Life on Mars and how it will change religion
Durban - COVID-10 has changed our relationship with God.
As the world went into lockdown earlier this year, churches, mosques and temples closed for worship. People chose to pray from home or join online services. But Covid-19 is not the only thing that’s forcing us to relook at how we connect with God.
Last month, three countries embarked on missions to Mars and should reach the Red Planet by February next year. This drive to explore the heavens will also change how we relate to the Almighty.
The timing of the three missions was not coincidental. Given the positioning of Earth and Mars, a trip to the RedPlanet is now considerably shorter than at any other time in the next two years. This means you need less power to get to Mars, reducing costs and risks.
The first country to take advantage of this window was the United Arab Emirates. It launched an orbiter called Al Ammal or Hope on July 20. The orbiter was launched from Japan on a Japanese rocket, and the plan is that it would circle the Red Planet studying weather patterns. If successful, it will become the first mission to Mars by a Muslim majority country.
Up next were the Chinese on July 23, with a more ambitious plan. It included an orbiter as well as a lander and a rover that would move around on the Martian surface in search of current and past life. A Chinese made rocket carried the orbiter, lander and rover into space.
The mission is called Tianwen-1 or Heavenly Questions and is inspired by a poem by the same name by Qu Yuan. Among others, the poet questions the origin of the universe.
The Chinese have had one previous attempt at reaching Mars, but like so many other Mars projects, it failed.
At the end of last month, the Americans launched their most ambitious mission to the Red Planet.
They were the first to get pictures of Martian surface back in the 1960s. They did so with Mariner 4 which flew past the Red Planet and took pictures of it.
In 1996, the Sojourner became the first human-made vehicle to operate on the surface of Mars. Then came Spirit and Opportunity (both in 2003) and thereafter, Curiosity (2011).
The latest project, Perseverance, operated by Nasa, aims to put a car-sized rover on to the surface of the Red Planet. Once there, the rover will drill for rock and soil samples. The plan is to bring these to Earth on some future mission.
Another aspect of the mission is a small helicopter that will attempt the first powered flight on another planet.
From the time early man gazed up at the stars, human beings have been fascinated with space. It is now only a matter of time before humans have a presence on Mars and whatever rocky surfaces beyond that we can build a home on.
Some believe the very survival of our species depends on our ability to colonise other planets.
Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist, was among those who advocated for us to set up home on other worlds.
A few years ago, he warned that we had only about 100 years to do so, failing which we may all die as a result of climate change, disease or war. Covid-19 proved just how vulnerable our species is on Earth.
But the space race is not just about survival. The vastness of space holds untold wealth in terms of planets, moons, comets and asteroids that can be colonised for new markets or mined for minerals.
Saturn’s moon Titan, for example, is said to have more liquid hydrocarbons than all the known oil and natural gas reserves on Earth.
There is also a yearning to seek answers to the primal question - who am I?
Whether you believe the answer lies in evolution or creation, both have a link to space in that God is associated with the skies and the first seeds of life probably came from space.
As we take the next small steps into space, our habits will change in a number of ways, including how we pray.
In space, there will be no places of worship, initially at least. In the early decades, it will be too expensive to send religious men on these missions, and astronauts will have to find a more direct connection with God.
Christians will find challenges being able to light candles outside Earth’s atmosphere. On a space ship, it is dangerous and consumes oxygen, a precious commodity in space. The same would hold true for Hindus who, on Earth, would light oil lamps before praying.
Taking off your shoes ahead of prayer may not be possible due to extreme temperatures or sharp surfaces on other worlds.
For Muslims, the question of which direction you face when praying becomes complicated because, from space, the position of Mecca is relative to Earth’s rotation.
Islam, though, has given some thought to the future of the religion in space.
The matter first came up when a Saudi prince became the first Muslim to go to space in 1985. Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud flew on board the American space shuttle Discovery.
In 2007, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, a Malaysian, travelled to the International Space Station (ISS) on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
His trip coincided with the final days of the Muslim fasting month prompting the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia to come up with a guide on performing Islamic rites at the ISS.
In terms of praying in the direction of Mecca, the department concluded that the direction be prioritised as follows:
Face the Kaaba on the land (which will move relative to the ISS)
Face the projection of the Kaaba in the sky
With regards to the physical posture when praying, the department concluded as follows:
If upright standing is not possible, then any standing posture
Sitting. Bowing is by bringing down the chin closer to the knee or the prostrating place
Lying down on the right side with body facing the direction of Qibla (Mecca)
Using the eyelid as an indicator of the changing of postures in prayer
Imagining the sequence of prayer
With regards to food, the department said if there was any doubt whether the food served on the ISS was halaal or not, it was then permissible to eat the food on the basis of not to starve.
Not everybody would agree. But no religion has achieved total unity of thought or action. What is important, is this type of introspection.
And more of it is needed. As we race to conquer space, we need to re-evaluate our relationship with the Almighty. If we don’t, we may lose God in the very place we thought God existed.