Red Death

A Study of the Solar System Article No. 6

by John W. Campbell, Jr. (pages 43-47 of November 1936's Astounding Stories)

DIED: Planet Mars, fourth of the solar system, at the age of 2,500,000,000 years, of progressive strangulation and severe dehydration. For the past 1,000,000,000 years Planet Mars has been very ill. Suspicion is strong that death has been slowly poisoning his system during this time. Mars is survived by seven larger brothers; two others having died, Mercury dying of acute sunburn, and Pluto, who froze to death one night. Two infant satellites of Mars, Phobos and Diemos, also died before him.

"It is understood that his corpse will lie in state at the present address, 140,000,000 miles from the Sun, for ten or twelve billions of years."

We'll leave that in the files for the moment, along with the obituaries of a dozen or so other personages throughout the world who are seriously ill. For Mars is not quite dead as yet. But the slow, slow poison death is administering has nearly finished its work.

His breath is very shallow now, and his body cool. He has an atmosphere; there is no doubt of that. But by various means we have found that there is less oxygen over 1,000 squares miles of Mars than over one square mile of Earth. One thousandth the atmosphere Earth possesses! For the purposes of fiction, that atmosphere has been enormously exaggerated. It is no "mountaintop air, thin but sharp and refreshingly cool."

Here on Earth we have a different name for that condition; we call it a fairly good vacuum. It's thin, all right but what kind of mountaintop would have that kind of air here on earth? No man has yet climbed to the peak of Mt. Everest, 29,000 feet, even with the aid of oxygen bottles. In balloons, where men had only to sit and the most violent effort was opening a stop cock on an oxygen bottle, or pulling a valve rope, over 40,000 feet was attained.

When stratostats were built, in their protected, inclosed gondolas, elevations of ten, then twelve miles were reached. Into the stratosphere! The air there, unbearably attenuated, at an elevation three Mt. Everests piled atop each other would not reach, was approximately one hundred times as dense as Mars' surface atmosphere.

The mountaintop referred to above must be the top of a mountain approximately as high as twenty unscalable Mt. Everests superimposed. Otherwise that statement is fairly descriptive, with the understanding that the one "refreshed" has a remarkably stubborn constitution.

The air is sharp, all right. It is composed, apparently, of a gas as sharp as chlorine -- ozone. At one time ozone was considered healthful and, in fact, beneficial, because of its germicidal powers. It is remarkably effective in destroying germ life, as effective as chlorine, and for much the same reason. Ozone is a special type of oxygen molecule, just as diamond is a special form of carbon. Oxygen gas is normally O2, while ozone is O3. Ozone will attack even such stubborn metals as silver, which oxygen leaves untarnished; it is not surprising that it will also attack life tissues.

EARTH is protected by a layer of ozone in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, 100 miles above the surface, where it is about one one-thousandth as dense as at the surface. There cosmic rays, electrons shot out by the Sun, ultra-violet radiation and a number of other effects produce ozone from oxygen, and the ozone absorbs the short ultra-violet radiation which is dangerous to our race.

But the air of Mars is suitable for the production of ozone at the surface, so we would probably find that Mars was, indeed, equipped with a remarkably sharp atmosphere.

The coolness would not be refreshing to anything less thoroughly insulated than a polar bear. The gentle tropical night of Mars would put a Montana midwinter blizzard to shame for temperature; by 10 p.m. at the equator, it has reached about minus 40 C. Mercury freezes at that temperature. By dawn, it would be cold enough to make a lead bell ring, and you could use a solid mercury clapper.

The planet has not, you may infer, what we call "temperate zones" on Earth. It is even colder there at night. In midsummer, at 12 midnight, the temperature curve might surprise us badly: minus 40 at the equator, minus 30 or so at about 20 degrees -- for in midsummer the Sun is north of the equator, just as it is on Earth -- then minus 50 at 50 degrees north, and finally, at the north pole, twenty degrees above zero! And at noon the hottest part of Mars would be the north pole!

