Magazine article The Spectator

Martian Invasion

Magazine article The Spectator

Martian Invasion

Article excerpt

BLEAK Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic with its 150 mph winds, where it is dangerous to walk around unarmed for fear of polar bears, is hardly the most congenial place in which to live for 18 months at a stretch. But starting next summer half a dozen people will be doing so to simulate the conditions facing an expedition to Mars. A group of space-travel enthusiasts called the Mars Society has raised some 200,000 from private sources to plant a base on the island because, in almost every respect, its surface most resembles that of the planet they hope mankind will one day colonise.

They may even succeed since the society, far from being a group of `space nuts', consists of more than 1,500 scholars, scientists, engineers and employees of the space agency Nasa who are fascinated by the Red Planet, believing - and hoping that man is destined one day to turn it into a second Earth on which millions of people could live. Doing this, turning a dead world into a living one, said the society's president Dr Robert Zubrin, at its second annual meeting in Boulder, Colorado, 'would be the noblest act that mankind may ever have performed'.

Devon Island, a frigid, uninhabited place slightly smaller than Scotland, seems ideal for the purpose. It looks and to some extent feels like Mars. It is just as cold in winter and not much warmer in summer. It has not seen rain for 50 years, and it has a huge asteroid impact crater 12 miles across, unchanged since a boulder from space smashed into the island 23 million years ago. (Mars has many thousands of such craters.) The island also has primordial cliffs, ice sheets and canyons, not, of course, matching the vast canyons of Mars, some of which are thousands of miles wide, but giving the general idea.

The six volunteer 'astronauts', justifying their existence by doing some genuine Arctic science, will try to live for more than a year exactly as real astronauts would live on Mars, experiencing winter and summer conditions in a three-storey habitat anchored to the permafrost. It is 28 feet wide and 34 feet high with a total floor area of 12,000 square feet. Connected to the habitat by an airtight tunnel will be their 'garage', in which they will keep their roving vehicle on which to roam the island, just as their future counterparts will roam the Martian surface.

Going to Mars and ultimately establishing a civilisation there has been a dream of mankind ever since space probes discovered in 1969 and confirmed in 1976 that the planet, although incomparably beautiful, appeared to be lifeless. Nowhere to be found were the fabulous empires, evil wizards and beautiful princesses portrayed in the Martian Chronicles of Edgar Rice Burroughs of Tarzan fame. The observed network of 'canals', supposed to have been built by the dying alien civilisation that inspired H.G. Wells's terrifying novel The War of the Worlds, was found to be an optical illusion. Instead, there were dusty red lava plains with basins, indicating longvanished lakes and oceans, the beds of ancient dried-up rivers, skies of light-pink from dust storms, a mountain three times higher than Everest with a base as wide as France, icy polar caps, and days and nights almost exactly the same length as ours.

There was every sign, in short, that once, billions of years ago, Mars was a lush, warm world, perhaps with widespread life, when it was in an orbit closer to the Sun. …

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