The man who can tell you
everything about what it takes to terraform Mars is not surprised by the
confirmation of water on the Red Planet.
In his three "Mars" novels
(Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars), Kim Stanley Robinson constructed
a vision of the Red Planet and humanity's evolving relationship with it
that spans hundreds of years and as many characters. The achievement has
been likened to "War and Peace with spaceships"; another comparison
might be to a space-age Moby Dick.
Robinson spoke to SPACE.com
about the discovery of an indispensable requirement for life as we know
it, whether native to the Red Planet or imported from Earth.
"It was no surprise . . . The best analogy for space in the next half century is probably Antarctica in the last half century."
was your reaction to the news
that Mars recently had liquid water -- and possibly still does?
Kim Stanley Robinson:
It was no surprise. The huge outflow channels are solid evidence of a great
deal of water on the surface in the distant past -- oceanic
amounts of water. Some is still there to be seen in the polar caps,
some of it no doubt escaped into space, the rest is quite certainly under
the surface, frozen in permafrost.
But the Martian regolith (broken surface of the crust) is very deep, and
when you get deep enough, the heat of the planet's interior will be enough
to melt ice back to water. So under the Martian surface there are liquid
aquifers. All this is straightforward, and assumed as such in my Mars books.
Then also, Mars obviously
had great volcanic activity in the past, and
perhaps there is still some
volcanic activity, which is another source of heat to melt ice to water,
and even perhaps to bring it to the surface in thermal vents.
And lastly, the vertical
relief of Mars is enormous -- 31 kilometers between the highest point and
the lowest, with lots of cliffs, canyons, mountains, deep craters, etc.
So, it is not difficult to imagine scenarios where water in deep aquifers
is squeezed sideways through cracks by the weight of the rock over it,
moving sideways through these cracks until one of the crack systems opens
onto the side of a cliff or crater wall somewhere, and if there is enough
lithostatic pressure on the water to keep it moving, keep it from freezing
and making a dam of ice for itself, then -- voila -- liquid water seeping
onto the surface, where it freezes and sublimes, but also slushes down
slopes, creating the features seen in the recent photos.
So it was all there to be
deduced after the Viking mission, but the Viking cameras didn't have the
great resolution of the current global surveyor, and so couldn't make the
SC: So you had an
inkling that something like this was in the wind?
KSR: Yes, sure. The
Mars scientists writing and talking about this stuff have been outlining
the scenario I just described for years.
There was also a MGS photo
last year of a crater floor that looked like it had had its floor smoothed
flat by water. It's been a matter of putting together all the features
that the orbiting cameras have revealed to us, and the latest photos are
simply the best evidence yet that it's really happening. But it is not
a surprise, just the capstone. This in fact is why the last photos are
so convincing, they sit on top of a large pyramid of evidence. If for instance
we only had that one photo of Mars, it would not be anywhere near as convincing.
SC: How does this
discovery affect the procedures currently on the drawing board for making
Mars fit for long-term human habitation?
KSR: If by "making
Mars fit for long-term human habitation" you mean only the technical problem
of terraforming Mars, this kind of evidence merely adds to what we already
had, which was very convincing that there was ice under the surface in
permafrost, and probably liquid aquifers deeper down. So it confirms that
the plans we have been bouncing about might be possible in fact.
But the more interesting
question becomes, what if we find life there in these seeps? Because on
Earth the connection between water and life is very firm; wherever you
find one you find the other, even if the water is frozen or boiling. And
Martian meteorites have been falling on Earth regularly, and Terran meterorites
have been falling on Mars too, a bit less regularly, and so the
possibility of life transferring, and eventually living in underground
water on Mars, as the last refuge of a cooling planet, is pretty strong.
This complicates the humans-on-Mars
picture very severely. On the one hand, it's an inducement to go and look
for life. On the other hand, we will not want to contaminate Mars with
bacteria etc., when we have such an interesting prospect as life on
another planet before us to study. So the hunt is on (now) but it will
have to be a very careful hunt. And if we find life, then humans settling
on Mars becomes a serious problem in environmental ethics, etc., and will
be a matter for discussion by the whole humanity community, not just the
SC: How far do you
see the human diaspora by 2020? By 2050?
KSR: 2020, same as
now; some people going up into Earth orbit occasionally, a few staying
for a while then returning. Much
talk about human missions to Mars and the Moon.