Life on Mars will evidently have its troubles, if it has to go through a super-cooled cold wave every evening, and it must at the equator. But not so at the poles. The Martian poles are Mars' nearest approach to a garden spot -- for the excellent reason that the Sun never sets there for ten long months. Half a Martian year, the north pole is lightless and heatless, save for the thin, unearthly cold winds that sweep over it. But they do bring a little heat. And they bring all the poor moisture of Mars there and drop it as hoarfrost that, by the time the Sun shines on it at last has built up to a depth of approximately 14 inches.

At last, when the Sun does come, it stays a good long while -- ten months. First the ice melts. The ground becomes warm, and it is moist with the melted ice -- an ideal spot for the plants. They sprout like mushrooms, in all probability, in the next month. And during that month they soak up all the water they can get, because that is going to be all for that year.

We on Earth don't know what a dry place is. They have wells in the Sahara! There is more water under the Sahara, by far, than on the whole planet of Mars. The air isn't dry; it is dehydrated. One of our desert cactuses would die of drought in a day out there. A desert lizard would curl up into a little, dry puff in ten minutes, even if he could stand the practical vacuum.

There is planet life, it is certain, inasmuch as there is some oxygen there. Most of it, in all probability, is highly seasonal, flourishing enormously in the ten-month summer, and going to unkillable seeds in the winter.

At the equator there may be some type of plant capable of resisting the cold. A possibility would be a plant with a barrel-shaped body, almost spherical, to reduce the surface-per-volume ratio, and filled with water. The leaves of our hypothetical plant would be large thick, furry things on long slender stalks, and capable of a large degree of motion. About an hour before Sunset the leaves would pull in and wrap tightly about the body of the plant, acting as a thick, warm blanket about the water inside. The day's heat -- about room temperature on Earth -- would be stored in the water, and preserved sufficiently by this system to permit life.

ANIMALS? Perhaps, but they would lead an even harder life. Thin as that air is, plant life can point to a better record right here on Earth. Plants now live on one two thousandth of our atmosphere! They weren't forced there by absolute starvation, either; it was the savagery of the competition for the last dregs of carbon dioxide that taught them to live on less than half of a tenth of one per cent of the atmosphere.

They need the water in the air, of course, but the carbon dioxide is their food, and if they can get along on .04 per cent CO2 here, they ought to make out on a thin atmosphere on mars. But they can do it only because they sit tight, and don't waste their precious energy, the hard-won gains from Sunlight, on useless moving about.

So if there are animals on Mars, they may eat plants, and breathe oxygen and give off CO2, but they are not going to be rash about it. They have to live in what any Earth animal would call a vacuum. That takes lungs; big lungs, and the more they move, the more lungs they need. That would be all right but for one thing; any membrane that passes oxygen and carbon dioxide is just as likely to pass water. They can get oxygen, and they make CO2, but they are not going to get more water very easily.

If there are any animals, they would admire with awe the immense activity and terrific mobility of a snail or turtle. And life for them would be too severe a struggle to allow any leisurely contemplation of things in general. The late Stanley Weinbaum's "Oscar" would be the ideal intelligence on Mars.

But they'd want fur. The nights they experienced would be enough to convince anything of the necessity of fur -- thick fur. The Sun vanishing below the horizon, unimpeded by an atmosphere almost nonexistent, setting abruptly, night could come in within two or three minutes of the Sunset, not the forty-five minutes it takes on Earth. Then the stars would shine down, brilliant, madly flickering and dancing stars in the thin air that cooled off like an extinguished electric light. By midnight, when the cooling had practically finished, the stars would scarcely twinkle, still and immensely more brilliant than we know them, colored with their natural variations in that thin air.

The nights of Mars would be somewhat brighter than our Moonless nights, far more light would come through from those stars. Moonless? The famous "hurtling moons of Mars"! With a practiced eye you could find near-by Phobos, and with a little trouble, Diemos. The surface of Mars, red, and "brightly lighted by the two near-by moons" is a fiction, so far as the light goes. Jupiter, 4000,000,000 miles away, gives practically the same amount of light as Diemos, only 12,000 miles from the surface of the planet.

