Thursday, 29 May 2008

Exclusive: 'USA fined for Martian littering '

Detailed plans of Britain's next voyage
into space as revealed yesterday. It is hoped
that the 'chihuahua' will transport Britons
to Mars by the year 2020.

Hooray! We’ve landed on Mars! When I say we, I mean the Americans. And when I say landed, I mean guided an unmanned and heavily laden tea tray with legs on to the surface. The first pictures from the Phoenix scout craft were beamed back on Monday, showing in crystal clarity the terrain of our closest neighbour to be just as rocky, dusty and dull as many expected. This did not curtail the jubilant scenes from Arizona, with the mission’s staff clearly relieved that they still had a job after the craft was given a 50/50 chance of surviving the landing. ‘Welcome to Mars’ said NASA’s Mars chief Fuk Li, who is presumably overjoyed that this successful phase will ensure he is remembered for something other than his hilarious name.

All this is in stark contrast to the events of 2003, when Britain’s own version of the Phoenix, the pathetically named ‘Beagle’, was destroyed entering the Martian atmosphere, leading to misery inside the broom cupboard in the basement of a University building that doubled as mission control. Given that funding for the British Space Program is less than for the Eurovision song contest (at which we are equally as hopeless), I am dubious that it got that far, and am sure that even if our three-legged Beagle did make it out of the Earth’s atmosphere as claimed, it would have probably hit the Moon by accident.

Space travel just isn’t our thing. Whilst the other world superpowers were getting busy with the space race and putting men on the Moon, we were working on mop-top beat pop and winning the World Cup. Far more worthwhile, as the Beatles sold more records than NASA could ever hope to, and there is still a chance Paul or Ringo might get into orbit. Space exploration in Britain is treated as a bit of a joke; a few mad scientists with vain hopes of floating around in zero gravity. Its place in the media is reserved for the ‘and finally’ segments on the local news, where wannabe astronauts are seen launching rockets ‘into space’ from a quiet spot on Clapham Common. Britain should gracefully bow out of the space race. After all, it’s only another competition for us to potentially lose, or at best crash out in the quarter-finals.

For all its bells and whistles, from what I can ascertain, the Phoenix scout cannot actually do very much. It has an arm, with which it intends to dig down to reach a layer of permafrost, but may not be able to tell us a great deal once it has done so. Apparently, though the whole mission is geared around the ancient ‘life on Mars’ hypothesis, the Phoenix does not have the equipment on board to test for existing or past life. It is primarily concerned with finding ice just below the surface. Given that aerial probes have long since confirmed the existence of ice on the red planet, it seems that the half-billion Dollar Phoenix will do little more than to confirm that it is indeed frozen water.

Experts will argue that there is much more to it, and perhaps there is, but the pragmatic reality of space exploration has the unfortunate drawback of playing second fiddle to Science Fiction, which has given us far more excitement over the years than simply sticking a metal finger into the red rock of Mars, and is way more fun. It won’t be truly captivating for the public until we send someone there in person. I have a diary opening next week so will volunteer. Who knows though, perhaps in 200 years time, we’ll all be living the Mars dream. Elton John once sang ‘Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids’, but I am not so sure; I hear there is a lot less knife crime…

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