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In this country, we use metric.
The Grandeur of Mars
By Rocky Persaud

Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott was sitting in a long meeting, listening to the lunar geologists and engineers gathered around the table argue back and forth about the best landing site for his mission to the Moon. One side favored the hills of Maurius, the other, Hadley Rille. Finally, they turned to him to help break the deadlock. He spoke of the "grandeur" found in beautiful places, and how such sights are good for the human spirit. For that reason, his preference was to land in Hadley Rille, and his words decided the matter. All the astronauts who went to the Moon felt uplifted by the beautiful sights they beheld, and the journey there and back taught each of them more about themselves.

When we go to Mars, we will have much to learn - of ourselves, of Mars, of who we are as a species. The journey will challenge us to new heights of accomplishment. The destination will inspire us to dream of deeds yet bolder. In the beautiful places of Mars we shall know wonder, and discovery, and grandeur.

The Valles Marineris, the biggest, widest, deepest canyon system known on any planet, spans half a Martian hemisphere, some 4000 kilometers, as long as North America is wide. It can be seen from space, but to really know it, astronauts must descend into its depths and walk its floor. It is grander than the Grand Canyon of the U.S. It likely formed during the cooling of the crust, like a cake splits when it bakes and cools. Its walls are several kilometers high, and it is composed of many canyons - "chasma" in planetary lingo. Already, images from the Mars Global Surveyor have shown layering in its walls that may be sediments deposited by some ancient sea, by fine grain dust carried in the wind, or spilled forth by volcanism. Someday humans might climb it, to sample its layers for geological information, to search for fossil life, or for the simple joy of doing so. Like Mount Everest, it will be a target of adventurers.

Mount Olympus, known as "Olympus Mons", is another awe-inspiring beautiful place. The largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus rises some 26 kilometers high, and spreads out on a 500 kilometer diameter base in the Tharsis region of Mars. It has brothers as well, Arsia Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Ascraeus, each almost as tall as Olympus. It was thought that without plate tectonics to move the crust of Mars around, the pressure under Tharsis kept pushing up these volcanoes so high that their peaks are actually above the atmosphere. Now with contrary magnetic evidence that tectonism might have acted on the early Mars, the image presented is of the active history of a geologically diverse planet , where volcanoes spat hot gasses and the atmosphere was thicker, where liquid water may have flowed and life might have been possible. Fully understanding the forces that shaped Mars may take centuries. Someday, perhaps students at a University of Mars will take field trips to the top of Olympus, stand around in their oxygen-masks and pressure-suits and enjoy the view of the clouds below them.


Regions of Mars such as Noctis Labyrinthus are described as chaotic terrain - collapsed surfaces forming a jumbled mass of blocks at a lower elevation that the surrounding terrain. Out of this many of the large flood channels emerge, suggesting some of the floods formed by violent eruptions of deep groundwater, with the ground collapsing behind it. Driving a rover through this Labyrinth, astronauts might only be able to navigate by downloading data about their geographic position from an orbiting satellite. The Labyrinth would be visually stunning - its walls rising like a maze on all sides, with buttes and mesas as far as the eye could see. If these areas are where some of the flood waters of Mars originated, geologists would be keen to study it. It is here in the chaos where clues to past life on Mars may be found. Daring tourists might attempt to plot their own paths through the Labyrinth.

The great mystery is why the northern and southern hemispheres of Mars are so different from each other. The northern region known as Vastitas Borealis consists of low plains, strangely almost all of the same elevation. It is generally thought these plains are areas of windblown sediments and volcanic flood basalts. A competing theory is that the northern plains are blanketed by sediment deposited by an ancient ocean. This is yet another region where the quest for past Martian life might take us. Perhaps some day homesteaders will walk out to their gardens and be surprised by fossils uncovered by the wind.

The southern highlands are peppered by impact craters. Boulders the size of houses and automobiles dot the landscape. Depressions known as fossae scar the surface. Two huge craters, Hellas and Argyre Planitia, have thrown up mountain chains in rings around them. The southern hemisphere appears as uninviting as Earth's Moon. But perhaps humans can tame it someday if we attempt to transform the planet into a habitable world of oxygen-rich atmosphere and abundant free-flowing water.

The north polar cap is composed of water ice. The south, dry ice. Core samples of each of these would illuminate the past history of Mars. Scientists could trace back geologic events and discover past conditions. Engineers would have abundant raw resources to create oxygen and water, the two most essential ingredients for human survival. From the ice of a polar cap settlers could carve out a living. From its slopes, skiers could carve out a holiday trail.

There are thousands of features on Mars worth seeing. Sinuous canyons, collapsed lava tubes, sand dunes, huge impact craters, tall mountains, towering cliffs, water valley networks, fretted terrain, flood plains - all beautiful, all grand. Imagine artists setting up easels in these places to paint what they perceive. Such art would be treasured for all time, because what we as humans could perceive in such places is not mere geography, but meaning and beauty and spirit. The journey and the destination - humans on Mars.



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