Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Phoenix Has Landed

Congrats to all the scientists who worked to make the landing of the Phoenix rover on Mars such a success.

Official Phoenix Home Page: Phoenix Mars Lander

Phoenix will be studying the Arctic plain of Mars in search of more evidence of water. Why? Because water is a foundational ingredient for life. So where there's water, there may be evidence for ancient life.
Mission Overview

Mars is a cold desert planet with no liquid water on its surface. But in the Martian arctic, water ice lurks just below ground level. Discoveries made by the Mars Odyssey Orbiter in 2002 show large amounts of subsurface water ice in the northern arctic plain. The Phoenix lander targets this circumpolar region using a robotic arm to dig through the protective top soil layer to the water ice below and ultimately, to bring both soil and water ice to the lander platform for sophisticated scientific analysis...

Regions of high ice content are shown in violet and blue and those low in ice content are shown in red. The very ice-rich region at the north pole is due to a permanent polar cap of water ice on the surface...

Phoenix will be the first mission to return data from either polar region providing an important contribution to the overall Mars science strategy "Follow the Water" and will be instrumental in achieving the four science goals of NASA's long-term Mars Exploration Program.

- Determine whether Life ever arose on Mars

- Characterize the Climate of Mars

- Characterize the Geology of Mars

- Prepare for Human Exploration

We will no doubt be hearing news in the coming months about evidence for life on Mars. The implications the media will draw from such research is philosophical: if life arose on Mars and Earth, then it must be fairly easy to generate life through natural process evolution. Now, I don't mean to suggest that every scientist working on the Phoenix project is deliberately trying to paint God out of the picture. But no doubt that is how some of the data will be interpreted by some.

Another way of looking at the situation, however, is that we ought to expect to find evidence of ancient microbial life on Mars because of possible inter-planetary exchange with Earth. Life was abundant on Earth as soon as the Earth was capable of sustaining life (about 4.5 billion years ago). And it's a known fact that debris can travel between planets. So whatever evidence of life we find on Mars could actually be Earth-based life that traveled there long ago.

I point this out because the question of life on Mars is both scientific and philosophical, but a lot of people don't differentiate between the two. This situation provides a great exercise in critical thinking skills for our kids. Help them ask questions about what they hear in the news about Mars. And also encourage them that whatever scientists discover on Mars is part of God's creation, something that we should be excited about and not fear.

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