Will Drilling Find Extant Life on Mars? (Issue #21)

by: Nicole Willett

blog 21 family portraitI recently attended the online NASA/JPL Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) meeting that was held on July 23, 2013. The meeting’s purpose was to discuss the Mars 2020 rover and many other Mars exploration issues. Many people wonder why NASA keeps sending rovers to Mars without stating that they will unequivocally search for extant life. The term extant means, still in existence.   We know that MSL Curiosity has the equipment to detect life and that Mars 2020 will have many of the same instruments. However, Jack Mustard, Brown University professor, who presented at the MEPAG meeting, stated, “To date, the evidence that we have from observations of Mars and Martian samples is that we don’t have the clear indication that life is at such an abundance on the planet that we could go there with a simple experiment like Viking [had] and detect that [life is] there.” Mustard went on to explain that it makes more sense financially and scientifically to search for past life instead of current life. He believes that we must continue studying the past geology of the planet in order to better understand whether past life existed on Mars.

As we anxiously await the analysis from Curiosity’s second drill sample, which was taken on May 20, 2013, we can discuss the search for present life on Mars. As indicated above the Mars 2020 rover will not search for extant life. Some people do not understand why we must wait seven years to launch a rover similar to MSL with a sample return cache that will sit on the planet for an unknown period of time with no plan as to how it will be returned to Earth. However, there are other missions planned for Mars which may search for and possibly find current life on Mars. Two such missions are ExoMars and the Icebreaker Life Mars mission.

blog 21 exomarsExoMars is collaboration between the European Space Agency and the Russian Federal Space agency. It is a mission that includes an orbiter and lander planned for 2016 and a rover with a drill that can reach two meters beneath the toxic surface, planned for 2018. The 2018 mission objective is to search for past or present life on Mars. During the MEPAG meeting, the question was asked, “What if ExoMars finds life, and how will that affect Mars 2020?” The answer was given by Jim Green, Director of NASA Planetary Science, who stated, “It would be a great problem to have.”  This also started a discussion about whether this would be a “Sputnik moment” and possibly encourage a new race for humans to Mars.

The Icebreaker Life mission could also be funded for a 2018 launch under the Discovery/New Frontier program, a separate funding scheme like the 2016 Insight mission. In a paper published in the journal Astrobiology on April 5, 2013, Dr. Chris McKay, Dr. Carol Stoker, and other leading scientists stated, “The search for evidence of life on Mars is the primary motivation for the exploration of that planet. The results from previous missions and the Phoenix mission in particular, indicate that the ice-cemented ground in the north polar plains is likely to be the most recently habitable place that is currently known on Mars.” The goals of the Icebreaker Life mission include:

“(1) Search for specific biomolecules that would be conclusive evidence of life.

(2) Perform a general search for organic molecules in the ground ice.

(3) Determine the processes of ground ice formation and the role of liquid water.

(4) Understand the mechanical properties of the Martian polar ice-cemented soil.

(5) Assess the recent habitability of the environment with respect to required elements to support life, energy sources, and possible toxic elements.

(6) Compare the elemental composition of the northern plains with midlatitude sites.”  [Source: http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/ast.2012.0878 – Journal Astrobiology 4/5/2013]

This mission is very similar to the Phoenix lander but will have more advanced scientific equipment, including a drill that will reach a meter below the surface, an instrument called the Signs of Life Detector (SOLID), an Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, a Wet Chemistry Lab, and many other instruments. This combination of instruments may potentially alter how we view life in the universe. The SOLID instrument has the ability to detect compounds with a biological origin such as whole cells and complex organic molecules.  It has an advanced digital camera and what is known as a “lab on a chip” that can perform various chemistry tests using equipment the size of microchips. The technological advances being made are greatly improving the field of robotic exploration and experimentation in ways never thought possible in the past.

DCIM100GOPROThe Icebreaker Life mission will search for biomarkers in the same region near the north pole of Mars where the Phoenix Lander executed its mission in 2008. A biomarker is any molecule that indicates the presence of life, such as an enzyme.   These biological molecules carry organic biochemical information. The Icebreaker drill is capable of drilling one meter into the subsurface of the Red Planet in order to search for biomarkers. The ice shavings retrieved from the drill would be analyzed for molecules that are too complex to be present from a non-biological source. It is important to drill below the surface in order to retrieve samples that have not been exposed to the radiation and perchlorates (salts) that exist on the surface of Mars. The radiation and perchlorates could potentially destroy any biomarkers or biological material present, hence the importance of a subsurface mission.

