By Michelle Reynolds, Staff Writer
While not everybody can actually visit Mars, there is no shame in appreciating the planet. On November 28, spread the word and celebrate Red Planet Day.
Red Planet Day commemorates the launch of the Spacecraft Mariner 4 on November 28, 1964. The 228 day mission of Mariner 4 brought the spacecraft within 6,118 miles of Mars on July 14, 1965 and sent back some of the first close-up photos of Mars.
Dr. Erika Gibb, associate teaching professor and Department Chair of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, explained what she likes about Mars. She said, “ I would say that it likely had liquid on it in the past and probably still has subsurface water ice…and that the days on Mars are almost the same as days on Earth…”
She explained, “I grew up with all that space stuff and the science fiction, which is what drew me into science.” However, ultimately, it is the idea that there is something so similar to our own home planet in this vast universe that is comforting.
What is it about Mars that fascinates people? Is it because it has signs of past life, because it contains elements of science fiction dreams, or is it simply because it is red? Mars is a planet full of wonders. It has a core mainly made of iron and sulfur, wrapped in a silicates mantle, all covered by a crust made of basalt and iron oxide. The rusting of iron oxide gives Mars the reddish color. It is also home to one of the largest canyons in the solar system, Valles Marineris. The canyon is as wide as the U.S. but only about 20 percent of the diameter of Mars.
As shown in movies like “Mars Needs Moms,” “War of the Worlds,” the 2015 Oscar nominated movie “The Martian,” and the 2016 National Geographic Channel show “Mars,” humans are obsessed with the red planet. But exploring Mars is not just a science fiction dream, it is a reality.
On November 5, 1964, the U.S. attempted a Mars flyby, but it was not until November 28, 1964 (the day on which Red Planet Day is celebrated) that the U.S had its first successful flyby of the planet, returning the first pictures of the Martian surface and the first images of a planet other than Earth ever returned from deep space.
It was not always smooth sailing. In 1992 the U.S. sent up the Mars Observer, but lost contact with the satellite. However, in November 2011, the U.S. made huge strides when they were able to land the Mars Rover.
In 2013, the U.S. successfully launched Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) on November 18 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. According to NASA, the MAVEN mission was “designed to explore Mars’ upper atmosphere and ionosphere, and interactions with the solar wind, specifically to determine the loss of volatile compounds to space through time and how it has affected the history of Mars’ atmosphere and climate.”
The next spacecraft the U.S. plans to send up is InSight. Its mission is to place a lander on Mars to study the inner workings of the planet. The Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) was originally scheduled to launch in March 2016 but NASA delayed the launch due to structural problems with one of the probe’s scientific instruments. NASA officials said in a statement that the instrument redesign and delayed launch date will add $153.8 million to the initial $675 million budget. It is now scheduled to launch in spring of 2018.
“I think humans have a natural curiosity about our origins and about how life could have started. Mars has captured our imaginations and provided tantalizing evidence that in the past it may have been suitable for life,” said Dr. Gibb.
Since the country is exploring it, can people live on Mars? Dr. Gibb said, “I think it would be very difficult to colonize a new planet. It may be something that we are capable of doing, but there are issues with radiation; Mars doesn’t have a protective ozone layer so humans would have to live underground. I think people have a nature that loves exploration, so we will probably eventually send people to Mars. However, I don’t think that should be anyone’s backup plan should something happen to Earth,.”
Although humans may not be packing their bags and moving to Mars, students can still glance up at the sky and admire Earth’s celestial neighbor. No matter how students commemorate, either with a copy of H.G Wells’ War of the Worlds or watching “The Martian,” make sure to celebrate Red Planet Day on November 28 and appreciate the glorious red planet Mars.