Jupiter is brilliantly clouded, so reflecting much of the sun's light, while Diemos is a jagged, broken boulder, utterly airless, practically black in black space. And Jupiter is 86,000 miles in diameter, some ten or twenty thousand times as large as the satellite. Phobos, only 3,725 miles from Mars' surface, is brighter, of course, but it, too, is simply a dead rock in space, a few miles through.

So near the planet, Phobos races around in a little more than seven hours, while the planet turns in a little more than twenty-four. Three times in a single day, Phobos goes around the planet, twice in a single, long winter night at a latitude corresponding on Mars with that of London on Earth. And, unlike our Moon, it rises in the west and sets in the east, overtaking the planet in its rotation. Further, it rises as a half moon, crosses the sky as it becomes full, finally setting in the last half. Twice in a night it races through these phases. But also, it is, because so very near the planet, very likely to go into total eclipse instead of fullness, Mars is only 4,000 miles in diameter, but large enough to readily and frequently obscure the tiny satellite.

Diemos, on the other hand, presents an unusual situation. It circles Mars in about thirty hours, while Mars turns in the same direction in twenty-four hours. Thus, in one day, Diemos loses a bit in the race, but only some six hours. Naturally, because of the Sunlight, and the minute size, it could be watched only from some such place as the north pole, and then only telescopically, where the sun was not above the horizon for months at a time.

BUT NO ONE watches them from Mars. Two infant satellites, born dead and airless, circling a near-dead world, killed by the strange, slow poison death uses on planets: iron. Iron has two oxides: ferrous oxide and ferric oxide, the ferric form holding half again as much oxygen.

Young planets contain largely the ferrous oxide in their rocks, the black oxide of iron -- black lava, black basalt, gray granite, black or gray or brown. Those dark rocks are old, igneous rocks that have never been weathered and rolled about by water and air. Red sandstone, blue and yellow sandstone, red muds -- red oxide of iron, ferric oxide has stained them. Those unweathered rocks of the ferrous oxide are broken, turned, and ground up by water, and they slowly soak up oxygen from the air and become red muds, clays and sandstone.

One hundred and fifty tons of ferrous oxide absorb 16 tons of oxygen from the air. How many billions of tons of dark, ferrous rock make the titanic ramparts of the Himalayas? They'll all roll down as thin, red mud some day; down the ancient Ganges and the Brahmaputra and the rivers that have borne other mountains to the seas. But they'll carry away a little more than one tenth as many tons of oxygen from the air. Plants break oxygen out of water, out of carbon dioxide, but they can't break down iron oxide.

Where has the oxygen of the air come from? When Earth was new, there must have been more water. The hydrogen of that water, life broke free from the oxygen, and some of it escaped into space. Very slowly, because Earth holds fairly well, even so light a gas as hydrogen. But much more water was broken down than the oxygen content of the air indicates. The rest of that freed oxygen you will find in the red soil of New Jersey, the magnificent reds and blues and yellows of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, the unbelievable Painted Desert just beyond. You can find more in the red soils of all the world, and the thick, red sandstones of the world.

Earth is a heavy planet, and grips hydrogen fairly solidly. It did even when it was young, while in the making. Mars, one tenth as massive, with one third the surface gravity, gripped with only one tenth the power. Hydrogen escaped: long ago most of the hydrogen that was left when Mars cooled escaped. The oxygen didn't, because it was heavier. But the end was the same; the oxygen is there in the bright-red deserts, the rusted bones of the dying planet. Earth, with her vast seas, will live for a dozen billions of years to come. Mars has no seas, only thin hoarfrost that settles in the unutterable cold of her polar nights; life is struggling on the last thin trickle of moisture.

Death's planetary poison, iron, is finishing its work. Far more rapidly now, for Mars' atmosphere is sharp with that virulently active ozone that unites so swiftly with rocks and ferrous iron.

It is time to write up the obituary; ozone is hastening the red death of the red planet.

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