NASA’s spectacular Curiosity mission to Mars took a heartbreaking turn early Monday afternoon when the 1,980-lb robot ran over and killed what appeared to be a greenish feline that had unexpectedly materialized in its path.
“The poor critter literally showed up out of nowhere. I mean, it just sat there like a statue with the rover barreling toward it,” a perplexed and visibly shaken NASA spokesperson explained on condition of anonymity as the incident is being investigated. “Although we had planned for all sorts of contingencies, collisions with Martian wildlife were not among them.”
Sadly, because of the time it takes for signals to travel from Mars to Earth and back, the accident had already occurred by the time Curiosity’s remote operators at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Passadena, CA, became aware of the situation and were in a position to stop the rover or initiate an evasive maneuver to avoid harming the animal.
The Curiosity navigator at the controls the moment tragedy struck, a devoted cat fancier herself, has sustained a nervous breakdown and is being treated at a local hospital.
As per a preliminary accident report leaked to the press, the cat had its back turned to the oncoming vehicle, and owing to the absence of sound-carrying air molecules in the Martian atmosphere, most likely didn’t hear the rover approaching.
At this stage, too little is known about Martian fauna in terms of physiology, sensory perception, and neurological reflexes to speculate by what biological mechanism exactly a living creature could manage to survive there without oxygen in the first place, and why the cat hasn’t felt any surface vibrations caused by the approaching rover that should have prompted it to flee.
Dr. Jessica Lorenz from the Animal Psychology Center in Rapid City, SD, considers the possibility that the cat may have been suffering from depression brought on by unrelenting solitude in a location as lonesome and desolate as Mars.
Says Dr. Lorenz, “Here on Earth, none of us, whether human or animal, are ever far from, say, a body of water to drown ourselves in, a tiger to provoke into tearing us to pieces, or a road with trucks and buses aplenty to throw ourselves in front of. But let’s face it, if you’re lonely, possibly bipolar, and you’re stuck all by yourself on a distant planet that’s dry and traffic-free and without natural predators, and assuming that conditions hostile to life as we know it don’t suffice to do you in, your suicide options are severely limited. So the cat may have welcomed Curiosity as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to self-terminate. So it didn’t run away because it wanted to get run over.”
Michael Prescott, the Werner Heisenberg Professor of Theoretical Physics at the City University of Pennsylvania, has reservations about the solitude thesis advanced by Dr. Lorenz. “When living beings come, they come not single spies, but in battalions,” Prof. Prescott invokes the trouble-ridden King Claudius’s plaintive observation in order to illustrate the ubiquity of life wherever it occurs.
While Prof. Prescott does not discount the possibility of bipolar disorder occurring among Martian creatures—similar to the way it occurs among humans on Earth—he views the cat so tragically discovered by Curiosity earlier today as evidence of the presence of a “veritable Schrödinger’s cat colony” on Mars; a prospect which, according to Prescott, harbors intriguing implications:
“See, the thing is, we don’t know how many cats there are up there. Assuming there are indeed more than one, and if Curiosity keeps cruising around, then because of the signal delay resulting from the finite speed of light, at no point do we know—nor do we even have a theoretical way of knowing—whether any given one of those cats is alive or dead, i.e., has been run over, at a given time. All Schrödinger had was one paltry cat in a sealed box, and an imaginary one at that. We now may have thousands, or even millions, of real ones up there, roaming freely. Such an opportunity for the practical exploration of theoretical physics truly boggles the mind.”
Concerned about the very scenario envisioned by Prof. Prescott, PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has called for the immediate suspension of all aspects of the Mars Exploration Program that rely on the use of “killing machines” like Curiosity and its robotic predecessors “until such time as the time delay in signal transmission caused by the finite speed of light has been resolved and instant roundtrip communication over interplanetary distances has been made possible.” Otherwise, so PETA, exploring faraway worlds is “akin to navigating while keeping one’s eyes fixed in the rearview mirror and examining the trail of carnage in one’s wake.”
Meanwhile, researchers at IVP, the International Vampire Project, upon reviewing satellite close-ups of the cat in question prior to (see image on top) as well as after the accident have pointed to the the cat’s failure to cast a shadow as a potential indication that referring to individual members of the Martian feline population as either “alive” or “dead” may be premature.
“Rather, the cat looks undead to me,” the IVP president said. “But it’s too early to say for sure whether running it over really killed it or whether its death-like post-accident posture merely indicates that its system has gone into a transient state of shock, or that it may be injured and now remains motionless as it self-heals. We’ve never encountered an undead species that doesn’t burn up in direct sunlight, let alone solar radiation as intense as on a planet without an ozone layer, so it’s difficult to say how such creatures respond to various types of physical trauma. Who knows? Perhaps elsewhere in the solar system, being run over by a robot works exactly like a stake driven through a heart here on Earth. Unfortunately, the physical distance presents a bit of a challenge when it comes to performing all the tests necessary to figure out what exactly we’re dealing with. As matters stand, we can’t even check for a pulse.”
PETA has not yet responded to questions as to whether it would consider withdrawing its call for the suspension of the Mars rover program until the known laws of physics have been amended in a way so as to ensure the safety of extraterrestrial Animalia, on the condition that NASA were to agree to retrofitting its existing rover fleet with garlic canons and giant deterrent crosses, should evidence in favor of the Martian “kitty vampire” hypothesis mount.
So far, however, most astrobiologists who have weighed in on this developing story have dismissed the vampire theory as improbable, citing various alternative explanations for the absence of the cat’s shadow, prime among them the dearth of prior observations of mammals not shielded by space garments in non-earth-like environments.
As Robert Renner, a retired NASA exobiologist, puts it, “Under extreme conditions, such as obtain where there is no atmosphere, or at least none comparable to ours, the unprotected mammalian body’s bioelectrical field may deflect light waves in ways heretofore unknown, potentially leading to all sorts of unfamiliar effects, perhaps including the absence of shadows. Alternatively, extraterrestrial bodies may lack density to such a degree that most of the light hitting them simply passes right through them, leaving a shadow so faint as to be virtually undetectable with the naked eye.”
Detailed computer analyses of all footage and photographs taken of the cat in order to determine the precise shade of Martian sand in the area where the cat’s shadow should be are pending.
There is no word yet on how NASA intends to proceed regarding the cat’s body. Despite its impressive arsenal of instruments and sophisticated capabilities, such as lasering rocks to analyze their composition, Curiosity has not been designed to perform autopsies or otherwise dissect and analyze complex biological organisms; and with teleporting still in its infancy, there exists no feasible way to ferry the body to Earth for further testing anytime soon.
On the other hand, the lack of oxygen may retard decomposition indefinitely, and barring further unexpected occurrences, this leaves plenty of time to devise an appropriate course of action.
“As far as life on Mars, we were prepared to find a few fossilized microbes at the most, not an actual cat. Frankly, we’ve been caught completely off-guard by this, and we don’t know what to do,” says NASA’s spokesperson. “We don’t have all the answers. We’re only rocket scientists.”
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