Gifts from the Sky, or, Nerds on Mars

I.

Every time you drink a glass of water, or pause by a clear creek to breath and listen and feel the coolness of the water emanating up, you’re literally appreciating a gift from the sky.

Compared to the other planets, Earth has a lot more water, a challenge scientists have been trying to explain for some time. It’s quite a complex problem, involving many theories and fields of science. The current narrative runs something like this. Earth formed from the sun’s accretion disk (basically a disk-shaped cloud of stuff left over from the sun’s own formation-like Saturn’s rings but blurrier) around about 4.5 billion years ago. The heavier elements fell towards the sun, which is one reason the nearest planets (Mercury, Venus, Eartha and Mars) are rocky, the farther ones (Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus) are gaseous. Very early on, it is believed that another planet, about the size of Mars, collided with the young earth.

The impact threw up a large amount of matter from both the earth and the other planet, which astronomers have named Theia, after a Greek Titan who birthed the Moon goddess, Selene. Thank the Greeks for such a diverse and confusing pantheon that almost any astronomical object can get a name that befits it.

This matter coalesced into the moon. It could have taken anywhere from a year to 100 years, a remarkably short amount of time when you consider geological or astronomical time scales. If we could send a person back in time to earth-that-was, they may have actually seen the debris filled sky clear over their lifetime as the moon slowly grew.

Of course that person would be breathing a very hot, noxious mix of rock vapor created by the impact, so may have been too busy suffocating and burning up from the 500’ F atmosphere to really appreciate the sky much. And anyway, time travel is a Pandora’s box we won’t go into, so let’s move on. The impact of Theia, if this is what really happened, was a gift in disguise, like a slap on the face that keeps you from doing something stupid. The rock vapor atmosphere that quickly killed our imaginary time-travelling human observer helped the early earth retain the water released by the Theia’s impact, and kept the pressure high enough on the surface to allow for oceans of liquid water.

As if in honor of Theia’s self-sacrifice, the Moon and the oceans still cavort in the form of the elegant dance of the tides.

The second theory to explain our lovely, wet planet is similarly violent: earth’s water supply was bolstered over prehistory by repeated impacts of comets, which of course are big dirty snowballs originating from the farther reaches of the solar system. It’s a controversial theory and the evidence keeps bouncing back and forth, but there is reason to believe that comets impacted earth repeatedly over its history. Other inner planets may have been similarly subject to comet whacks (and the idea is that there were far more comets then) but Earth had the mechanisms to retain that water. Mars, for example, has been losing water and atmosphere for a very long time, blown away on the solar wind.

II.

In many ways, Punkastronomy has always been about the gift of the sky. The underlying theme of my work as an outreach astronomer is that earth has an amazing window into the universe. A relatively transparent atmosphere in a relatively transparent part of the galaxy. Other locations in the Milky Way (where rents are probably much cheaper) would not have such an interesting view. Giant dust clouds, or the centers of dense star clusters where the sky would be very pretty, but not very diverse, just a field of blazingly bright jewels.

On earth, you can look up and see, with your own eyes and no telescope, another galaxy, millions of light-years away, the light your eyes are collecting having started its journey from that galaxy of stars the same number of years ago. Things near and far can delight; the other night I saw a shooting star, which of course is one of the nearest astronomical events we can observe, being a small piece of something falling into the earth’s atmosphere and burning up. Again, violence with a subtle gift.

Perseid meteor caught on film (ok, digital memory card)! Seen at the abandoned Mount Laguna Air Force Station, by SLworking2 on Flickr (Creative Commons)

I’ve seen thousands of shooting stars, which kind of boggles my mind when I meet people who haven’t seen a single one. I think access to the night sky should be a human right. Anyway, in spite of all I’ve seen, that one little shooting star was still the highlight of a brief and very cold observing session in my driveway. I can’t exactly describe the feeling it generated. Many of the things we observe change not-at-all (in our limited earthling perception of time) or only very subtly night to night. But a shooting star is a single moment in time, something humans have evolved to understand all too well.

The feeling was a cocktail of delight, peace, and joy, a sense that despite what the radio keeps trying to convince of me every hour on the hour, the world is still a beautiful place. I suspect that if scientists studied the brain to see what was happening in the mind of an astronomical observer, they’d find similar results to people eating crème brûlée (which always reminds me of Martian landscape), standing on top of a tall mountain, or holding their infant child for the first time. Endorphins all around.

III.

The sky holds the promise of other gifts as well, and ironically these gifts continue the theme of creative destruction that must be part of the universe’s code.

The atomic age and the space age share the same origin: the German V2 rocket crafted by Werner Von Braun as a weapon of vengeance to be used against Great Britain. Thus the British were the first to experience war from space, as the V2s arced into the upper atmosphere, touched space, and arced back down to rain random destruction on London. Von Braun had grander plans for the rocket, but anyway I suppose the Nazis had the money and labor (in the form of Jewish prisoners) and the willingness to put these resources behind the project. After the war, the United States “acquired” Von Braun and brought him to the US along with dozens of captured V2 rockets. One of those rockets took the first photograph of earth from space in 1946 New Mexico. The photo is not very good, but humanity’s eyes were those of a newborn, still trying to focus:

Space exploration has some very dark roots. Those first rockets held out both a threat—combined with the new power of the atomic bomb, of global destruction—and a promise—to free humanity from the bounds of earth’s atmosphere, to allow it to go where it has long tried to reach with its imagination. Space. Either way you look at it, the final frontier.

