As forecast in my last blog post, Eldest Son (ES) arranged for me to pop up to London one last time before Christmas to see an exhibition at the Design Museum called Moving to Mars. ES has always been interested in Space and films about alien life and we both enjoyed the film The Martian a few years ago which addressed many of the challenges of living on Mars. We were both keen to go to the exhibition and it felt nice being organised to do so.
The exhibition was full of video and interactive exhibits. It was just as well that we went at a quiet time; otherwise, the waiting to get access to each one would have been onerous. As it was, we were able to sample everything without queues and at our own pace.
The exhibition started with a history of the astronomy relating to Mars. Most interesting here was the build-up of the legends concerning the canals of Mars. These were thought to be long interconnected channels on Mars’s surface that proved the past flow of water. Some, including US astronomer Percival Lowell, thought the canals indicated that intelligent alien life had directed ice cap melt to other parts of the planet. The presence of the canals prompted many stories, comics and films relating to this idea of alien life on Mars and there was a section in the exhibition making this connection.
It now seems however, that, although there was once water on Mars, the canals are not in fact real. Rather, the images of a canal network were an optical illusion created by the early high-magnification telescopes reflecting the blood vessels in the retinas of the 19th and early 20th century astronomers.
The following sections of the exhibition included scaled and life size models of recent vehicles sent to Mars to explore the planet. The science involved in getting these satellites and rovers through our atmosphere and gravitational pull and then so far away to Mars is incredible.
Some of these roving vehicles have been sending back photos and other information for years and the pictures of the Martian landscape on show were incredibly detailed and vivid. However, one of the videos was of a scientist who claimed that a human operating on Mars would be able to gain more information in an hour than these robot vehicles can in years. That is what is driving new multi-national efforts to put astronauts onto Mars.
Those efforts were showcased as an introduction to sections of the exhibition devoted to how astronauts would survive such a long journey (7-9 months) physically and mentally and then survive in Mars’s hostile environment which is very cold, radio-active and toxic. There were interesting videos of how the astronauts on the current space station (there are six on board today) manage their daily routines of experimentation, fitness maintenance and personal hygiene.
There was portrayal of how robots might build insulated buildings in advance of human arrival on Mars and how algae and fungi might provide food and clothing materials (thereby avoiding the need to transport food and clothing to the planet).
Finally, there was a section showing an alternative to the approach to building habitats for humans that would insulate against the Martian environment. This alternative postulated the idea that plant and animal life tolerant to the environment could be introduced onto Mars and that this could change the environment progressively to something more acceptable to humans. This would be a very, very long process and seemed far-fetched to me.
More interesting were the relationships between innovations and ideas for living on Mars that could be used to survive the potential catastrophes that might befall Earth (fire, flood, pestilence, war etc.) or, even better, might help us prevent some of those catastrophes.
ES and I both enjoyed the exhibition. To cap the day in London, we went off to a family drink and meal with Long-Suffering Wife, all three sons and two sons’ partners. It was a great way to kick off the festive season.
To all readers of this, have a great festive and holiday season yourselves. Have fun!