Many opinions exist regarding the search for life on Mars, past or present. The sheer number of planned missions is a clear indicator of the widespread scientific interest. When asked about the search for life on the Red Planet, McKay stated, “Why search for a second genesis of life? The implication is that life is common in the universe.”

[Images: NASA, ExoMars, Astriobio.net]

Mars versus the Moon (Issue #19)

a moonby: Nicole Willett

Becoming a space faring civilization is the goal of millions of Earthlings.  If one pays attention to the universe around him, it is impossible to deny its ability to cause breathtaking humility.  We long to explore, to expand, to go out and touch a piece of another planetary body.  This longing is what encouraged NASA and their supporters to stand behind the Apollo missions to the Moon.   President John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to  go to the Moon not because it is easy… but because it is hard.”  We need to find that will again.  The interest in going out and exploring and settling Mars is obvious.  One indication is the fact that when applications for a trip to Mars opened, there were 78,000 applicants to go in just two weeks.  Other clues are the sheer number of private organizations that are being created dedicated to human Mars exploration.  Inspiration Mars is one example.  Its founder, Dennis Tito, believes so wholeheartedly in a humans to Mars mission, that he is funding the first two years of the project himself.

a Mission to Mars Pic 06Some people suggest that we should not go to Mars; we should go to the Moon first.  While that may be an option, there are many reasons for sending humans to Mars and not the Moon.  Humanity needs a new place to settle, not just plant a flag and go home.  We need natural resources in order to make a comfortable and manageable new home for humanity.  There needs to be rich soil for growing crops, an atmosphere to protect us from harmful radiation, mineral ore for technology, and water.

The Moon made big news when it was discovered that there were immense amounts of water in the permanently shaded craters at the North and South poles.  It has also been discovered that the rocks of the Moon possess water.  However, the water would have to be processed and mined in such a way that it would be an extraordinary expense of energy to process the water into a usable form.   However, Mars has water seemingly everywhere we look.  The Phoenix Lander landed on top of an ice field covered by a thin layer of Martian regolith.  The soil on Mars contains an abundance of water.  The polar caps have enormous amounts of H2O.  Also, scientists theorize, because of the geological history of Mars and it’s similarities to Earth, it is very likely that there are underground reservoirs of water present.

earth-moon-mars-size-comparisonsThe Moon contains carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen.  These are essential elements for survival.  However, these elements are found in very small concentrations of parts per million.  Oxygen is abundant on the Moon.  It is present bound in oxides, such as ferrous oxide and magnesium oxide.  In order to utilize the oxygen on the Moon, it must be separated from the tightly bound oxides.  This requires excessive amounts of energy to reduce into their separate elements.  We have seen that there are vast amounts of H2O on Mars, hence, oxygen is abundant.  Separating the water molecule on Mars is far less daunting than separating the oxides on the Moon.  Consequently, oxygen will be more readily accessible for future Marsonauts.

As far as energy production is concerned, the Moon does not have an atmosphere so there is no way to produce wind energy.  There are no active geothermal hotspots on the Moon, so that power source is out of the question as well.  Mars has a thin atmosphere, but it does generate enough wind for turbines to generate power for future Martian settlers.  There are geothermal hotspots on Mars that occasionally shoot water up to the surface.  We could house geothermal energy production stations at these sites.  The Red Planet also possesses enormous supplies of carbon and hydrogen.  These elements are used in to manufacture silicon.  Solar panels utilize silicon for their photovoltaic cells.  As one can see Mars has the potential for a large power base, whereas the Moon has less potential to generate large amounts of energy.  Humanity requires a rich power base in order to maintain their vibrant civilization.  Mars has that requirement in abundance.

greenhouseThe regolith on the Moon is deficient in the necessary elements to grow crops.  Any crops grown on the Moon would require the rich soil be imported from Earth.  Also, the sunlight is more powerful on the Moon, but there is no atmosphere to protect any plants that may be grown there.  Very large and thick protective glass would have to be manufactured in order to protect the crops from the harmful radiation from the sun.  Another issue with growing crops on the Moon is the 28 day light/dark cycle. Plants on Earth have evolved to a 24 hour light/dark cycle in order to grow and reproduce successfully.  The Red Planet has all of the elements necessary to grow crops present in its soil right now.  Some scientists report the alkalinity of the Martian soil would be conducive to growing green beans and asparagus.  The atmosphere is already thick enough to protect Martian plants from solar flares.  Thin-walled greenhouses on Mars would be necessary at first.   The ingredients for manufacturing the plastics needed for greenhouses exist on Mars now and could be manufactured quickly once humans have set up the necessary infrastructure.  Also, there is a 24 hour and 37 minute light/dark cycle which would be almost exactly what Earth plants have evolved to survive in.

