One of the greatest exploration programs in the history of mankind is presently underway - that is the exploration of the Solar System. This program is driven by NASA, with substantial contributions from Russia, the European Space Agency, and Japan.
Australia is well-placed to make highly targeted, influential and effective contributions, but is contributing little at present; we have opportunities to achieve some of the benefits to society that other nations in this program consider worthwhile. Included amongst benefits that could flow to us are, for instance technology transfer, new educational opportunities for students at all levels and inspiration that could lead more good students into science and engineering.
One major aspect of this program that generates great scientific and public interest is the search for life on Mars, both former and present. The possibility of life on Mars has long intrigued mankind; with the support of the US Congress, NASA has now focussed a major part of its program on this issue, and as a result there is a good chance that within a few years we could know if there was once life on Mars. NASA successfully launched a probe to Mars several weeks ago, and launched another this week.The Russians were not so lucky with their Mars96 that came back to Earth.
Whatever happens, in the process of exploring Mars we can learn a great deal about the Earth because in many ways the two planets are twins. For instance, Mars will provide profoundly significant information relevant to understanding the workings of the Earth's atmosphere, and to the formation of many of our most valuable mineral deposits.
Early in their history Earth and Mars had similar environments, and as life evolved here, why not there too? Mars later froze, and is still frozen, preserving the surface of the planet much as it was 3,000 million years ago. We know that already there was life on Earth at that time (much of the evidence comes from Western Australia) Only bacteria existed then, and that is what is expected on Mars.
Beneath the surface of Mars temperatures are higher, water is liquid, and there could still be bacteria living there. Biologists are just now learning about what appears to be a major bacterial ecosystem underground on Earth.
Excitement has been aroused recently by reports of fossil bacteria in two meteorites considered to have come from Mars. The evidence is tenuous but triguing.
Some meteorites are rocks splashed off planets by the force of other incoming meteorites. They can then collide with other planets. Those from Mars can be recognised by their distinctive chemistry. Some scientists believe that living bacteria might be able to survive being launched off a planet in a meteorite, travelling through space and impacting another planet.
The exploration of Mars is focussed on mapping by satellites in orbit around the planet, and placing various types of unmanned instrumentsand vehicles on the surface to perform analyses. In the near future, sample wiill be returned to Earth.
Specific contributions that Australia can make include:
Besides the practical benefits that will flow from this exploration program, the discovery of either former or present life on Mars would have profound scientific and philosophical consequences. Are we alone in the Universe? Exploring Mars could soon provide us with an answer.
1) Planets around other stars
So far no firm evidence of life in our own Solar System. Implications of Mars discovery for life on other planets: if life is a naturally occurring process, if there are many Earth-like planets, if life forms usually evolve towards civilisation, then there should be lots of civilisations.
We know the planets in our own solar system, but are there planets around other stars? Theory predicts planets are common, but no evidence for them until last year.
The problem is that none of our telescopes are powerful enough actually to see the planets - instead we have to use indirect techniques.
The main technique searches for a wobble in stars, which tells you if a planet is present and tells you how big it is.
Accidental discovery of planets in October 1995, then a continuing chain of discoveries - we now know of eight planets around other stars.
Closest planet so far is only 8 light years away, and one may have liquid water on it -with right conditions for life to evolve?.
We now believe about 10% of stars have planetary systems the race is on to develop other techniques to find more planets, get information about them, maybe even image them.
2) The search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
If lots of planets are out there, some will be like the Earth- will they have intelligent civilisations? Will they be using radio waves to communicate? People have been theorising and wondering whether there might be "anybody out there" for decades.
Only now do we have the technology to make an effective search - to see if we can eavesdrop on any radio or TV signals coming from one these other civilisations.
The challenges in making such a search are: (l) choosing the right direction and frequency, (2) distinguishing intelligent signals from "natural" radio waves, (3) distinguishing extra-terrestrial signals from terrestrial interference, (4) knowing what to do if you get a detection! NASA-funded search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) was cancelled by Congress after millions spent on development. Scientists left NASA, set up their own institute funded by private subscription ("people voting with their wallets"), and re-started search ("Project Phoenix").
First major search by Project Phoenix started in Australia in January 1995 in collaborative project with CSIRO, using the CSIRO Parkes telescope and receiver technology (earning CSIRO $2M) - much bigger than all previous searches put together.