The idea of the frontier is likely deeply rooted in human prehistory. Our brains are hard-wired with the ability to project ourselves forward into new situations. Prehistoric woman, for example, had to imagine her form on the other side of the river before wading in and figuring out how to swim. Our ability (or even tendency) to imagine the future probably made the empty spaces where people weren’t, particularly attractive. Early human history appears to be a tale of migrations, and who knows what motivated the first wanderers to leave the Great Rift Valley all those millennia ago.

Frontiers represent, among other things, a clean slate. Human civilizations have a tendency to stagnate, for power to both coagulate into the hands of a few and of course, corrupt, and history is replete with examples of groups going off on their own to try to get it right, this time. The promise of a frontier is in the challenges it poses to survival, a new set of parameters to adjust to. People actually eschew comfort for situations that place them in life and death situations. The value in that has to be in more than the thrill of the hunt or the chase.

The frontier of space held out a similar promise. There’s a long tradition of thinkers looking off-world for answers to central problems in the human condition. A common theme in science fiction is that, finally free of the Earth’s tangle of suffocating traditions, and faced with all those new challenges, people will be forced to innovate new ways of being and associating. It’s the next step in evolution, and these thinkers will be forgiven for thinking the earthbound humans are in too much of a mess to think straight. I go back to that momentary sensation of possibility and beauty when watching a shooting star. What if that feeling could be extended?

To make up for its paucity of water, Mars has captured more than its share of utopian/dystopian speculation. Among the best of the Martian chronicles are the three books by Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars, Blue Mars, and Green Mars, the colors representing the phases of Mars’ transformation in human hands, as water is freed from below the planet onto the surface and atmosphere built up, to the spreading of plant life across its surface at the hands of latter-day Johnny Appleseeds. Robinson believes that humans on Mars will revisit the many political and economic arrangements of the past and develop new ones to suit their very new environment. And, while discussion on Earth gets mired down in ideology and paranoia, on Mars the necessity of the moment focuses and clarifies human motivations.

One of the many developments Robinson proposes is the formation of a “gift economy” that governs the distribution of non-necessities. The idea of a gift economy, which several Earth cultures have experimented with, is that social capital is gained not by how much you retain, but rather by how much you give away. Some of the indigenous groups of the American northwest practiced a gift economy in the form of pot-latch, ceremonies where wealthy families would gather friends and relations and give as much away as they can. Interestingly, pot-latch was deemed by the early white invaders of the area as public enemy number one. It sounds harmless enough, but for some reason it provoked a deep reaction, probably because it threw the Calvinist ideals of the “settlers” into such disarray, challenging the very basis for economics (accumulation) as well as the idea of private property. Anyway, they vigorously outlawed pot-latch ceremonies.

Robinson resuscitates them on Mars. Social capital as well as personal happiness is increased by trying to match the people around you with the things that they need to be creative and productive. To thrive, in other words. And the gift economy doesn’t get mired down in discussions about altruism vs. selfishness. The gift is both.

Robinson’s books are a fascinating thought experiment, and highly recommended. But lest you think it’s all just speculative daydreaming, there are thousands of Americans who have already “gone” to Mars. Members of the Mars Society, for example, maintain “stations” in Mars-like places in Utah, and try to live as explorers would on Mars. They’re not (just) role-playing…their research is helping NASA work through real issues they anticipate on the Red Planet’s surface.

In Utah, but on Mars: The 2002 Crew of the Society

The Society hosts a growing web community called New Mars, where people discuss—earnestly—every issue they could think of that might confront human settlers on Mars, from political organization to recycling urine into drinking water to educational systems to urban planning. The conversations are focused, lively, creative and full of good ideas.

What strikes me also, venturing into the forum on political organization, is how free the conversation is. Free in terms of the horizons people are willing to consider and also free from acrimony you’d find on any other “political” forum. Sure, there are trolls on New Mars, but very few. Participants bandy about all sorts of ideas drawn from anarchism on one end to libertarianism on the other, and everything in between. They refer to Earth-bound examples but are quick to recognize the new context. There are frequent references to Mars as the “clean slate.”

This is the most fascinating thing about the final frontier—we don’t even have to go there for the one gift frontiers have always held out for us—an autonomous space to try again to get things right, a way to circumvent chronic problems and bad institutions by simply leaving them behind. I wonder if humanity’s ability to speculate and project itself forward into new ways of being is one of the keys of survival in the universe. I suspect it is.

Sometimes I get challenged for being an enthusiastic supporter of space exploration. There’s more pressing things to spend our money on, I guess the argument goes. And certainly there are higher priorities at the moment. But let’s all collectively give up the cosmetics industry, for example, and instead keep pushing out into that frontier. The dividend is not best commoditized in tech spin-offs or space tourism or national security—it’s in ideas and the autonomy to perfect ourselves.

IV.

What do you imagine is the potential for Mars? You can see Mars yourself, every clear night this fall and winter, rising in the east in the late evening now, though it will rise earlier and climb higher as the winter goes on. Mars is just off of Leo the Lion’s snout. It’s bright, and it’s obviously orange, and no, it isn’t every going to appear as large as the full Moon unless you’re on a space ship on an intercept orbit and you’re a few days away from landing. Through binoculars Mars will transform appearance from a bright star to a tiny orange disk. Through a modest telescope you can see the polar ice cap, and surface features suggest themselves in moments of good seeing.

Check it out for yourself, show your kids, and imagine a group of humans there, struggling to survive, to get along with each other, to live long and prosper on a precarious planet. It’s the same situation that we are in here on Earth, in fact, but there, in our minds and in our public speculations, our precariousness is laid bare, and we are truly free to chart our course.

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