Last Sunday, May 25, 2008, the Phoenix cleaved through the Martian atmosphere and landed successfully on the planet’s northern polar region. In what was obviously a very historic moment, the lander sent back crisp, clear pictures of the region’s polygon-cracked terrain. It sent shivers down my spine.
The Phoenix Mars lander is a robot spacecraft that was launched on August 4, 2007, which contains instruments that will search “for environments suitable for microbial life on Mars, and to research the history of water there.” In short, it is an attempt to search for life outside Earth. Mars is the likely first stop.
The red planet has fascinated me, as it has to a lot of inquiring minds, ever since I was gifted by my mother with an astronomy book entitled “Secrets of Space” when I was about nine or ten years old. The book abruptly opened my mind to the unlimited wonders and possibilities that the universe, in all its greatness, could bring. Which brought out the big question, the possibility; as what has been, in the last century down to the present, the subject of countless films, books, articles, and all forms of literatures.
I never forget the words of Ellie Arroway, played by Jodie Foster, in the epilogue of the movie adaptation of Carl Sagan’s “Contact”—when she talked to a group of children about the SETI project and the infinite vastness of space: “So if it’s just us… seems like an awful waste of space, right?”
So the questions “Are we alone?” or “Is there life out there?” are becoming more and more familiarly conventional questions in this age of rapidly increasing, and enlightening, scientific discoveries; we’ve definitely come a long way from the time Galileo was disgraced by the Church for claiming that the Earth is not the center of the universe.
How big really is the universe? You’d probably say, it’s really, really big. But really, how big?