Phoenix project searched nearest 200 stars over a wide wavelength band, using a supercomputer to identify signals, and using the CSIRO Mopra telescope for follow-up confirmation of candidates. In four months observing, we had a few moments of excitement, but in the end nothing outside our own civilisation.
Significant result - Earth-like civilisations on nearest few stars can now be ruled out. What about other types of civilisations? What about more distant stars? Future prospects.
What impact would it have on Earth if we had detected something? What would we have done if we had found something? Would we suffer from cultural shock?
Should we reply? SETI protocol - IAA SETI post-detection committee.
What if everybody's listening and nobody's sending?
By Matthew L. James, for The Planetary Society - Australian Volunteers,
G.P.O.B. 2086, Canberra 2601, phone 06-287-3046.
The planet Mars has long fascinated humanity, but only recently have some observers speculated about visiting it and establishing colonies on the surface. The success of the Pathfinder mission with its pictures of the surface and exploration by the Sojourner rover provided some tantalising glimpses. The popular trilogy of science fiction books by author Kim Stanley Robinson, namely "Red Mars, Green Mars" and "Blue Mars" produced a detailed description of establishing human colonies on the planet. However, in reading these heroic accounts, the lack of pictures makes visualising life on Mars a difficult task. Also, the author does not provide a real rationale for going to Mars in the first place. People need clear visions and reasons for going to Mars which are tasks for the present.
Consider these questions. Are we alone in the immensity of the universe? Will we ever attain our longheld dreams and aspirations to venture into the cosmos and answer its puzzles? Space starts not far above our heads but it might as well be another world away in our thoughts and actions. Yet this ignorance belies the importance of understanding our place in the heavens. On Earth, we face a race with time against the perils of overpopulation, finite resources, environmental degradation, wars, economic, political and social crises.
However, space offers answers to many of these issues. Global communications through satellites has helped to civilise and link the growing world. Observation of the Earth below by remote sensing instruments has monitored our expanding activities, both good and bad. We have learned to better understand our own planet by examining physical processes on other worlds. We have come to accept our minuscule and fragile place in the vastness of the cosmos. Space travel offers us a challenge to expand out of our Earthbound problems. It provides an opportunity to ensure humanity's survival should the planet become endangered. We can move to new worlds and civilisations acceptable to all people and improve our own planet as well. We can work to reduce social tensions, advance our technologies and intellect, and progress in our evolution.
Do not be deceived by the lack of progress made so far. The world's space programs have to date stemmed from a combination of scientific advancement, military endeavour, and political imperatives. However, the populace is yet to fully appreciate the real economic and social benefits. Space can provide new materials created in low gravity, access to vast mineral stores, limitless energy sources, new structures for civilisation and cities, tourism, exploration and discovery. Temper this view though with an appreciation of the difficulties and dangers of the task ahead. This venture is not for the faint hearted or the unimaginative!
The essential building blocks point the way ahead into space for everyone. Firstly, we must improve access into orbit, be it by rocket, spaceplane, elevator or matter transfer. Once there, the study of our planet is crucial to assisting most of those still living below in the misery of poverty and destruction. A space station will provide a useful platform for this work and subsequent missions to other planets. The first missions might return us to the Moon for good and establish a lunar colony. We might even capture an asteroid and find on it useful materials to use. Then we should look towards the enigmatic planet of Mars. Mars has lived in our myths and legends for millennia, but now we have the opportunity to go there. It is not easy, but a return trip is now a technological feasibility. We can scout the planet ahead with satellites and rovers, and perhaps bring a sample of the crust back to Earth. The first crewed mission will represent the efforts of many nations and help to establish a base.
MARS AND PLANETARY EXPLORATION
Imagine a trip to Mars! The excitement of pre-mission training, launch, the long journey, and final arrival on the red planet. Visualise the strange pink skies above you and the ironbrown soil beneath your feet. Consider your response to the lower gravity, cold conditions and unbreathable atmosphere, compared to your knowledge that Mars once was much more hospitable. Appreciate the size of the Martian canyons and volcanoes, all so much bigger than on Earth. Would you stay there? This would be a prominent mission combining the best efforts of the world's nations They would premise the mission with a view towards the understanding and possible development of Martian resources. It would be a peaceful and joint venture linking together the governments of the world with a new hope for humanity.
