Planet Red

Space has always been remained a magnetically fascinating place for man who has dreamed of unveiling new horizons there. After conquering Moon, man has been eyeing on triumphing Mars for many years and some scientist are even predicting that life also exist there. Unlike our other planetary neighbor; Venus, which remains shrouded in cloudy mystery, the 4th planet has invited speculations and explorations. The US, the former Soviet union, Russia and even Japan have launched spacecraft destined to land on or orbit Mars since the 1960s. Meanwhile, Earth bound scientists keep their fingers crossed for more information about the red planet.

The successful missions, like the very first Mars flyby in 1964 by the US Mariner 4, have provided a treasure trove of data and, of course, given rise to many new questions. Recently, those data, compliments to spacecraft such as the Phoenix Mars Lander, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, and the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter among others, have been arriving of Earth, though at a dizzying rate. It seems that all is set for a golden age for Mars exploration.


Here’s what we’ve learnt about the fourth planet from the sun while orbiting it, landing on it and sampling its contents: It’s cold, dusty and dry, but that probably wasn’t always the case. Ample data seem to point toward liquid water rushing over its surface in the form of lakes, rivers and an ocean of some undetermined point in the past. Traces of methane have also been detected in the atmosphere, but the source is unknown. On Earth, much of the methane is produced by living organisms, like cows, which could augur well for the possibility of life on Mars. On the other hand, the gas could also have non-biological origins, such as the Martian volcanoes.

The current mission to Mars involves a pair of robotic rovers, known as the Mars exploration Rovers (MER).

The question arises that, why are we sending robotic rovers rather than sending human beings like we did when we explored the Moon?

The real problem of not sending humans to the red planet is that different nations have sent more than 30 probes toward Mars, but less than one-third of those probes have survived the trip. So the track record is not a very good one, and certainly no one would encourage NASA to replace those robotic probes with human beings, at least until it has improved the odds of success.


The second reason is cost. It is currently costing about a million dollars per pound to design and deliver a robot to Mars, and robots don’t have to worry about complicated things like life support systems. Nor do robots have to worry about coming home something that adds a great deal of weight to a mission.

Nor do robots require a soft landing on the surface of Mars. It would take a minimum of 100,000 pounds of vehicle, equipment, food and water to get a small team of human beings to Mars (each person, for example, will require 408 kg or more of dehydrated food), at a million dollars a pound, that’s $100 billion right there. And chances are that a manned mission would cost more per pound than a robotic mission because of the significant safety margins needed for the human beings.

The third reason is the engineering challenges. For example, to make a manned mission possible, one likely scenario is to produce fuel for the return fight from the Martian atmosphere. However, nothing like this has ever been attempted, and it would take a number of test missions to prove the concept.

Anther big consideration is the cosmic radiation that astronauts would absorb during such a long mission, and how to block it. Much of this radiation is blocked on Earth by the Earth’s magnetic field. Mars has no magnetic field.


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