green marsThe fact that Mars has so many similarities to Earth is the reason why it is the best candidate for the expansion of the human civilization.  The axial tilt is within one-half of a degree, causing seasons.  The day is within 37 minutes, having a very similar light/dark cycle to Earth.  The temperatures are within the range which is not beyond our technology for tolerability.  Once we land and settle on Mars, the next step is terraforming.  We will turn Mars into an Earth-like planet, in order to have an enduring civilization present.

gliese667c_habitableOn June 25, 2013, it was reported that the extrasolar system named Glieise 667, which is only 22 light years from Earth, has three planets orbiting in its habitable zone.  Meaning the temperatures are conducive to the presence of liquid water and possibly life.  What does this have to do with the Moon versus Mars?  Everything.  If we choose wisely, and send humans to Mars, we will be more prepared to be able to send humans to other star systems when the time is right.  Mars is the bridge to places like Glieise 667. Humans grow or decay, expand or die.  The Mars Society thinks you should live.

~Humans to Mars as a bridge to the stars…..

[Images: NASA, veganshealth, spaceopedia, NatGeo, NASA]

Consumable Water on Mars Confirmed by Opportunity and Curiosity (Issue #18) UPDATE

by: Nicole Willett

*****UPDATED 9/28/2013*****

mars-rover-landing-sequence-landed_57831_600x450Several papers have been published regarding the findings of Curiosity’s first few month’s on the surface of Mars.  The findings are of great importance with regard to water.  The rover has confirmed an incredible two percent of the surface soil is composed of water.  Scientists said if humans were to land on Mars, they could scoop up soil and heat it up and extract water from it.  Estimates suggest that approximately two pints of water is available per cubic foot of soil.  This is an astonishing discovery.  The benefits for humans that wish to travel to and settle on the Martian surface are immense.  NASA stated water is likely spread across the entire planet bound to the soil.  The implications of this finding make it much more likely that humans will be able to inhabit the Red Planet in the near future.  It also opens up more of the planet for human landing places and settlement opportunities.

Original blog published June 9, 2013:

As we anxiously await the results of the latest drill sample from the Curiosity Rover, we have received exciting news from the long lived Opportunity Rover team. Steve Squyres, who will be the recipient of the Mars Pioneer Award 2013 at the 16th Annual Mars Society Convention Aug 15-18th, participated in a NASA teleconference regarding the exciting findings about water on Mars. The fact that once again we have reconfirmed water on Mars is not the exciting part.

Esperance imaged from above
Esperance imaged from above

Opportunity has spent quite a lot of time working at Endeavor Crater and had to maneuver very strategically to get in position to study a small rock named Esperance. This was a very difficult task for the aging rover, since she has a bad shoulder joint. However the team stated that Opportunity is in extremely good health and has no major concerns as of right now. The rover used several samples from the rock which is the oldest rock that Opportunity has studied. The team showed a graphic, displaying the chemistry of the rocks, with seven measurements taken from different layers. The elements found in Esperance were Aluminum, Iron, Magnesium, Calcium, Potassium, and Sodium. The results from the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer indicate that the

APXS graphic Esperance Rock results
APXS graphic Esperance Rock results

rock was higher in Aluminum and Silica and lower in Calcium and Iron than rocks previously studied by Opportunity. Below the dashed lines are igneous rocks; above the line are rocks including clays (Montmorillomite) that have been altered by water. The lower black square indicates the readings from the average Martian crust. The yellow circles closest to that block indicate the samples taken from the surface of the rock. As the samples ascend vertically above the dashed line it indicates samples that are further inside the rock. The Opportunity team used the Rock Abrasion Tool to reach the subsurface of the rock. Starting at the surface she discovered that the water that had most recently covered Esperance was acidic and the soil more closely resembled the average Martian crust. As the rover progressively scraped and studied Esperance, it was discovered that Mars went through several cycles of water activity in the region where Opportunity is now working. The cycle of water described by the team was that water was present in the area before the Endeavor Crater formed, next the crater formed and the rocks piled up on the crater rim, and then setting water produced gypsum. This is indicative of lengthy multistep and continual water activity. At Esperance the water flowed through the rocks and had a higher clay concentration than the rocks studied at Matijevic Hill. A high clay concentration is evidence of water that had a neutral pH. “There appears to have been extensive, but weak, alteration of Whitewater Lake, but intense alteration of Esperance along fractures that provided conduits for fluid flow,” Squyres said. “Water that moved through fractures during this rock’s history would have provided more favorable conditions for biology than any other wet environment recorded in rocks Opportunity has seen.”