Future space ventures will stem from these early initiatives. It may be that Mars has so much water locked away in its 'permafrost', that we can learn to release it and recreate rivers on the planet once again. In the future, we might 'terraform' the planet into a replica of Earth, should we choose to do so. We can also search for signs of Martian life to see if we are indeed alone in our region of the solar system. With a better knowledge of planetary ecosystems gained through study of Earth, Mars and others, we will be in a position to establish new space civilisations. These 'biospheres' will be the first colonies in space. They will be great revolving structures containing cities, farms, forests and seas. They will provide useful new goods and a vast range of activities for all sections of our, by now, more mature populations. Eventually, their colonists may start to roam the galaxy in search of new worlds and endeavours. If this path is not our will and destiny in the future, then what is it?
Sometime during these efforts, we may finally make that important contact with intelligent life located elsewhere in the cosmos. It is hard to imagine a more profound event with far reaching ramifications for humanity. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has already begun, and is proceeding in a systematic but albeit small way. SETI is a listening exercise, attempting to find the pin lost in the haystack of space, but the chances are that life is out there. Why else is there such a persistence of as yet unproven belief in alien life? Contact may well clear the way for monumental progress in our lives. Planetary engineering and preservation may become the most important industry of all. We may learn to travel faster than light, and finally travel the universe in starships.
However, to get there, we have to start at home and today. Even Australia has its role in space technology use and development. Space systems provide Australia with public goods in terms of weather information, global communications, environmental monitoring and scientific research. Australia has launched rockets and satellites. It can do so again if public will and national prides warrant it. Australia can develop a useful space industry now. Just as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke believed in public education to get into space, so do many Australians. The task is a large one as we are still to convince the sceptics. They just cannot see the value of the national space program and all that it represents. They have not witnessed the excitement of space exploration or visited the monuments to its progress.
It is up to those of us who recognise our space destiny to ignite the spirit of space adventure and convey it to all. Those of us who have made some efforts in that direction, intend to strive on undaunted. For humanity is not alone, just forgotten and introspective, lacking direction and purpose. Our dreams may have faded for some, but pressing realities dictate expansion into space. The cosmos offers many new and even unknown opportunities, plus advancement in our whole way of life and thinking for everyone. Space travel projects are there. Mars is there. What is lacking now is the will, the support and energy to go. Now is the time to get into space!
See also Michael Rapp's Books by Carl Sagan
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
A calm, rational and eloquent look at the importance of science in society and the flaws of pseudoscience. UFOs, alien abductions and the like are convincingly debunked (but I still enjoy the X-files). Contains a "Baloney Detection Kit" which is applicable to politics and advertising as well as science. First published in 1996. (review by Michael Paine).
Billions and billions
"Thoughts on life and death at the Brink of the Millennium". Mathematics and science are applied to the problems facing mankind, including greenh ouse gases and global warming. Also a look at how future generations might view the 20th century. The book concludes with a description of Dr Sagan's struggle with a cancer-like disease- this is a very moving and personal insight into the love within a family. First published in 1997. (MP)
Murmurs of the Earth
The story of the Voyager Interstellar Record (think about that word "interstellar"). This book is included with the CD set available from TPS. It describes the preparation of the record and origin of the pictures and sounds on the record. The ultimate time capsule perhaps lasting a billion years or more as the two Voyagers drift through interstellar space. The insights into the lives of musicians such as Mozart, Beethoven and Louis Armstrong are enlightening. First published in 1978 (several authors). (MP)
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
"A vision of where we came from, who we are, and what our fate might be". An explanation of some aspects of human behaviour by tracing the origin of the human species. By understanding our strengths and weaknesses as a species there is reason for optimism about the future. Our mortality is a legacy of our dominant place as a species on this planet - without birth and death there would have been no evolution. Co-author Ann Druyan. First published in 1992.(MP)
Traces the history of knowledge of comets, recent theories about the origin and composition of comets and the effects of comet impacts. A successful attempt to increase awareness of science during the apparition of Comet Halley in 1986. Co-author Ann Druyan. First published in 1985. (MP)
Science fiction - the story of mankind's first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. Enjoyable and thought-provoking but don't expect as gripping a yarn as Isaac Asimov. Recently made into a movie. First published 1985.(MP)
Life, the universe and everything! Carl Sagan's passion for science is infectious as he takes us through the remarkable scientific discoveries of the Ancient Greeks, the tragic loss of the Library of Alexandria and the discoveries (good and ominous) of the last half of our millenium. This knowledge generates a strong sense of responsibility to future generations: "We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring". First published in 1980 in conjunction with the brilliant TV series. (MP)
NewCarl Sagan's Universe
A stunning collection of papers by scientists at the "Sagan Symposium"
- held in 1994 to celebrate Carl's 60th birthday (before his illness was
diagnosed). The editors, Yervant Terzian and Elizabeth Bilson, have added
numerous footnotes about exciting discoveries made since the Symposium.
