Thursday, September 16, 2010

Phobos: Fermi Paradox Buster?

Its “strange” orbit had been intriguing astronomers for 133 years since its discovery, but is there a chance that the Martian moon Phobos is a product of an alien civilization?

By: Ringo Bones

Anyone in the know will readily admit that there is something strange with the Martian moon called Phobos. Inexplicably, everything strange about the planet Mars was discovered in 1877. From the “discovery” of straight, geometrically patterned channels – or canali – by the Italian astronomer named Giovanni Schiaparelli to the two tiny satellites – called Phobos and Deimos - discovered by the American astronomer named Asaph Hall. The first generation of robotic spacecraft launched to explore Mars during the 1960s has since proved that Sciaparelli’s “canals” as nothing more than an optical illusion, but the “mystery” behind the Marian moons managed to “survive” space-probe scrutiny.

The small size and proximity of Deimos and Phobos to their parent planet make them unique in the Solar System. Both are too small to gain enough hydrostatic equilibrium to acquire a spherical shape. Deimos is about 7.5 miles in diameter and orbits about 15,000 miles from the surface of Mars. Phobos, 13.7 miles in diameter, orbits much closer at 5,800 miles and has enough “intriguing” characteristics – including recently discovered ones – that had acquired the interest of generations of astronomers over the years.

The most remarkable thing about Phobos, according to some observations, is that its period of revolution appears to be decreasing slowly but perceptibly. The only plausible explanation is that the slight drag of the Martian atmosphere is taking energy from it, thus making it move closer to Mars and follow a shorter and faster orbit. The Martian atmosphere is so thin than a satellite the size of Phobos affected this way must have extremely low density. If these observations are correct, then Phobos must be lighter than any known solid substance.

The Russian astronomer Iosif S. Shklovsky has supplied a novel answer to this puzzle. He believes that Phobos is hollow and artificial and the work of highly civilized Martians of hundreds of millions of years ago. According to Shklovsky, when the Martians discovered that they would soon became extinct, they constructed one or two extraordinarily spacious satellites to serve as libraries and museums as a way to preserve their culture for future explorers as a testament to the glorious history and achievements of their doomed civilization - a sort of mother-of-all-time-capsules.

Few scientists – Shklovsky included – actually count on finding any such rather “convenient” repositories of ancient learning, and discovering any sort of intelligent, civilized life flourishing is considered extremely unlikely. But future prospective explorers of Mars will certainly look for archaeological evidence of long dead civilizations. Maybe Iosif S. Shklovsky had a big beef with what is now called the Fermi Paradox – the inexplicable lack of even the most basic archaeological remains proving the existence of extraterrestrial biological beings as smart as – or smarter – than the human race.

Our current knowledge suggests that the beginning of life on a planet and its evolution toward higher forms has no fixed timetable. Life may have started early on Mars and evolved faster, reaching climax hundreds of millions of years ago. Even if nothing nearly as spectacular is found on Mars – even recent ones like the monkey-like humanoid face on Mars later turned out to be nothing more than an optical illusion – the exploration of the “red planet” will be an event unmatched in all of humanity’s history.

So will Phobos be the Fermi Paradox buster every believer in extraterrestrial life is waiting for? Maybe too soon to tell, but more recent images of Phobos taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter did show a blue patch near the rim of a deep crater on an otherwise reddish surface. A contrast that’s rarely seen on a body supposedly a captured asteroid turned into a moon. Some astronomers say the blue is recently exposed terrain that hasn’t yet weathered to red; others think it is a wholly different material poking out from the interior. Russia already has plans to send a lander to Phobos to gather samples – and perhaps clues to this Martian moon mystery. Maybe Iosif S. Shklovsky was right all along.