Esperance Rock
Esperance Rock

The big news was that the Opportunity team stated was that water with a neutral pH is very conducive to prebiotic chemistry. We know there are organisms on Earth that survive in an acidic environment, but the science points to prebiotic chemistry favoring a neutral pH. Squyres stated that this is the best that we have found with Opportunity, the most compelling evidence for habitability. The most fundamental conditions for habitability were present at this location. The NASA team also stated that this was water that could have been consumed. This is a familiar statement to that of the Curiosity team a few months ago. The Curiosity team found an ancient riverbed in Gale

Ancient Riverbed imaged by the Curiosity Rover in Gale Crater
Ancient Riverbed imaged by the Curiosity Rover in Gale Crater

Crater and also found that the water that flowed there was freshwater that was neutral in pH and could have also been consumed. At a press conference in March 2013 Dr. John Grotzinger, project scientist for the Curiosity mission, went so far as to state, “We have found a habitable environment. The water that was here was so benign and supportive of life that if a human had been on the planet back then, they could drink it.”

This pattern may seem redundant to some; however we must follow the scientific method of testing and retesting, confirming and reconfirming. We must verify these results many times because there will be humans on Mars and we must know as much about our future home as possible. There are many reasons for this, some are obvious and some we haven’t even thought of yet. These results are exciting and very important to the future exploration and settlement of the Red Planet. ~On To Mars

[Images: NASA/JPL]

What is Life and Will Curiosity Find it on Mars? (Issue #14)

by: Nicole Willett

The definition of what life is has eluded scientists for many generations…

This is partially due to the many extreme organisms that have been found that push the traditional boundaries outward in every direction.  What is a virus? It can reproduce, but it is considered not to be life because it must have a host to reproduce.  Does size matter?  Can something be too small to be alive?  There are bacteria that are smaller than viruses.  Can something be too big to be alive?  Recently, I have heard scientists debating whether the entire universe is a living organism.  In order to come up with a definition we must describe what elements are needed for life as we know it to exist.  We must also decide whether or not water is necessary and in what state.  Can organisms live in soil with a high or low pH content?  Are there energy gradients available for an organism to utilize the chemicals available for metabolism?  What temperatures can life survive at?

blog 14 jonlieffmd comAll of these questions must be addressed before scientists come up with a true definition for life.  A simple definition of life from dictionary.com states, “the condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and dead organisms, being manifested by growth through metabolism, reproduction, and the power of adaptation toenvironment through changes originating internally.”  This definition may work for laymen but when it comes to the plethora of extreme organisms we are finding now and with the search for organisms on Mars, we need a much more specific definition.  As with all things in science, we have had a hard time getting everyone to agree on a true definition. 

Some things to consider are the six required elements necessary for all life on Earth thus far.  Biologists like to call it CHNOPS.   

Blog 14 nasa jpl

That acronym stands for is Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorus, and Sulfur.  Interestingly, the Curiosity Rover’s SAM and CheMin instruments found CHNOPS in their latest sample of the rock called “John Klein” that was drilled recently.  These results can all be found on NASA and JPL websites.  Another interesting find is methane in the forms of chloromethane and dichloromethane.  These are widely reported as “simple organics” in the press.   These molecules were also found at the “Rocknest” site in an earlier soil sample taken by Curiosity.  The discovery of organic molecules is the pièce de résistance that we have all been awaiting.   Organics in general refer to something that was at one time alive or is alive now.  We know from studying life forms on Earth that methane is a common organic molecule that is a waste product of bacteria and macro organisms.   However, about 10% of methane on Earth is a result of geological activity.  The rovers and orbiters have not detected any macro organisms, but scientists are diligently looking for evidence of an environment conducive to microorganisms. 

blog 14 nasa jpl 4betterAgain the scientists caution that these results may be contaminants from Earth.  But, this seems to be a pattern.   Mars scientists are repeatedly confirming and reconfirming the presence of water on Mars.  Also, they are stating and restating the potential habitability of Mars.  Dr. John Grotzinger, project scientist for the Curiosity mission, went so far as to state, “”We have found a habitable environment.  The water that was here was so benign and supportive of life that if a human had been on the planet back then, they could drink it.”  Wow, that is quite a statement.  Not only are NASA scientists stating that Mars was habitable they are stating that humans could have consumed the water that sat and flowed on the surface of the Red Planet.  Think about the potential ramifications of that information. 

