Around 4 billion years ago, the Earth had a sibling — a twin even. Cooler than Mercury or Venus, not a gas giant like Jupiter or Saturn, Mars and Earth were warm, moist and shielded by thick atmospheres, holding out the tantalising hope of life. While Mars more or less stopped evolving, geologically speaking, its celestial neighbour’s minutest changes have been examined. And, given that the only known knowledge-making species occupies Earth, the pristinely preserved planet next to it remains a rich source of information about the origin of both planets.
That InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport), NASA’s unmanned craft, has managed to land successfully on the red planet’s surface promises to be the first step in a scientific leap. Given that nearly half of all missions to Mars have failed before landing, the success of the 300-million mile journey must be lauded. But now, as the hullabaloo over the first images from InSight already illustrates, Mars is set to do more than just enhance the knowledge of Earth’s origins. Its 4-billion-year stasis will be contaminated by the metaphorical onslaught of the digital Anthropocene, the age where all things outside humans are shaped by them nonetheless.
First, social media will be replete with retweets and shares and “hearts/likes” of every photo of Martian rocks and bedrock InSight transmits back home, complete with trite insights on the vastness and sameness of the universe.
Then, there is billionaire Elon Musk who has been planning to ferry (rich) people from Earth to colonise Mars, where the median price of a house will be about $200,000. While manned flights that far into the solar system remain in the realm of science fiction, InSight does carry the hope that someday the information it provides can help us escape a planet destroyed by conspicuous consumption. For now, though, there’s enough to gain from leaving Mars pristine.