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Missions to Mars: Mapping, Probing and Plundering the Red Planet

At the beginning 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 the 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 to 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-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.