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Mars Express On Its Way

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European Space Agency's Mars Express successfully launched, carrying with it the British-made Beagle 2 lander. Beagle 2 is the first probe designed to test the Red Planet for signs of life since NASA's Viking landers of the 1970s.

If all goes well, the Beagle 2 will detach from the Mars Express craft and land on Mars on Christmas of this year. Although low-budget in comparison to the Viking landers, Beagle 2 represents the most sophisticated attempt yet to discern living or extinct organisms in Mars' soil. And since it is an ESA venture, its findings will not be subject to NASA/JPL's rather duplicitous evidential standards. Interestingly, the Viking landers tested positive for life, but this result was downplayed by project scientists who postulated inorganic soil chemistry that merely mimicked the presence of active microbial life.

The Beagle 2 lander jettisons from the ESA's Mars Express probe.

Despite NASA's official decree that Mars is dead, there are several dissenting voices who will very likely relish a "second opinion." The question of what Viking found -- hardy germs or exotic chemical reactions -- has raged since the 1970s, fueled partly by the recent discovery of widespread water ice and probable liquid water on the Red Planet. It is hoped that Beagle 2 can help settle the lingering controversy over Viking's ambiguous results or perhaps stun the exobiological community with entirely unforeseen revelations. The animation below shows the insect-like, stationary lander unfolding its solar panels and scientific apparatus.

I will make a prediction. If the Beagle 2 lands successfully, with its instrumentation intact, I think it will discover a Martian surface populated by extremophylic microbes. But as NASA's bungled, wayward Mars probes demonstrate, making it to Mars is the hard part.

The horizon greeted by NASA's successful Pathfinder lander.


A Protohuman Counterpart for the Face?

In "The Monuments of Mars," researcher Richard Hoagland suggests that the Face/City complex on Mars is half a million years old, placing it concurrent to the emergence of homo erectus on Earth. This correspondence begs the question: Is there a link between possible ET artifacts on Mars and early human ancestors? The answer is a tentative and purely hypothetical "yes."

Hoagland has noted repeatedly that one side of the Face in Cydonia appears to represent a terrestrial hominid -- not a contemporary human. Study of the Face's relatively well-preserved western side, which features an anatomically correct "eye," protruding "brow" and lip-like features around what appears to be a parted mouth, reveals a strong resemblance to reconstructions of homo erectus.

Homo erectus seen in profile. Compare to shape-from-shading Face profile below. Image courtesy Chris Joseph.

Whether or not the Face's seeming resemblence to homo erectus is a reliable means of dating the Face's construction (if it was in fact built) is unknown. Hoagland's book offers the possibility that the "Martians" -- whoever they were -- may have been somehow instrumental in humanity's evolution (a la the revisionist archaeology of scholar Zechariah Sitchin), in which case the Face may be a literal "monument" to a feat of genetic engineering.

Anthropologists are quick to dismiss the possibility as pseudoscience. But the anthropological community is also among the first to admit how tangled and largely unrealized humanity's past really is. Contrary to some Internet commentators, genetic intervention (by ETs or humans) does not overrule Darwinian evolution. Rather, it compliments mainstream evolutionary thought; as Richard Grossinger writes in the preface to Hoagland's book, genetic engineering can be viewed as an extremely focused form of natural selection.

The Face's simian western half. Note protruding brow, chimp-like "muzzle" and nostril. Compare to forensic reconstruction of Australopithecus afarensis ("Lucy") below.

Perhaps study of the human genome will result in unexpected finds. If evidence of selective "tweaking" is discovered, the specter of intelligent intervention will become a very real prospect. And if such tweaking can be traced to ~500,000 before present, then the Martian connection proposed above may deserve serious attention.

What would a Martian evolutionary link tell us about ourselves? Likely many things delivered in one paradigm-whopping package. Our genetic (if not historical) legacy might be vastly different than presented in orthodox models. Similarly, the Face's "alien" builders might not be nearly as foreign as typically conjectured. The Martians may literally be us, the Face functioning as a mute reminder of our overlooked trans-planetary heritage.

