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Life on Mars

NASA has got big — as in expensive — plans for future exploration of the red planet

By Kevin Urich


Congress can’t seem to appropriate money fast enough to help America get back into space and off to Mars as NASA prepares for its next unmanned mission to the Red Planet this summer.

At a capped cost of $355 million, the Phoenix Mars Lander mission is expected to blast off in August for the fourth planet from the sun, where it will expand on surface experiments currently being conducted there by the remarkably resilient twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity and a host of orbiting cameras and monitors.

Funding is already approved for Phoenix, the first mission of NASA’s Scout explorer program and also the first mission to Mars led by an academic institution, this time the University of Arizona, along with California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

Though public criticism of NASA and anything having to do with space exploration is somewhat uncommon, some comics and social critics have wondered publicly—if only in a humorous way—where all this extremely expensive unmanned space exploration is actually leading.

“Today we are pretty sure that nobody lives on Mars, at least not year-round,” quipped author and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Dave Barry in a piece for the Miami Herald in 2004, a year after the rovers touched down on the Martian surface. “We base this on the fact that NASA has spent hundreds of millions of dollars sending unmanned probes up there, and they have sent back thousands of pictures, all of them showing: rocks.”

Then there was The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart: “President Bush announced we’re going to Mars,” Stewart deadpanned one night, “which means he’s given up on Earth.”

Mars has always served as a sort of silent straight man for comedians, as well as an easy plot device for filmmakers and authors.

Barry, for instance, wrote a book a few years back called Dave Barry Is From Venus and Mars, which has really nothing to do with either planet, but contains a collection of funny essays on life in general. And Monty Python alum Eric Idle wrote a novel, The Road to Mars, that included a part about terrorists plotting to blow up Mars, but wasn’t really very funny.

Still others, though, take a somewhat more serious approach to the actual science being done on and around Mars. Among them are the top scientists involved with the Phoenix project and Louis Friedman, co-founder of the California-based Planetary Society, who argue for even more public support for furthering mankind’s seemingly insatiable need to gain knowledge through scientific exploration.

“I think public interest in Mars rovers and Mars landings and support for Mars exploration is because the public does find it interesting. But even more important, they find it profound,” says Friedman, who in 1980 helped found the Planetary Society along with Carl Sagan and former JPL head Bruce Murray.

“We have spent untold resources—not billions, but trillions, maybe more than that—on trying to understand ourselves: What is life? How did we get here? What is the future of life in the universe? What is our relationship to the cosmos? And we have done that through religion and folklore and stories,” Friedman says. “Now we are doing it through science and exploration, but it’s really part of the same quest.”

The Phoenix Mars Lander follows the $820 million twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which have been whirring around the Martian surface collecting and examining rocks since January 2003.

Unlike the rovers, Phoenix is a stationary platform with a robotic arm that will work on the planet’s extreme northern plains and hunt around for ice, dig ditches and then analyze and test surface soils and subsurface samples for signs of complex organic molecules.

It will also take high-resolution pictures of its surroundings and measure atmospheric conditions more than a dozen miles above the surface of our nearest galactic neighbor.

Soon after Phoenix, NASA plans to launch the Mars Science Laboratory, or MSL, a roving laboratory that is three times heavier and twice the length of both Sprit and Opportunity.

Like Phoenix, which will touch down on the plains near the icy Martian North Pole, where scientists believe life-producing water most likely existed or possibly still exists, MSL will also be able to evaluate chemical compositions on the spot. Adding some new technologies into the mix—scientists always say inventions are some of the more tangible real-life benefits of space exploration—MSL also will use a state-of-the-art laser to cut into rocks. And it still has to be determined, but MSL may have the added distinction of being the first NASA vessel to be driven by nuclear power during its Martian-year (687 Earth days) mission. If all goes as planned, states NASA’s Web site, MSL should be setting up shop on the planet surface by October 2010.