As the scientists, go over and over the information from Mars, they continue to make amazing discoveries.  Another significant find is the electrochemical gradient of the different molecules found inside of the John Klein rock.  An electrochemical gradient is another important piece of the “life on Mars” puzzle because life forms use these gradients to move ions across membranes in order to perform many metabolic and other biological functions.   Some of the molecules found in the rocks have different electric charges; some are more oxidized than others.  This was cleverly illustrated at last week’s press conference.  Dr. Grotzinger held up a battery to demonstrate the way rock eating microbes utilize the energy gradients formed by molecules, such as sulfates and sulfides, to their advantage in their metabolic processes.  This finding has extraordinary implications if everything that has been reported remains true. 

blog 14 psrd hawaii edu

So, what is life and will Curiosity find it on Mars?  Well, we know that there is no single definition that everyone agrees on.  Keep in mind that the requirements for life as we know it are: water, a source of energy, and evidence of organics.  The types of methane found are known as simple organics. However, we also know that there are definite signatures for life as we know it.  NASA is finding more and more evidence with every scoop of soil analyzed by Curiosity’s onboard lab.  If the day comes when there is a confirmation of life on Mars, it will change humanity forever.  I am looking forward to that day.
[Images: NASA JPL, jonlieffmd.com, psrd.hawaii.edu]

Rock Eaters, Will Curiosity Find Them? (Issue #13)

by: Nicole Willett

Last week NASA’s Curiosity rover made history by drilling into the first rock on another planet.  The rock, named John Klein, had a hole drilled that was 0.63 inches in diameter and 2.5 inches deep.  Surprisingly, the soil beneath the iron red surface was bright grey.  The soil sample has been sent to the suite of instruments in the belly of the rover, including SAM and CheMin.  These mini laboratories will analyze the soil content to find out its composition.  Everyone is anxiously awaiting the results of these tests.  Unfortunately, Curiosity went into “safe mode” several days ago due to a corrupt file on its main computer.  (As this blog was being posted, NASA announced that the computer had returned to “active status”.)  This will inevitably delay the results.  However that does not stop people from speculating about what the science lab onboard the rover might discover.

curiosity drillScientists are hoping to find more evidence of past water on Mars.  What would be even more amazing is if Curiosity found evidence of an extreme organism or extremophile.  Because Curiosity drilled into a rock, they may find evidence of an extreme organism known as a lithotroph, aka a “rock-eater”.  Astrobiologists have been studying these extremophiles for many years and have discovered many amazing things about them.  An extremophile is a general term for any organism that lives beyond what is commonly thought of as “normal” conditions.

Astrobiologists have looked at rocks from the most inhospitable places on Earth.  They have found organisms living beneath rocks, between rocks and inside of rocks.  There are several types of rock-eaters, and they have been given unusual names like autolithotrophs, hypoendoliths and cryptoendoliths.  They are known collectively as lithotrophs.  These organisms are truly rock-eaters.  They actually digest the rock they live on or inside of. Lithotrophs have developed a unique way to metabolize the minerals in the rocks.  These organisms have learned to survive in very extreme environments.  If a lithotroph was found on the Red Planet, it would be a polyextremophile that is highly resistant to ultra-violet (UV) radiation, able to tolerate dry and desiccating conditions and tolerant to extremely cold temperatures.  A polyextremophile is an organism that lives beyond the realm of what the general public sees as normal with several extreme adaptations for survival.  Some live exposed to so much UV radiation that it kills almost every other organism in the vicinity.  These are known as radio resistant organisms.   

water bear eggOther organisms referred to as xerophiles live in places that receive little to no rainfall for years or even decades. There are also organisms that live in extremely cold conditions.  These are known as psychrophiles, or cryophiles. They can survive temperatures as low as -15o C.  On Earth, cryophiles live in salty or briny sea water.  The salt and minerals in the water lower the freezing point.  This is another interesting twist to the conditions scientists are seeking on or below the Martian surface.  We know the mineral content of the soil in the many areas we have visited on Mars.  They are similar in composition to the places on Earth that harbor many types of extremophiles.

It has been said by astrobiologists that if the Viking Lander would have landed in the Atacama Desert on Earth, it very likely would not have detected life. This is due to the types of organisms that have adapted to live there.  They would not have been recognized by the sophisticated equipment on Viking.  The Atacama Desert is frequently used as a Mars-Earth analog for astrobiology experiments.

atacama_desert_boliviaThe more we seek, the more we find.  The more we find, the more questions we have.  Curiosity is an interesting double entendre.  Our rover is named Curiosity, and human curiosity is what drives us to explore in space and on Mars.  As Professor Brian Cox once said, “I don’t need answers to everything; I want to have answers to find.”                                                                       
[Images: discovery.com, nasa.gov, sciencephoto.com, humanandnatural.com]