Sir Patrick Moore presents 'Mars: A New Frontier

By Dr Russell Cockman

Sir Patrick Moore visited Victoria Halls, Helensburgh, on the 17th September 2003 to speak on a subject very much in the current public gaze of 'Mars: A New Frontier'. The talk, postponed from the 4th June 2003 due to ill-health, was presented to a full house estimated at 300 who applauded wildly as the stage curtain slowly drew back revealing a seated Sir Patrick, still inconvenienced somewhat from a recent knee operation.

Despite his advancing years and health problems, the Knight was clearly in good form, speaking fluidly about his favourite subject in a manner that was vintage Moore. Within moments the audience were hanging on every word as he covered the background; from the Canals of Percival Lowell and the controversy surrounding intelligent life on Mars, to the results of unmanned probes that finally put an end to the speculation.

It is clear that in the present 'poque Mars is a cold, inhospitable world, its thin atmosphere causing liquid water or blood to boil and instant death to any unprotected creature on its surface. It probably wasn't always so, as Sir Patrick produced much pictorial evidence of surface features that could only be easily explained by water having flowed in the not-too-distant-past. He emphasised his belief that, if primitive life forms had developed, they might still survive in the permafrost or in a liquid water lake that could exist under the polar caps.

Plenty of natural resources exist on the planet, such as water in the polar caps and iron-rich minerals in the surface rocks, but possible colonisation depends upon the success of lunar colonisation and the solution of all the problems with living in the airless, weak gravity environment. Mars colonisation has the additional requirement for being completely self-sufficient, as the 280 day journey time to Mars would preclude any possibility of an emergency response from Earth. Sir Patrick then gave his impression of how a Mars colony might appear with inhabitants living in pressurised accommodation areas, growing food hydroponically and working outside in protective suits to combat the low atmospheric pressure and the deadly solar radiation, the most difficult problem of all to solve. Land transportation would be relatively straightforward and even air travel might be possible despite the very low atmospheric pressure.

Finally, the possibility of 'terra-forming' the planet was considered, initially by adding greenhouse gases and nitrogen to increase atmosphere pressure and to warm it to permit liquid water to exist. Then the huge quantities of oxygen combined within the minerals on the surface would be unlocked. Timescales and energy requirements would be vast and beyond our current capabilities, but surely not beyond the bounds of future technology.

The evening concluded with an invitation for questions from the audience with many interesting topics raised and finally, book signing.

Entrance ticket courtesy of Mr. Andrew Leven, Chairman, Helensburgh Astronomical Society.