Surfing the Red Planet

Phil Hamilton reckons that we'd be better of making Earth a red planet than travelling to the other, more distant, one

HG Wells's classic The war of the worlds has Martians bestriding Victorian Britain in their war machines, and laying waste to the population and the environment. As a thinly-veiled indictment of colonialism, it is peerless in science fiction. However, as a speculative work, Wells's tale of Martian imperialists has thankfully proved to have been wide of the mark. Nonetheless the more mundane freeze-dried reality has not dented its mystique. Questions concerning life, water and the possibility of terraforming have sustained more recent literary explorations of the planet and inform the ideologies upon which current space programmes feed.

The European Space Agency's Mars Express page (http://www.esa.int/export/SPECIALS/Mars_express/index.html) is a nice-looking website that trumpets the success of its orbital probe. Prominently featured are the breakthrough spectrometer photographs that conclusively prove the existence of frozen water at the planet's south pole. This links to the latest news concerning Mars Express. Unsurprisingly this involves some lay technical language, as the page explains specifications, which in turn is peppered with phrases such as "unprecedented accuracy" and "stunning information". For once the superlatives live up to expectations, as the images contained in its multimedia pages are breathtaking.

Unfortunately for professor Colin Pilinger and his team, the main story from Mars has been the failure of the British-built Beagle 2 lander. However, its fate seems to have passed the ESA by. Their dedicated page carries a couple of promotional photos, discusses the onboard technology in detail and outlines mission objectives. But it fails to mention how it currently is as much use to Mars exploration as the dustbin lid it resembles. Thankfully this gap is filled by a link to the Beagle 2 homepage (http://www.beagle2.com/index.html). This updates the latest attempts to contact the probe, and the ambitious plans to try and image the landing site from orbit. The science page offers Mars enthusiasts a teasing account of the mission, allowing a bit of speculation about what scientific treasures Beagle 2 might have uncovered ... Setting out to prove that being American means bigger and better, the Nasa Mars page (http://www.nasa.gov/externalflash/m2k4/frameset.html) inevitably could not resist adding something flashy. It takes a while to load on a dial-up connection, but is worth the wait. The navigation panel is set off against a revolving Martian terrain. Very pretty. Each of the links leads to extremely polished pages with plenty of nice features to play with. However, one does get the impression that it is aimed at a young audience, perhaps explaining why it does not feature as much data as its ESA counterpart.

The best way to look around Nasa for Mars items is to go to the former Mars programme website (http://www.mars.jpl.nasa.gov) which lists nine links. The Mars rovers page seems a good place to start (http://www.marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.html). Sensibly Nasa begins the page with the current status of the Spirit and Opportunity vehicles. It appears that the software problems that plagued the former rover last week have been fixed, and technicians are looking forward to a bit of rock grinding. Opportunity, on the other hand, is still busy flexing its robotic arm. There follow a few press releases about the naming of Martian hills viewed by Spirit in honour of the Colombia crew, and some close-ups of the crater rim Opportunity landed in. But will it be able to struggle out of its resting place? So far Nasa is keeping mum.

It is all very well sending probes to Mars, but what is the point? The Mars Society (http://www.marsso-ciety.org.uk) attempts to provide an answer. The home page begins with the common refrain, "Humans are explorers". We should go to Mars because "it calls on us once again to exercise our human virtues of curiosity, creativity, heroism and foresight, to create new possibilities for our posterity." An article linked from the home page on British space policy puts more flesh on the bones. Bo Maxwell criticises the government's traditional lack of ambition in this area, arguing that a strong commitment to human missions would capture the imagination of the public, and bring long-term benefits to the UK economy. The founding declaration of the society opines about the knowledge we can gain, the challenge it poses, for humanity and "for a people who are yet to be. We must do it for the Martians."

Fine words. These projects are very exciting and ultimately the future of our species depends on escaping the confines of the Earth. But for communists the immediate interests of humanity do not lie in colonising Mars. It lies in making this world a red planet.