2050, more people in Earth
orbit, but none living there for their whole lives; perhaps a lunar station
or two, tourist
hotel perhaps; on Mars, a scientific station manned by rotating crews,
small but growing.
The best analogy for space
in the next half century is probably Antarctica in the last half century.
SC: Cyberpunk futurist
William Gibson doesn't
see the point in interplanetary travel, preferring to send cameras.
Larry Niven, to
a large extent, is in the same camp. Do you think something is gained
in actually making the trip, whether just to visit (exploration) or to
KSR: This shades into
philosophical issues concerning phenomenology, presence, bodies, reality,
etc.. I've always thought "Virtual Reality" was a PR name for 3-D television,
for instance, and I don't like TV, or sitting here looking into my computer,
etc. It's better to do things than to watch things, I think, and this personal
philosophy shades into my opinions on these larger issues.
But it's not me that will
be going into space, and I, like the vast majority of people, will be watching
it all through camera images. In that sense, cameras are fine, and whether
there's a cameraperson on hand operating it or not is irrelevant. In other
words, for most of us it's a camera operation no matter what, so it doesn't
seem to matter whether people go along or not.
As a practical question of
exploring Mars, however, cameras can't get under the surface. And robots
are not very versatile or capable, they
make bad field geologists. One small group of human explorers on a
two-year mission could learn more about Mars in their trip than a whole
century's worth of robotic exploration; this is no exaggeration, that's
how much more capable humans are than robots. So there would be that reason
to send humans, just sheer efficiency for the job as outlined.
On the other hand (the third
hand) if we are lucky, and find life on Mars using robots only, then sending
humans there becomes really problematic, and maybe won't be done, at least
for a long time.
On the other hand (Martians
have four arms) human civilization is in need of a sense of project
in history, and while the obvious project is to make a decent civilization
for all humans, going into space might help that project, directly and
indirectly. It has a spectacular quality that is encouraging, and the value
of comparative planetology to managing the Earth's environment is very
So it's a complicated issue,
clearly, and I think cameras in space are fine for some purposes, people
for other purposes, and they must both take their place in the larger human
SC: To put it a different
way, what can we get up there that we can't get down here?
KSR: See above. Also,
look at the question: what can we GET? Is this the
capitalist version of the question, the Year 2000 version of the question?
How about What can we LEARN, what can we ACHIEVE, what can we DO? Verbs
are so revealing of assumptions about motivation.
Get. We could GET huge masses
of pure gold! But so what.
SC: When and if we
go to Mars, will we stay?
KSR: We'll stay the
way we stay in Antarctica; small bases more or less permanently occupied,
by rotating crews of scientists and other visitors, including tourists.
SC: Allowing ourselves
to speculate (speculative fiction) for the moment that there is still liquid
water seeping up to the surface of Mars, would your Mars Trilogy have unfolded
Not at all, in fact I made
the assumption that there was a great deal of liquid water just under the
surface, as the floods at the end of Red Mars indicate, not to mention
the oceans in Blue Mars. Nadia drills
down ten feet and hits water in Part 3 of Red Mars, and when
she sets up a permafrost well and returns a week later there's ice all
over the place; a gusher in effect. So I almost had it.
SC: Why is Mars important?
Or, more generally, is space exploration important at all, when people
are still starving down here?
KSR: No. Mars is not
important, compared to people starving down here. It's interesting, but
in the historical context you bring up, interesting is not enough. Same
with space exploration. The Only Good Excuse for our focus on Mars and
space more generally, in this moment of history, is that we can learn things
out there that can help us deal with the environmental crisis unfolding
here on Earth. It has to be asserted that space science is an Earth science,
and that like the other Earth sciences it is needed to help us get through
the next couple centuries with less environmental damage than otherwise
would occur. But having asserted that, we need to make it so; to configure
our efforts in space and on Mars toward that end.
SC: Of all the planets,
does Mars haunt us so?
| More Voices on Mars|
|Larry Niven, author of Ringworld, says "if we intend to take the universe for ourselves, we will need Mars. Our selves will change in the process." (read more)|
Gregory Benford, author of The Martian Race, argues that "the entire space community should demand that present operations work with this goal in mind: human exploration before 2020." (read more)
Greg Bear, author of Moving Mars, warns that humans traveling to Mars or elsewhere "will be cut off from the main body of the Earth, like tiny severed limbs. . . . Not a cheery prospect." (read more)