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Guest Editorial: Life on Mars? The science-affirming mission we need right now

Baltimore Sun Editorial Board
FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2019 photo made available by NASA, engineers monitor a driving test for the Mars rover Perseverance in a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. The robotic vehicle, scheduled to launch on July 30, 2020, is planned to touch down in an ancient river delta and lake known as Jezero Crater, not quite as big as Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. (J. Krohn/NASA via AP, File)

From writer H.G. Wells to filmmaker Ridley Scott, the possibility of life on Mars has sparked the public's imagination for generations. And if there ever was a time when a world could use a demonstration of the power of science, or at least a hopeful distraction, it is in the Year of Oh-My-Lord 2020.

Earth is caught not only in a raging COVID-19 pandemic but in an extraordinary rejection of the systemic study of the natural world. When a sitting member of Congress who openly defies social distancing norms contracts the virus and then blames mask-wearing for his fate, as Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert did, while a sitting president promotes videos of a woman who believes the coronavirus has already been cured (and warns about having sex with demons), as Donald Trump did, then maybe it's time everyone got back in the classroom for some remedial instruction.

Perhaps a NASA mission is just what the doctor ordered. Certainly, Thursday's launch was not as dramatic as aliens landing in New Jersey bent on destroying mankind or astronaut Mark Watney getting stuck on the red planet in the movie "The Martian" and forced to MacGyver his survival, or even the antennae rising from the back of Uncle Martin's head in "My Favorite Martian." But at least the Perseverance rover now headed to Mars is real and not fictional.

Its mission is to closely examine the rocks and soil beginning with the Jezero Crater while the companion drone helicopter Ingenuity hovers 15 feet above the surface to check out the challenges of the Martian flight. It's entirely possible Perseverance will uncover signs of ancient microbial life on Mars as it roams the planet.

It's not the first such U.S.-led effort (four others, Curiosity, Opportunity, Spirit and the original Mars rover, Sojourner, came before it) but it's the most capable, with the ability to drill and store core samples and ramble across the landscape for the equivalent of two Earth years. It's a shame that now comes the boring part.

Perseverance won't land until February. In movies, this is usually the moment where there's a montage of rocket hurtling clips interspersed with scenes of NASA personnel hunched over computers before a landing takes place about 30 seconds later.

Still, this gives everyone time to marvel at how human ingenuity and knowledge has reached the point where a remotely controlled robot stuffed with all kinds of technology, from lasers to drills, cameras and microphones, sitting on top of a powerful Atlas V rocket can be launched into space with the press of a button on a mission that will take years to complete. Isn't that amazing?

This isn't science fiction. It's a product of a Mars exploration effort decades in the making. And this time the United States is not alone.

Studying Mars is now an international effort, with the United Arab Emirates' Hope and China's Question to Heaven spacecraft already on their way, the former destined to circle the planet to study its weather and the latter to send its own rover to the surface.

Now, cut to the final reel and imagine if Perseverance discovers evidence of some one-celled organism that lived on Mars 3.7 billion years ago, when the planet was more habitable with a watery surface.

Fossils? Maybe not, but some trace of organic chemicals could exist. Will third planet inhabitants see such a breakthrough as the answer to the eternal question, is there life beyond Earth or as a fraud perpetrated by the liberal eggheads with their fake news co-conspirators?

Here's a good pretest: Is the person reacting to such an event wearing a mask to prevent the virus from spreading or still insisting that hydroxychloroquine is a cure so why bother?

Sometimes reality truly is stranger than fiction. Onward.