Vail Valley Voices: A Curious endeavor to explore Mars |

Vail Valley Voices: A Curious endeavor to explore Mars

When the first humans left Africa almost one and a half million years ago, and began to spread across the continents, they started a tradition that has become one of the cornerstones of humanity.

Exploration has driven many a man and woman across deserts and over mountain ranges. We conquered the land, settling the harshest parts of the globe. It took thousands of years, but through the efforts of determined explorers, we eventually populated every continent.

Then came the dawn of a new age of exploration, in which people braved months at sea in search of new trade routes, more resources, and fresh beginnings. This was the era when Columbus and other explorers discovered what they called the New World (although there had been people living in the Americas for several thousand years already).

I can’t claim that every outcome of human expansion and exploration has been for the best, or had the greatest outcomes, but in general the pursuit of finding new land and new worlds has been extremely beneficial for our race.

And with the expeditions of Capt. James Cook and Christopher Columbus, the gap between East and West was closed and the human network became a global network.

We have had nowhere else to reconnoiter – until the third (and in this author’s opinion, most important) era of exploration was born in the 1950s, the era of space exploration.

When the dream of traveling to the moon became a feasible possibility, the idea swept the globe. It was a starter gunshot, and the space race began with gusto.

The great US of A was the first nation to put a man on the moon – “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

With this accomplished, humans looked further into the new frontier, and set their sights on our closest planetary neighbor, Mars. NASA put its first Mars rover, Sojourner, on Martian soil in 1994, then Spirit and Opportunity in 2004.

The most recent and significant example of modern exploration – a Martian rover by the name of Curiosity – landed safely Monday at 5:31 UTC.

The tradition of exploring our natural surroundings has been pushed farther than ever before with the landing of Curiosity, and will continue to be pressed forth as the plutonium-powered rover crawls across the baked and thirsty landscape of the Red Planet.

Curiosity is equipped with numerous cameras, navigation systems, sample analysis instruments and the very first laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy – a complex and fanciful tool that incinerates rock and soil using a high-powered laser beam and determines the chemical makeup of the samples by examining the color of the smoke and gases emitted. It is unarguably the most complex tool to be used by explorers in the history of our race.

Needless to say we have come a long way from inventing the wheel and the boat.

With luck and the hard work of many scientists, Curiosity will close the door on many unanswered questions, like: How does the Martian climate differ from our own? And of course, is there or has there ever been life on the Red Planet?

Naturally, the answers to these questions will lead to bigger questions and eventually bring us to the next horizon of exploration. Curiosity will change the way we understand our neighbor Mars, how we understand ourselves, and our place in the solar system.

Perhaps we are alone and always have been. Perhaps there was once a thriving spectrum of alien life prospering upon the surface of our neighbor planet. And (most captivatingly) perhaps there is still life surviving somewhere on Mars’ barren surface.

It is safe, I think, to predict that the next few years of Curiosity’s exploratory voyage will rewrite science books and lead to even greater feats of exploration.

It is always exciting to live through the moments that find their way etched into the legacy of humanity. But we should never advance into such an endeavor without caution and an air of vigilance.

Inevitably, the benefits of this new rover’s study on Mars will be innumerable, but it would be unwise to forget the proverb that has proven itself time and again: curiosity killed the cat.

Will Brendza is a Gypsum resident.

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