It won’t be long after MSL touches down that the next still undetermined Scout probe will be launched, which could involve the use of balloons or airplanes to sail through the Red Planet’s constant cover of clouds.

“We’re a follow-up mission in a sense,” explains the University of Arizona’s Peter Smith, principal investigator of the Phoenix project and a former member of the team of scientists working on the twin rover program.

“We’re not a life-detection experiment, but we do have the ability to see organic material,” Smith says. “We wouldn’t know if it’s a layer of microbes or cometary debris on the surface that’s organic. We don’t really disentangle the DNA molecules to figure out what it is. But in any case, it’s a part of the search for life on other planets.”

Selected by NASA from 200 proposals, Phoenix is different from the rover mission in another important way: Spirit and Opportunity were tasked with looking at the planet’s ancient environment by examining the composition of rocks. Phoenix will look at what’s happening now with Mars’ tumultuous climate by monitoring and measuring atmospheric conditions as they happen.

“There was a big discovery made in 2002 just as we were thinking about submitting a proposal, and that was ice was found in the polar regions, what on Earth we might think of as permafrost. We’re not exactly sure what it is on Mars,” Smith says of the Phoenix team’s initial ideas for areas of exploration.

As Jeanna Bryner of explains, scientists have learned that Mars has enough ice at its south pole alone “to blanket the entire planet in more than 30 feet of water if everything thawed out.”

In this mission, says Smith, “we are looking at dust and ice. We are looking at the current processes that are happening today. Not the rocks. We avoid those. But how is the polar region changing? Because, personally, I think that’s where the action is on Mars today. How did that ice get there? Does it change over time? What’s the chemistry of the ice? Is it the kind of place where biology could exist?”

In 1993, Smith became associated with NASA’s Mars program after his camera proposal was accepted for the Pathfinder mission, the first lander to follow the two Viking missions of 1976. Smith’s camera returned the first images from the Martian surface on July 4, 1997, according to a brief profile on the university’s Web site.

But rocks “are where history is written,” as Smith says, and thanks to research done on samples analyzed in the rover program, scientists now know that there was water on Mars at some point in the distant past.

For Smith—who, believe it or not, says the most exciting thing that could happen would be to witness ice forming—the most interesting mineral found by Opportunity has been jarosite, which is a sulfate that exists in an acidic environment.

Sulfates also are associated with volcanoes and interacting with water. Smith believes these stones originated at the bottom of some sort of large body of water.

So, in essence, “We’re looking at what I hope is the bottom of an ancient ocean.”

As part of its mission, Phoenix will try to determine if there are salts associated with soils in the northern plains, which is the lowest part of Mars, but the area with the highest atmospheric pressure, meaning “the pressure is actually high enough that you can have stable liquid water,” Smith says.

Along with planes and balloons, another proposal for the third mission in the Scout program is the Astrobiology Field Lab, a complicated contraption that, according to NASA, would conduct a robotic search for life, making it the first time since the Viking mission of the 1970s that NASA specifically went looking for past or present life forms.

Another is the Mars Sample Return. Details on NASA’s Web site were a little sparse for the moment on that proposal, but the general idea is to fly samples off the surface and back to Earth for closer examination. Whichever of these devices is finally selected, the next Scout mission is set for takeoff in 2011.

But much of what happens in the next few years will depend on the success or failure of Phoenix, which finally will land on Mars in June 2008.

Three separate missions over four years to watch ice form on what amounts to an otherwise lifeless planet may seem like a poor investment to some. For those folks, maybe it would help to imagine all the orbiting cameras and rovers and landers and balloons and airplanes as an armada of sorts, the unmanned Nina, Pinta and Santa Marias of the Space Age-version of New World invasions.

Because as all that is happening, the United States will be working with 16 other nations on completing the $100-billion international space station, which should be fully built and stocked as the space shuttle completes 13 more missions to help finish construction of the behemoth circular space outpost by 2010.

After that, the shuttle will be replaced by a sleek, airplane-like vessel—a space plane—developed by Lockheed Martin that can break out of orbit and actually fly to the moon. From there, a base will prepare missions to Mars, ultimately launching manned missions by 2035.

