Phoenix, the probe launched last August by NASA in conjunction with the Canadian Space Agency and about a dozen other organizations from all over the world, landed safely two days ago on the surface of Mars. Its mission is to sample and analyze soil and ice for evidence of past microbial life, to uncover whether or not Mars once supported (or perhaps still supports) a habitable zone. Phoenix will also attempt to piece together a geological history of the Martian north, with the hope being to find some evidence of past climate change. It's been a popular idea among some students of Mars that it was once warmer and more Earthlike, and not always the frozen, presumably lifeless rock we see today.
The probe has already sent back some very cool pictures, which the folks at NASA, giddy nerds that they are, have been kind enough to release to the public. The one over there to the right is a shot of the Martian surface, showing a phenomenon called cryoturbation (thanks, Wikipedia!). The polygon shape is formed when frozen soil contracts and splits into separate chunks. The cracks between the chunks are then filled in with loose soil, so when the temperature increases and the chunks expand, they have nowhere to go but up.
The photo to the left shows the phenomenon a lot better, in a wider angle. See how the shapes stretch out all the way to the horizon? Check out the shot to the right of the next paragraph, now. Looks the same, only that picture isn't of the Martian surface — it's of Devon Island, Canada, up above the Artic Circle. Cryoturbation was observed in permafrost here on Earth way before it was photographed on Mars.
Jesus Christ, does this mean the Phoenix landing was faked, and those pictures are just gussied-up shots of some frozen island waste from up in Hockeyland? Or that the lines in our permafrost are actually evidence of an extraterrestrial visitation? Slow down, Richard C. Hoagland, you fucking dipshit. It means something much, much cooler. It means, as Carl Sagan said after the first Viking landing in the 1970s, that Mars is a place. It's not just a pink light in our sky, or an image in a telescope. It's somewhere — somewhere you could stand on, and walk around. Somewhere a lot different from Earth, sure, but created and shaped by the same natural forces as our planet.
This sort of thing bores the shit out of Dennis Miller, who has said before on his radio show that we should mothball the space program and turn our attention instead to building an army of robots to fight the wars of the future, because "we don't need to be in space right now. I'm so bored with space." Since so little of what he says is actually funny anymore, I'm not sure if he was joking or not.
Anyway . . . it puts Miller to sleep, but it thrills me half to fucking death. I love this shit. To look at a photograph taken from the surface of another world, and see something familiar, something we see right here on Earth . . . that's awesome and amazing beyond my ability to describe. The unmanned exploration of the solar system isn't as sexy or nail-bitingly heroic as the Mercury, Gemini, or Apollo missions, or even the comparatively tame Space Shuttle program, but it is one of the few things the U.S. government, through those geniuses at NASA, is doing absolutely right. It shouldn't be mothballed; it should be expanded, and applauded.