You may be aware that we are about to put a four million channel 'little sister of SERENDIP' onto the Parkes 64 metre radio telescope. I say little sister with some reservation since I realised only the other day that in fact this experiment will be on the largest *steerable* telescope among other SETI experiments. Nice that Australia is involved. Anyway, it will piggy back onto the All Sky Survey, which will use 30 percent of the telescope's ime per year for the next five years. We, of course, will be developing the equipment, and our hopes are to build up to a billion channels.
As always, funding is a problem. The university has put in the initial
investment, and it would be good to be able to find the right contacts
in the corporate world and in the government. I'm working on it!
One of the arguments put forward against the success of SETI is the
lack of intelligent species on Earth. In his debate with Carl Sagan, published
in the May/June 1996 issue of Planetary Report, Ernst Mayr points out that
high intelligence has originated only once on the Earth and gives two possible
(i) that it is not favoured by natural selection or
(ii) that it is extraordinarily difficult to acquire.
It seems to me, however, that the lack of other high intelligences on Earth is perfectly in accord with evolution and natural selection. High intelligence gives us the opportunity to pass on huge amounts of information essential for our survival to future generations - a break from the ties of genetic code. This is a major evolutionary leap which can (and probably has) given the fortunate species a substantial survival advantage. Any such advantage can be expected to lead to domination by that species, and to make it extremely difficult for any other species to evolve high intelligence (unless nurtured by the first).
Years ago I wrote a simple computer
program to demonstrate the power of natural selection. It illustrates
how natural selection can result in domination by one species.
This is the title of the somewhat delayed third 'blockbuster' exhibition
at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra until late May, after which
it moves down to the Museum of Victoria in Melbourne. An evocative theme but
the display is really an overview of many space activities which may not
appear to relate to Mars much, but are interesting in themselves.
While billed as the largest exhibition on space technology ever seen
Australia, this claim is incorrect given the vast size of Cosmos: The Soviet
Space Exhibition held at the Museum of Victoria in 1984, or the
comprehensive space display held during the 1985 ANZAAS Congress at Monash
University. Either of these easily contained greater floor areas than
It is nice to see an actual piece of a Europa F4 engine, lost in the
Desert until 2001, along with displays of Long Tom, Skylark and other
rockets very evocative of the Woomera era. Visuals allude to Australia's
NASA tracking contributions but there is no explanation of their importance
and nor is there any mention of current local space industry activities
along with FedSat.
Live feeds and replays of remote sensing satellite down loads and
meteorological time series of our hemisphere are fascinating to watch. A
highlight of the exhibition is the locally developed 'Elysium 7' 3D trip to
Mars presentation that takes voyagers into space station orbit and onto to a
closeup examination of the red planet's spectacular features. If only we
could holiday there! Perhaps some of the most interesting items are Newton's
telescope and book along with other historic tomes by Ptolemy, Copernicus,
A real difficulty is in actually trying to read display captions as
things are hidden away in dark corners with tiny print. Visitors also
struggle with coloured texts that blend into their backgrounds. Why must
space be always so dark?
Other ambiguities include, what should be the highlight of the exhibition,
the claimed actual return container of the Soviet Luna 16 mission, sitting
amid a backdrop of photos of American lunar space exploration! This small
item is highly significant in showing the first automated robot delivery of
alien materials to Earth and at the time it represented a threat to the
Apollo program itself.
Large models of the Soviet Venera 14 and Mars 3 landers are impressive
perhaps impassive displays of the terrific technical achievements that they
represent. Only the space enthusiast would know of their real significance
whereas most visitors would see them as just more pieces of hardware in what
is a bit of grab bag after all. Herein lies a lack of unity in the whole
The SETI video seems a bit clinical and bleak while the associated computer
terminals are down. The galactic imagery also just doesn't seem to grab.
Visitors are much more interested in accessing satellite imagery of their
home areas on display terminals. The usual array of space ice cream, toys,
t-shirts, caps, and associated 'space' paraphernalia is available in the
exit gift shop.
As for an overall score, a non-space visitor gives 6.5 and the writer, a
veteran of many such exhibits world-wide, scores 7 out of 10.
Congratulations to Malcolm Walter for coordinating contributions from a
disparate group of agencies and having the purpose and drive to see it all
through to fruition.