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The Landing Help (page 3)

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Sep 16, 2011

A Hasty Retreat

The first officer spends the next 2 hours verifying that the people on the opposite side of the planet actually have been testing their radio, then testing some more, and even trying a couple of different frequencies. All the results are negative.

The Sun is near the zenith in a sky that has become a uniform pinkish orange when the first officer says, “Time to pack up and head on back to the Eagle . We’ll be taking off early. There’s no time to lose.”

“What’s the hurry?” you ask.

“Do you see all the dust in the sky?”

“Yes. Isn’t that normal?”

“No. We have reports from the Valiant , as well as from general observation stations, that a planetwide dust storm might be brewing. We must get off the surface soon, before the winds aloft get so strong that we can’t get back to the Valiant at all,” says the first officer.

“I was just starting to feel safe down here,” you say.

“My friend, we are on the planet Mars. We are millions of kilometers from Earth and within real-time communications range of only a few other human beings in the entire Universe. The pressure outside your suit is so low that you wouldn’t stay conscious for 3 minutes without it. The temperature right now is –40°C, which happens also to be –40°F. However, the wind chill is much colder. It is hard to say whether you would die of suffocation or exposure if your pressure suit failed. There are several weak links in the chain that is keeping us alive. We must be certain that not a single one of those links is allowed to break. A full-Mars storm can last for months. By the end of it, links would not only be missing, but the whole chain would be gone.”

“So this means . . .”

“It means a total change of plan. I am going to make sure we get off of this planet as soon as possible. Premature termination of mission,” says the first officer.

You ask, “Didn’t you know about the impending storm before you decided to bring us down here?”

“No. There were no signs of a storm when we left the Valiant . At least, none that we yet have the ability to detect. This storm developed suddenly.”

“It’s as if a hurricane formed out of a clear blue sky in a single day,” you say. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“You speak of Earth,” says the first officer. “This is Mars.”

You ride the MUV back to the Eagle . Mars, which smiled in the morning, scowls now. The horizon has become brown as the Eagle rises from the surface. The winds begin to buffet the craft.

“Don’t crash,” you say.

“Don’t worry,” says the first officer. “I am well trained.”

Within seconds the Eagle has cleared the dust, which for now is confined to the first 200 or 300 meters above the floor of the caldera. The crater rim and the slopes of Pavonis Mons are in the clear, but the crater floor is an obscure mass, as if bathed in smog. “If the storm becomes intense enough, these dust clouds will be kicked up high into the atmosphere, possibly covering the entire mountain below us. In the extreme, the dust might obliterate all surface features, ascending several kilometers into the sky,” says the first officer.

“You say you cannot forecast the severity of the storm?” you ask.

“Weather forecasting on Mars is an inexact science, to say the least,” says the first officer. “Have you ever heard of the butterfly effect ?”

“Yes, that’s the principle that deals with large, long-term consequences arising from small causes.”

“If the butterfly takes off from Olympus Mons, the storm will cover the southern hemisphere. If the butterfly takes off from Pavonis Mons, the storm will cover the northern hemisphere. However, if the butterfly takes off from the Huygens Crater, the storm will envelop the entire planet.”

“You are joking, of course,” you say.

“Of course,” says the first officer. “But the principle is clear, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but there is one flaw in that theory.”

“There are no butterflies on Mars.”

“I know what you mean anyway.”

“The butterfly effect is the reason we have no way of knowing for certain how extensive this particular storm will be. Martian weather, it seems, is more sensitive than Earth weather.”

“Maybe the whole Martian ecosystem, such as it is, is more sensitive than that of the Earth,” you say.

“We don’t know until we test it. There are people back home who want to try to change the climate of Mars. Make a new world out of it. Try to get plants, or at least some sort of lichens, to grow. Maybe even try mold spores, bacteria, viruses. Anything. Anything that might change this planet into a world that humans can exploit,” says the first officer.

“Do you think humanity will ever make a livable planet out of Mars?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s not a scientific answer,” you say.

“I prefer to let certain mysteries remain mysteries,” says the first officer. “I don’t think we humans are ready to make a planet of our own.”

“Time will tell,” you say.

“Time always tells,” says the first officer.

Practice problems of this concept can be found at: Mars Practice Problems

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