Before we send our mission to Mars we need to be sure why we are undertaking the task and what we want to achieve. We also need to know how we might accomplish these objectives.
Man has always been a curious creature. People always want to know more. We have a strange urge to look in the locked cupboard or around the next corner. We are natural explorers. In centuries past, people crossed high cold mountains, ventured into hot dry deserts and explored dark dangerous forests to see what lay beyond and often to settle in new places. Similarly, as soon as the technology was available mankind built ships that could travel the rivers, then the seas, then the oceans. People - men, women and children - risked their lives to make perilous journeys into the unknown, and to make discoveries from which we all ultimately benefit, right across the world. Imagine what life would be like without rice or maize, potatoes or chocolate, tea or coffee. All these crops were once isolated to one region of the world, and it has only been through exploration and contact between peoples that everyone can now enjoy them.
But of course the people who set out on the voyages of discovery did not know that. Those ancient people took the view: What lies beyond? What is over the horizon? And we, today, still do....
Before we consider the exploration of space though, we must acknowledge that exploration in the past was often motivated by greed and exploitation rather than the search for mere knowledge. Explorers, and particularly the colonisers that followed them were not always kind to the people, wild-life or environment that they found. In fact, the opposite was usually the case. We should, perhaps, always bear this in mind when we step off Planet Earth.
Man is still curious. We now focus our attention on the sky. Once again, technology has come to our assistance. Spaceflight became possible in 1957 and probably the greatest age of exploration began. But although people venture into space all the time, and have stood on the Moon, most space exploration is currently being done with un-manned, robot spacecraft. This is cheaper and less risky than exposing people to the harsh perils and boredom of space journeys.
The current credo behind this era of exploration is a thirst for knowledge, rather than for profit or material gain. Hopefully, space exploration is now driven by a higher ideal and one that the United Nations endorse through the Treaty on Outer Space (see our interpretation for younger readers). By the same token, it is also noticeable that funding for space exploration mainly comes from organisations whose motives are not material profit.
The thirst to know is a powerful influence. It is motivation.
We want to know about other planets to better understand our own and what we are doing to it. We want to know the nature and origins of the Sun and the stars. And mankind is curious about its own place in the Universe. We want context. Who are we? Where did we originate? Is there life elsewhere in the Universe? Do intelligent beings exist anywhere else? The space programmes in most countries around the world at the present time are driven at least partly by a desire to answer some of these questions.
In addition, the perspective we have gained from looking back on the small blue Earth from space has promoted the issues of environmentalism and it has created respect for our home planet in many people around the world. The knowledge about the behaviour of other planets that has come from planetary exploration has also contributed a great deal to the understanding of the Earth and our survival on it. It has allowed us to monitor and quantify the damage we do to our environment, so we can take action to put things right, assuming the will is there so to do! Understanding Mars will help us to better understand the Earth and perhaps stop us from creating the right conditions for our own extinction.
So to sum up, the reason we are going to Mars is to find out....to find out whatever we can. It is a quest for knowledge, and in particular an attempt to answer some of mankinds most fundamental questions.
The people who plan the mission will have needed to raise money to build the spacecraft and its launcher. They will arrange hire and use of a launch facility and a deep-space communication network. They will also need to set up a mission control centre and employ people to build the spacecraft and run the operation.
Space missions of any type are expensive. The money for them is so great that it is usually only governments that can afford to pay for them. Industrial and commercial investors will sometimes pay for parts of missions, but only if their corporations can benefit in some way. Private institutions and research organisations, such as learned societies and universities might also contribute, but this is very often in the form of a single experiment or a small part of a mission.
Although the USA and Russia have led the way in space exploration, many other countries have made significant contributions, including Japan, China, all the countries in Western Europe who belong to the European Space Agency, Ukraine and the other ex-members of the USSR, Australia, Canada, Brazil, India, Israel and many others. The present trend is for missions to be international, with a number of countries sharing the costs, the construction and the operation of space missions.
The benefit which contributing governments receive from investment in space exploration is in many forms, that might not be obvious. Running a space programme has economic and technical benefits. Firstly, it employs people, and pays them well. They in turn spend their earnings and others benefit from selling them goods. On the technology front, many new inventions and discoveries come from space technology. Many of the things we take for granted now even in developing countries, such as the micro-computer, instant television pictures from anywhere in the world, the cell-phone and the solar panel would not be commonplace without the space programmes.
So what could be done when our mission arrives on Mars?
Let us assume that our mission is being planned and executed at the present time, with the current state of knowledge about Mars. What should we do to add to mankind's present knowledge of the Mars and what could our spacecraft and rover do using current technology?
Here are a few ideas:
- take pictures of the landscape
- look for life
- watch the weather
- find out what Mars is made of
- investigate Mars' magnetic field
- check for earthquakes
- observe the levels of light and radiation
So let these be our Mission Objectives.
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