The Face's simian likeness is evident in this forensic sculpture by artist Kynthia.

The Face's eerie similarity to our own primate ancestors argues that the presence of archaeologists and biologists is vital for any effort to seriously examine Mars for evidence of prior occupation.


Follow JPL's Rovers to Mars

The URL below shows updated telemetry data from the first Mars Exploration Rover (MER), dubbed "Spirit." Computer-generated "windows" show the MER's progress from multiple perspectives, including a simulated view of the ever-receding Earth.

A NASA MER rover on the Martian surface circa 2004.


"The Secret History of Ancient Egypt" by Herbie Brennan


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"The Secret History of Ancient Egypt" is a provocative companion to Brennan's "Martian Genesis" and "The Atlantis Enigma," and possibly the most entertaining layman's synopsis of Ancient Egypt's strange and contradictory history yet written. Brennan may not have all the answers, but he asks the right questions and offers frank, intriguing speculation to bolster his thesis: that Egypt's history is thousands of years longer than maintained by orthodox historians. Recommended for skeptics and committed students of "forbidden archaeology."

For related titles, click here.


Accelerated Evolution

[Note: The following began as an essay in my Posthuman Blues weblog. While not explicitly Mars-related, it parallels some of the ideas in the previous Cydonian Imperative entry about hominids. --Mac]

Evolution is fact, not theory -- but that doesn't mean that it's without its share of mysteries. For example, the transitional forms expected by Darwinian natural selection simply don't seem to exist in the expected quantity. It's as if evolutionary leaps from one species to another occur in fitful bursts: a phenomenon that, to some, implies an intelligent designer.

While I don't think that life on Earth has been steered by an omnipotent deity (although extraterrestrial intervention shouldn't be discounted), the lack of transitional specimens in the fossil record may be an important window into the mechanics of evolution. Rather than laboriously searching for "missing" links, perhaps scientists should concede, if only as an exercise in thought, that there are no transitional specimens; perhaps life has found a way to circumvent awkward transitional forms, hastening the evolutionary process. It's possible that DNA possesses its own collective intelligence, perhaps only loosely allied with its host species, resulting in morphological "quantum jumps."


The human lineage is by no means exempt. While contemporary humans share a common ancestry with apes, we have yet to find a transitional protohuman that would end the "missing link" controversy. But just maybe there wasn't a "missing" link. Maybe protohuman genes, sensing some incipient change in the biospheric zeitgeist, launched a new version of humanity to increase their chances of survival.

This sounds like an act of intelligence, but is it really? Temporarily setting aside the paradigm-smashing concept that living things are endowed with "morphogenetic fields," an evolutionary "leap" might be purely reflexive. (Ants and wasps construct elaborate "architecture," yet no one accuses them of intelligence. Similarly, viruses capably hijack cell nuclei, yet biologists hesitate to even consider them "alive" in anything but a rudimentary technical sense.)

The implications of evolutionary quantum jumps are far-reaching -- and disturbingly relevant. Humans have reworked the Earth's biosphere in countless ways in just the last few hundred years, exceeding the influence of our ancestors at a rate that promises to exponentiate. We have added new ingredients to the fabric of our planetary chemistry, saturated the skies with electronic transmissions, shaken the earth with nuclear explosions, and unleashed a veritable zoo of psychoactive substances. We live in an environment increasingly besieged by information of all conceivable forms; consequently, we suffer from new maladies and addictions.

Will these trends spur an abrupt genetic "upgrade"? Will homo sapiens cease to exist within a handful of generations? Fossil-hunters of the distant future, still seeking the worryingly absent links in the human continuum, may find the skeletons of "Starbucks Man" suddenly superseded by a new, improved version.

None of this is to say we shouldn't take measures to deliberately hasten our evolution. We may be unique in being the first humans capable of making the transition to a higher form of our own volition -- not an opportunity to be taken lightly.

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