The frontiers of exploration have had many faces throughout history. In ages past, what is today London, England would have been a striking, though desolate, find. Today it’s a central hub of the Western world.
Ditto my hometown of Toronto, Ontario. Just 300 years ago it was wilderness. And you don’t have to venture very far from the city limits to return to that untamed world.
And there are many places around the world that are still, in the truest sense of the word, frontiers of exploration.
Antarctica, the Amazon rainforest, the ocean floor (a massive ‘new world’ right here on Earth), Madagascar, the high Arctic – all places that most human will never venture and no doubt hold secrets that could both amaze and bewilder our understanding of the world and perhaps life itself.
Overlooking the frozen shores of Lake Nipissing in North Bay, Ontario
Consider for example the extremophiles (life that exists in extreme environments) that live inside rocks many kilometers beneath the surface – far from any sunlight – that use the rock itself as an energy source.
Or the life that persists on volcanos.
Or the life that flourishes in Lake Vostok – an underground Antarctic lake that has been cut-off from the outside world for perhaps 15 million years beneath 4km of snow and ice.
These discoveries have changed how we think about life, and rightly so. We have learned that life can persist – and proliferate – in places that only a few years ago were considered too harsh.
The goldilocks zone right here on Earth has ballooned.
Places that were once thought of as too extreme in some way – too hot, too cold, too dry, too little sun – are now all environments where there is life.
And significantly, they’re not just places where life is theorized. It’s not just that someone says there ‘could be’ life there.
There really is life there. We have seen it. Measured it. Tested it. Compared it.
Our exploration has taught us an important lesson for Planet Earth: life finds a way.
And as I sit in my chair explore the ice world I see out the window of the house Ashley grew up in, those four words stick with me.
Life finds a way.
I know gazing out the window that my view is teeming with life.
In the sky, under the ice, in the snow.
Everywhere there is life, and it’s abundant. Our exploration of Earth has proven this to be true.
Then I put on my Mars-coloured glasses, and start to think…
When the first people arrive on Mars in the next decades, the view they’ll be faced with may be remarkably similar to what I see here, sitting in North Bay on the shore of Lake Nipissing.
A landscape shaped by the cold, by wind, by water – by weather.
It’s a landscape that is utterly beautiful, but also incredibly harsh.
Lake Nipissing or Mars?
The one I see is a present day lake and the one on Mars will be an ancient lake – one that has long since dried up. But I’d be willing to bet that the first people to visit Mars will touchdown at a place where we’re confident there used to be water (and maybe still is, just trapped under the surface in permafrost).
Our Martian explorers will lift the veil on some of the secrets of the Red Planet. They will walk and rove. They’ll set up camps and hunker down when dust storms approach. They will keep warm on the cold Martian nights.
And as I think about the incredibleness of discovery that awaits our pioneers, it occurs to me that we’ve been here before. This has already happened.
Earth used to be the undiscovered country (and in a meaningful way, we’ve only scratched the surface of it).
We are born to explore, and now there is a new frontier that tugs at our souls – and our emissaries are already there. But they are only wetting our appetite.
Missions to Mars have been flying for five decades. They have answered some fundamental questions – about water, about canals (or lack thereof), about volcanos, about the atmosphere and ancient environment.
They have also raised poignant questions, the latest of which – the origin of methane spikes detected by MSL – often circle around the question of life.
Was it ever there? What was its nature? When did it emerge? How long did it survive? Is it still there today? Are we related?
The answers to these questions – significant in their own right as they help us to understand the history of Mars – are also fundamental in determining our place in the cosmos.
Are we alone? Does life jump from planet to planet on asteroids? Is the chemistry of life common?
Answering these questions – in either the affirmative or the negative – will have profound impacts.
Exploration in the 21st century will take us to new frontiers, but it will similarly be true to our history. Humans yearn to explore, and this is as true today as it was hundreds of years ago.
The names of the explorers may be different, the frontier’s further afield, and our ships different in appearance, but these are only superficial transformations.
The essence is the same.
We want to explore new challenges, new destinations, new landscapes, new people – new worlds.
What do those places feel like? How do they smell? Is there life? Are there resources that will help people survive and travel on further?
Mars, like Earth, is a place that offers endless possibilities of exploration.
I wonder what we’ll find.
North Bay, Ontario or Nipissing Landing, Mars?