Paul Byrne loves Mars. He wrote his doctoral thesis and several research papers about the planet. Most of his graduate students study Mars. And yet, earlier this year, he posed this question on Twitter: “If you could end the pandemic by destroying one of the planets, which one would you choose and why would it be Mars?”
What does Byrne, a planetary scientist at North Carolina State University, have against the red planet? Nothing, he told me. But everyone else loves Mars too, and maybe a little too much.
Aside from Earth and the moon, humankind has studied Mars more than any other world in the universe. In the United States, many planetary scientists are devoted, in one way or another, to the study of Mars. Since 1996, NASA has sent more than a dozen robots to orbit, rove, dig, and hop around the planet. The latest NASA rover, Perseverance, departed for Mars in July, days after China and the United Arab Emirates launched their own missions to the planet.
The Mars monopoly is strong enough that it makes all the other worlds in the solar system seem a little neglected. Scientists are now preparing to negotiate top priorities for the future, a process that takes place once a decade. Mars won out in the previous round, leading to the Perseverance mission. This time, many scientists are rooting for a less Mars-centric outcome. The process, worked out over months in papers and panels, will consider a host of possibilities, all while reckoning with a fundamental question: Why explore any of these worlds at all?