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Aloha, Mars

PlanetScapes illustration
by Jeffrey F. Bell
Honolulu - Feb 11, 2004
Right after the Spirit rover landed on Mars, I made a flippant remark to my friend Dr. X to the effect that "Gusev Crater is one big basalt flow, not a lakebed like they think. All the rocks in the rover pictures look just like the ones in my neighbor's garden wall."

I didn't think much of it until my next meeting with Dr. X. He doesn't pay much attention to Mars due to his heavy workload, but suddenly he wanted to talk about Mars and nothing else.

"After you gave me your instant interpretation of Gusev as a basalt flow based on a garden wall, I checked out the orbital pictures of that site posted on Prof. Z's door down the hall. That crater is quite obviously covered with lava flows. There are flow fronts and wrinkle ridges visible in the pictures. If this place ever was a lakebed, it was flooded with basalt later on and any water-laid deposits must be deeply buried."

"This is news? I told you last week it was a basalt flow. I just heard the first soil analysis shows a lot of olivine, too."

"Sure, but you didn't know that last week. You probably didn't even look at the orbital pictures."

"No, I'm too busy these days monitoring the last dying kicks of the manned space program."

"But you made an instant geological and mineralogical analysis of a site that has baffled the whole rover science team by comparing the first picture with a suburban retaining wall! And your training was all in astrophysics. I know for a fact you never did any geological field work in your entire life. How do you make these random conceptual leaps?"

"It was not a random conceptual leap. It was a logical extension of the grand unified theory of Mars that I have been developing for many years. It's called the Aloha Mars Hypothesis."

Dr. X looked at me pretty sharply for an old friend. "I've heard of Blue Mars and White Mars, but Aloha Mars is a new one on me."

"The Aloha Mars Hypothesis says that every place on Mars has an analog somewhere in Hawaii. If you know Hawaii, Mars is an open book to you."

Dr. X pointed out the window of the Planetology Dept. Lunch Room at the usual February scene of blue skies, puffy white cumulus clouds, waving palm trees, and jungle-clad mountains with a double rainbow in front.

"Hawaii looks like the fever dream of some fanatical Blue Martian who thinks ancient Mars was warm, wet, and full of life. It sure doesn't look like the real Mars of frozen deserts and sandstorms."

"Well, of course the analogy is not complete. The parts of Hawaii seen by tourists don't count, like coral reefs for instance. There is a strong bias toward high mountain regions. I first noticed this while observing asteroids at Mauna Kea many years ago.

"If you put on the red sunglasses we used to protect our night vision, every place near the summit of that mountain looked like Mars. At first it was just a joke among us astronomers. Then the word got around and Mars geologists actually started coming there to take samples.

"Now they say it's the best Mars soil analog on Earth. They have a whole room full of Mauna Kea soil now at JSC to test their Mars base hardware in."

Dr. X looked puzzled. "But how does this model help you to make instant interpretations with hardly any data and no time thinking?"

"Well, in the first place it starts you off in the right direction. The Blue Martians have been steering everybody in the wrong direction for years. Every flat layered deposit is called a lakebed, even if there are perfectly good alternate explanations.

"Every channel is a river, even the ones that are indistinguishable from lava channels on the Moon. Eventually everyone has gotten so waterlogged that they can't see the plain facts in front of them, like that wrinkle ridge in Gusev. You saw it right away only because you don't pay much attention to Mars and have missed most of the Blue Martians' propaganda program."

"But we Aloha Martians start off by assuming everything on Mars is volcanic in origin, just like in Hawaii. We only entertain other hypotheses if there is actual unambiguous data to support them. Otherwise, we just walk around Hawaii until we find something that looks the same as the thing you are studying on Mars. Then we look up the Hawaii analog in a book, or ask some passing volcanologist what it is."

Dr. X thought for a moment. "I can see how this system would work for things like lava tunnels. But this garden wall thing baffles me. Most of the garden walls around here are made from plain old basalt lumps quarried out from that big flow where the athletic campus is now. What about Mars rocks that don't look like plain old basalt?"

"Well, the orbital remote-sensing data suggests that Mars is almost all basalt of one kind or another. That's an unpleasant fact the Blue Martians have had to suppress. But when a rock on Mars looks really strange and non-basaltic, your regular run-of-the mill garden wall is no help. You have to make a special trip to the Great Sample Wall and look for an identical rock there."

"The Great Sample Wall? What is that?"

"It's a wall around one of those old New England saltbox houses built by the missionaries. For some reason the builders of that particular wall brought in a random assortment of rocks from all around the island of Oahu. So far, every rock observed at every landing site on Mars has a close visual analog in the Great Sample Wall."

"Every rock? How about that weird bedrock with the fine layering at the Opportunity site?"

"South side, extreme west end, second rock from the top. Lithified pyroclastic ashfall of the Honolulu Series. I found it on the way to the barber shop last Saturday."

"I want to see this magic wall."

Usually Dr. X is more in tune with the politics of space science than me, but that day for a change I was ahead of him. "I can't allow that. The Opportunity science team is having vigorous debates about that outcrop. They will spend at least a week making sophisticated measurements of it with instruments that cost millions of dollars to develop.

"If the word got out that all these questions have already been answered by looking at a fieldstone wall, what would happen to the whole gigantic Mars exploration program? How would we justify the President's plan to start a whole second Mars program aimed at finding ways to extract oxygen, rocket fuel, and Tang from Martian rocks? If I let this secret out, thousands of people at JPL and Lockheed-Martin will be thrown out of work! Who do you think I am, A. Q. Khan?"

"But what good is a sure-fire method for solving all Mars geology problems if you can't reveal it to anyone?"

"Well, so far it's mostly been good for impressing my Internet friends. But it has given me an idea for a new industry in Hawaii."

"A new industry for Hawaii? I'm almost afraid to ask what it is. Your retirement home for Baathist Party officials sure didn't fly."

"I call it Martian Adventure Tourism. Instead of traveling to Mars vicariously through NASA missions, rich yuppie Space Cadets will come to Hawaii and enjoy real Martian conditions. They will visit exact analogs of famous geological features on Mars and explore them in clumsy simulated spacesuits.

"They will pay 4-star hotel rates to sleep in a simulated Mars base that smells like old socks. Real Mars scientists will give guest lectures for hefty fees. It will be a lot like Bob Zubrin's project in Canada, except for the profits."

Jeffrey F. Bell is Adjunct Professor of Planetology at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. All opinions expressed in this article are his own and not those of the University.

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Opportunity Sees Tiny Spheres in Martian Soil
Pasadena (JPL) Feb 09, 2004
NASA's Opportunity has examined its first patch of soil in the small crater where the rover landed on Mars and found strikingly spherical pebbles among the mix of particles there. "There are features in this soil unlike anything ever seen on Mars before," said Dr. Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., principal investigator for the science instruments on the two Mars Exploration Rovers.

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