Bad investment of public funds? Perhaps. But would we send humans into an extremely hostile environment merely to collect rocks or other data that’s interesting but not necessarily vital to our survival like, say, Social Security or Medicare or education? Or is there something more that scientists aren’t yet telling us about, something to justify spending billions upon billions of dollars to collect and analyze lifeless objects?

Is there water on Mars, as scientists now believe? How about carbon, the backbone of life as we know it? Or how about potential alternative fuel sources, like helium-3, which isn’t yet ready for widespread public use but has been detected on the moon? What about diamonds, gold, silver and other precious metals?

JPL’s Leslie Tamppari, co-lead investigator of the Phoenix project, isn’t yet ready to rule out the possibility of life existing on Mars.

“I think the question is open because I don’t think we have enough information one way or the other,” said Tamppari, who will be overseeing the atmospheric testing portion of the project from JPL in Pasadena. “I would say there is not enough information to say there is definitely life there, but there is certainly not enough information to say there definitely isn’t life there.”

Probably like many Americans who aren’t quite as funny, Barry, in his February 2004 column for the Herald, questioned the staggering costs involved with all of this intergalactic rock collecting.

“The Bush administration says the Mars mission can be accomplished for only 143.8 zillion dollars, but critics claim that the true cost is likely to be much more like 687 fillion dillion dollars. (These numbers are imaginary, but trust me, they’re as accurate as any other cost estimates you see about the Mars mission.),” Barry wrote.

Actually, the costs involved with accomplishing all of the previously listed projects is incalculable right now, largely because those missions are mostly still locked in the heads of the scientists mapping them out.

NASA’s requested budget for the upcoming fiscal year was $17.3 billion, with nearly $4 billion earmarked for space exploration. Unfortunately for the space science community, Congress, according to recent Associated Press reports, held the 2007-08 funding level at the previous-year level of $16.6 billion, $545 million less than expected.

Not quite a fillion dillion, but pretty darn close. And while that ’07-’08 funding foul-up may be a big disappointment to scientists, that’s still an awful lot of money, which raises some other interesting questions.

In a desperately needy and deteriorating world with rapidly depleting resources, can we afford to fly off to Mars in search of rocks, water, life . . . anything?

Or maybe a more prescient question, given the realities contained in the first part of the previous question: At this point, can the human race afford not to start looking for another place to live?

In the opinion of Friedman, colonizing Mars would be on a par with the creation of the pyramids: public efforts that are mounted only once over generations.

There is certainly a strong probability of such a thing happening. But for the time being, Friedman says, “I would say your payoff is in science and advanced knowledge. Your payoff is not in looking for Martians to satisfy our understanding of the Earth.”

Smith agrees for the most part. However, he believes making comparisons between what is going on climatically on Earth and Mars could be beneficial to mankind in the short term in the face of global warming.

“What happens is Mars changes rapidly over time in its polar tilt, and as it changes its polar tilt, it changes its climates. The polar regions on Earth are very sensitive to climate change, and we’re going to study climate change in the northern plains and relate it to the climate change that we see on Earth, the melting of the glaciers, the sea ice shrinking every summer, the change in salinity in the ocean, the rise of the ocean, all that sort of thing that’s indicative of climate change on Earth, and we’ll look at how climate changes on Mars,” Smith says. “It should be an exciting mission from a weather perspective.”

Tamppari seems anxious about getting Phoenix underway, primarily because each mission to Mars yields discoveries. She expects nothing less this time out.

“Every time we land a spacecraft on Mars and get new information, high-resolution information, we make discoveries, so I suspect we will also make discoveries with our mission,” Tamppari says confidently. “If we land there and find exactly what we expect, it will still be an exciting mission. But I expect we will make some discoveries, and that will be even more exciting.”

Kevin Uhrich is the editor of Pasadena Weekly in Pasadena, Calif., where this article first appeared.

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