To begin, let’s go back to 1968, when engineers in Rifle, Colorado found some natural gas in the sandstone, and came up with this clever plan to get it out. This news clip explains. Might the engineers have waited for a less destructive plan? In this case, they didn’t. But I’ll come back to Project Rulison in a moment.
Sometimes, it can be a good idea to wait for a less destructive way, even at some expense. I’ll admit, it’s frustrating. I’ve been there. As a rock hound, I’ve come across items which I was unable to retrieve without significant damage. (For instance, finding a spectacular gem in the volcanic rock on Sunstone Knoll in Utah, but having to settle for smaller pieces already loosened from the rock. Ever tried to break open basalt? It has about as much give as the Bush administration on stem cell research.) I’ve always felt humble in those moments, but assured that someone more knowledgeable and better equipped would come along, some day, and carefully retrieve the elusive specimen.
I’d imagine archaeologists sometimes encounter the same feeling. Lately, some groups have been using new technology to understand what is beneath the surface of a site without digging. Many artifacts that have been carelessly dug up and put on display are now facing rapid decay. Imagine a beautiful wood carving, laying protected beneath layers of peat moss for thousands of years, undisturbed, until dug up by a modern archaeologist. What endured for so long will soon begin to decay in our oxygen-rich atmosphere. Why not wait for a way to extract and preserve it safely?
So, it seems like healthy logic to me: if you can’t study something without making a mess, then wait for someone who can. Why do it, if you can be fairly certain that someone in the future will look back and cringe at your recklessness? Now, could someone please explain this to NASA?
Here’s the latest plan: If you want to know what is beneath the surface of Mars, shoot it! According to a Nature article, scientists are considering using the technology used in the Deep Impact project to probe the surface of the Red Planet. In other words, they want to hit it with a giant chunk of metal, and see what gets stirred up.
Christensen estimates that the impactor should be about 100 kilograms or so, and hit the planet at more than 15,000 kilometres per hour. It is hoped this would make a crater roughly 50 metres in diameter, and up to 25 metres deep.
Ok, that makes my chipping away at the basalt on Sunstone Knoll look pretty weak. In fact, I’m pretty sure that 50m x 25m would cover most of the Knoll. But these guys are sure that they’re doing the right thing. Not only is blowing a giant hole in Mars easier than sending a robot to carefully drill bores in the rock, it is safer, because this method is ”self-sterilizing”:
Moreover, exploring icy parts of the surface by rover carries the risk that a robot may accidentally seed a site with earthly life. Such a craft could generate enough heat to melt the ice, providing a miniature habitat for microbes.
An explosion of copper is so violent that it neatly avoids that risk, explains Christensen: “It’s completely self-sterilizing.”
Uh-huh. So, if by some off chance, there are microbes living under the surface of Mars, wouldn’t we be sterilizing them, as well?
In case there is any doubt of how blowing things up to get them out can be a bad idea, let’s return to Project Rulison.
It turns out, using a 47-kiloton nuclear device to drill for natural gas was sort of a bad idea. The gas, which subsequently bubbled to the surface in nearby West Divide Creek, was radioactive and completely unusable. The cleanup took about 20 years and cost millions of dollars.
Of course, we’re not planting a nuke in Mars to extract gas, we’re just going to bomb it from above, at high velocities with a giant chunk of metal in the hopes of extracting organic material. Yup.
I’m sure, as the future Martian tourists cringe at the giant man-made crater, they’ll understand that we were just trying to do things the quick and easy way… right?