Sorry, despite decades of exploration, Mars remains almost a total mystery

At first glance, it may appear that Mars is no longer the hip-planetary exploration destination it once was. After all, NASA has been exploring the Red Planet since its Mariner 4 flyby in 1965. But despite decades of exploration, billions of dollars and untold male hours, scientifically, Mars remains almost as mysterious as it was when NASA’s Viking Lander first struck in 1976.

A recent column in The Atlantic Ocean magazine, “The Most Overhyped Planet in the Galaxy” pleads for the research community to expand its robotic research horizons beyond Mars. But despite arguments for rethinking what the author of the article, Marina Koren, calls the scientific “Mars monopoly” of the US in favor of some of the less visited outer moons of our solar system, scientific understanding of ‘ the Red Planet is probably still decades away.

It is true that other deserving bodies in the solar system may have been slightly ignored in favor of Mars, as most planetary scientists will readily admit. But we still have a few clues about:

– whether it ever has or still has a kind of life, whether on the poles or in its deep subsoil;

—- how long was living if it were real and true;

—- or the ocean if the oceans were fairly permanent or just transient bodies of water that disappeared as soon as Mars lost its atmosphere;

—- and, as early as, Mars was actually covered with ice sheets, instead of flowing rivers, which melted to cut up a large number of the valley networks that shook its surface.

That is not to say that we have not made great strides in tackling many of Mars’ largest puzzles. But keep in mind that although the SHARAD (Mars SHAllow RADar Sounder) instrument from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has made great strides in mapping the pole, we have successfully sent another lander to the pulse. The last time NASA attempted to do this was to end its 1998 Mars Polar Lander mission, which is thought to have hit the Martian South Pole at high speed.

It is also true that just inside our inner solar system the planetary science community has a lot to gain in terms of exploring Venus, our nearest stellar neighbor; Mercury, which could use a sample return mission; and some sort of combination lander and / or sample return mission for the dwarf planet Ceres. New analysis of data from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft indicates that Ceres once had a salty, global ocean that has long been ice.

What about Mars?

Planetary scientists are indeed taking a step towards understanding the basis of Mars; they have good evidence that Mars had lakes and rivers and deltas of some kind along with at least one large ocean. But the major questions about the timing of Mars’ evolution about the history of the solar system remain unanswered, as do the origins of its two odd moons, Deimos and Phobos, as well.

Of course, it’s easy to watch movies like “The Martian” and think that NASA and / or some other space agency will actually send multiple human missions to Mars for long-term spell-taking and sample-taking. Do not add up. That would be extraordinary, high-priced science that could perhaps be more easily achieved robotically. And I personally would not bet on any commercial human mission to Mars that also does a lot of scientific value.

We humans are fortunate that indications for the beginning and evolution of our solar system can be found here on Earth; four days away on our beautiful but underutilized moon; and with ever-refining sample returns and in situ robotic missions to Mars and Venus. We can also visit asteroids and comets to learn about the history of the solar system at the beginning about 4.6 billion years ago.

So instead of shaking more of spending more on exploring just our inner solar system, including Mars, we need to raise the ante.

—- We hardly understand earth processes; Antarctica continues to amaze and amaze geophysicists.

—- We really only have a rudimentary understanding of Earth’s long – term climate and we know even less about how the long – lasting vagaries of our Sun affect the climate here.

—- It is likely that we will never have a definitive answer as to exactly where and when life began here on Earth.

That, how can we expect to understand Mars, when we have visited only a small fraction of it; much less foot there?

As for exploring the rest of the solar system?

That’s a quandary; how can we continue with our understanding of Mars while not ignoring the rest of our solar system as well? Perhaps, one solution to broaden our horizons would be to encourage new players in interplanetary reconnaissance – such as China, India and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – to continue and even increase their robotic exploration of Mars. This would allow more experienced entities, such as NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), to venture much further within our own solar system.

But the world is currently on a downward spiral unlike in today’s history. These are dark times. Let’s hope we can return soon to claim our place in the solar system without being hoarded by this invisible enemy.

And if we do, quietly, a comprehensive scientific understanding of Mars and our neighboring planets will require many more decades and dollars. And even then, we will still be left with fundamental questions.