Life on Mars

Scientists, writers and philosophers have long been fascinated by the prospect of life on the Red Planet. Vision explores the countries aiming to be first to put a foot on Mars

On a clear evening in Arizona in 1894, American astronomer Percival Lowell looked into his telescope. For the past few weeks, he’d been paying particular attention to Mars. As he waited for a still patch of air to pass in front of his lens, he saw a series of straight lines strafing across the surface of the Red Planet.

Over the next few weeks he observed the canal-like lines, and became convinced that they had been dug by a Martian civilisation, channelling water from the icy poles to the arid centre.

Lowell published books on his discovery, and hypothesised on what life was like on Mars. H.G. Wells, inspired by Lowell’s work, wrote War of the Worlds, the story of superior Martians invading earth.

Later, more advanced telescopes revealed that Lowell’s straight lines were an optical illusion caused by our atmosphere. Yet, Percival’s (fictional) discovery of life on Mars kickstarted a fascination that has continued to beguile writers, scientists and philosophers to this day: is there life on Mars?

One country hoping to answer that question definitively is the UAE. In July this year, the president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan announced the UAE is planning to send an unmanned probe to the Red Planet by 2021.

“The UAE Mars probe represents the Islamic world’s entry into space exploration,” said Sheikh. “We will prove that we are capable of delivering new scientific contributions to humanity.”

At present, Dubai has 41 engineers working with South Korean satellite company, SatRec to develop its own indigenous range of satellites. At present, the European Space Agency (ESA), and on occasion, NASA regularly uses Russian rockets to get into orbit. The UAE on the other hand, hopes to be able to develop its own rockets and delivery systems to carry its probe to Mars.

If successful, the UAE would join the US and Russia as one of the only countries to successfully send an unmanned probe to Mars. But who else is planning on searching for life on the Red Planet?

A new space race

The US, through NASA, already has Curiosity Rover on the ground, conducting tests and searching for water. NASA also has a series of satellites orbiting Mars and mapping the surface and analysing the composition of the atmosphere. In 2016, NASA hopes to send its InSight probe to Mars to study the planet’s geological evolution. Four years later, it hopes to launch a follow-up to Curiosity, which will investigate whether Mars would be able to sustain a manned mission.

The Russians have been launching probes and satellites to Mars since the 1960s – but in that decade none of them ever reached their target. But in 1971 they became the first nation to send a man-made object to Mars.

So while space engineers in the UAE and beyond grapple with the question of whether there is life on Mars, within a few short years we could be actually asking: what is life like on Mars?