The Martian Desert

Mars is creepy, isn’t it?

The whole planet is essentially a dry butterscotch coloured desert of dunes, boulders and craters. Ice caps of water and carbon dioxide fade with the seasons, huge volcanoes loom in the southern hemisphere large enough to be obvious from orbit, but long since extinguished. Strange patterns adorn the polar regions, cracked into the soil from seasonal shifting of ice… But the only thing to roam the great martian planes are dust devils.

Mars is a strange place. Strange because while it seems like a dead world, it keeps showing bizarre signs of life. The huge sandstorms, for instance, have to be driven by an active atmosphere. Thin, but active. It’s worth wondering how Mars has so little atmosphere to begin with. Certainly it’s small, but it has a diameter at least 2000 miles greater than Titan, and Titan has a deeper atmosphere than we do. In fact, given how dense and massive Venus’ atmosphere is, surely there should be more martian air than there is.

Exploring Mars is beginning to seem to me like some kind of archaeo-geochemistry. We’re as much trying to find out what’s there now, as trying to find out what was once there. When it was, perhaps, still alive. Perhaps the question of whether Mars was once a living world is one of the things that makes it so creepy. The thought that we’re not looking at a planet that’s always been a barren desert. The thought that perhaps we’re looking at a planetary corpse. If all the current NASA missions find any martian fossils, that will only serve to bolster this fact. Which begs the question of how exactly would a planet die? Being a smaller place, did it die of old age, or was there some kind of calamitous event from which the place never recovered?

On the other hand, what if Mars actually is alive? What if it’s simply alive in a way so different that we simply don’t recognise it as being so? NASA could well be onto something with their searches for habitable regions near the martian polar caps. For instance, the Phoenix lander found that martian soil was clumpy. It had to spend a couple of days shaking martian soil until it fell into it’s analysis chamber. I can’t say for sure about Mars, but at least on Earth soil tends to be clumpy when it’s damp. What’s more, if you take a scoop of damp soil and put it on top of a metallic object it will dry out and become finer. Of course, with martian atmospheric pressure water ice will sublime straight into gas — but trapped within soil grains it would only serve to dampen them. Just like a cold floor tile in a steamy shower room. What’s more the conjectured presence of chemicals like formaldehyde and methane in the martian atmosphere suggest that there’s more going on than we really understand. Ditto, the various hints at surface activity noticed by the spacecraft orbiting Mars, such as fresh deposits on crater walls and “pools” of ice in polar craters.

Whatever the conclusion, Mars is creepy. Perhaps someday soon, humans will walk on the plains of Cydonia. I wonder how they’ll feel looking out across the windy desert…

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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  1. Pingback: The Mystery of the Martian Methane | Supernova Condensate

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