Astrobiologist Alison Olcott Marshall could not have timed her new class at the University of Kansas any better.
This semester she’s teaching students about Mars. The class filled up fast. In the next section they’re starting this week, they’ll talk about Martians.
So of course they’ll take a field trip to see the Matt Damon blockbuster “The Martian,” which just raked in more than $55 million on its first weekend.
The movie opened just as NASA released stunning new images of Mars that appear to show evidence that water once flowed there. The idea that Mars might not be such a dead, arid planet has revved up interest in the red planet.
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“Wow! I am feeling a Buck Rogers moment coming on,” wrote Ann McFeatters, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.
“OK. Here’s the thing. There is non-frozen water on Mars! People! This is, like, you know, humongous!”
Stoking the excitement: Plans for non-NASA trips to Mars were already underway. Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, who also runs a private spaceflight company called SpaceX, wants to colonize Mars and send the first people there in the next decade or so.
Right before “The Martian” premiered, NASA hosted panels at Kennedy Space Center during which its top scientists and astronauts, alongside actors from the movie, talked about the human mission to Mars that NASA is developing.
“I think Mars hits a sweet spot,” says Olcott Marshall, an assistant professor of paleobiogeochemistry at KU. “Mars looks familiar but also very strange. It intrigues us. It looks so alien.
“I think it’s much harder to imagine, say, what landing on Jupiter would be like because it’s so out of our realm of experience. But Mars is just familiar enough that we can picture it and think about it and imagine it.”
NASA marked its 50th anniversary of studying Mars in August. Its first mission was a fly-by that left scientists less than excited because images showed a cratered planet similar to the moon.
“It actually set back Mars exploration for many years after that,” Jim Green, planetary science division director for NASA, said this month at the “Martian” event.
“After our fly-bys we decided we needed orbiters and so in 1969 we started with our orbiters and then we began to realize how complex Mars really is. It has clouds. It has snow. It snows on Mars. The seasons are there. The vistas are unbelievable. It’s got huge canyons.”
According to NASA’s Mars stat sheet, it’s roughly half the diameter of Earth, it has two moons and it’s way colder there with an average temperature of 81 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.
But “Mars has a lot of good things going for it,” says Olcott Marshall. “It’s close. It’s our nearest neighbor so it’s easy to get to. The length of the day is similar.
“It seems like the geology is very similar. I think that early Earth and early Mars were pretty much the same.”
For scientists studying the possibility of life on Mars, “one of the things that intrigues astrobiologists about Mars is this idea of early Mars and early Earth being similar,” says Olcott Marshall.
“We know conditions on early Earth such that life arose here. So if conditions on early Mars were the same, it’s possible life arose there as well.”
Could Mars somehow be an interplanetary brother from another mother? Some of her scientific colleagues believe that life as we know it actually started on Mars “and was seeded on Earth,” says Olcott Marshall.
“So there are powerful arguments to be made for why it would actually be easier to start life on Mars than it would be on Earth. They believe life began on Mars and basically hitched a ride to Earth ... so we’re actually planetary invaders that came from Mars. Those are the types of things that draw people to Mars.”
The notion of Martians — who don’t look anything like Matt Damon — has long stoked human curiosity, and fears, too.
According to NASA, the concept of “Martians” can be traced to the 1800s when the use of telescopes revealed strange markings on the planet that people believed were canals built by an alien race.
Were these aliens evil or benevolent? Were they intelligent beings?
“There was just enough of a possibility that Mars might be able to support an intelligent population that made it fascinating for masses of people,” Bob Crossley, author of “Imagining Mars: A Literary History, told LiveScience in 2012.
But Mars’ mystique runs deeper than the fantastical idea of little green men or the tentacled creatures that invaded Earth in the infamous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast of 1938.
“Somewhere deep in my own psyche, and maybe for other people as well, there is a desire for another world,” Crossley said. “For me, the deepest meaning of Mars is it represents some kind of longing for something outside ourselves, something outside our own world.”
The new photos that NASA recently released of Mars have sparked debate over the private plans to homestead the planet.
Colonize Mars: a good idea or not?
A Dutch nonprofit venture called Mars One plans to send four people there by 2026 to begin populating it with humans.
Olcott Marshall doesn’t believe she’ll see non-astronauts settle on Mars in her lifetime because conditions there are simply too inhospitable to support human life, Matt Damon notwithstanding.
The KU professor jokingly tells the students in her Mars class: “It’s actually a violation of OSHA rules to colonize Mars.”