with our environment but because we alter it to suit us”. So the big question is not can we go to Mars, but how might we ruin or exploit it when we get there?

Any Cop?: Offers a stunning vision of what it would be like to walk upon Mars or to navigate its dried up seas and rivers. It examines the landscape of Mars and tries to understand how it was formed

Lucille Turner

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