Humans to Mars (Issue #17)

by: Nicole Willett

An enormous amount of coverage regarding a human mission to Mars has recently inundated our televisions and the Internet.  Some people are skeptical and others are on board and ready for humanity to take that step.  Many organizations are planning a human mission to Mars.  SpaceX founder Elon Musk has been quoted as saying he wants to “die on Mars”, and his company is currently developing the Falcon Heavy rocket which is designed to carry payloads large enough for a humans to Mars mission.  Another organization called Mars One has started taking applications for their humans to Mars mission using a reality show format.  They have received 78,000 applications in two weeks.  The interest, leaning toward obsession, with settling the Red Planet is coming to a peak the size of Olympus Mons.

The most feasible plan to date is Inspiration Mars, a non-profit organization founded by millionaire Dennis Tito.  His plan is to send two people, preferably a married couple, on a 500 day mission to get within 100 miles of the Red Planet and return to Earth.  This is a fly-by mission, which will pave the way for future human missions to the surface of Mars and eventual settlement of the planet.  Tito wants to have a human flyby in 2018, five years from now.  This is an ambitious mission with clear goals and a clear timeline which is what we have been missing since Apollo.   In reference to NASA’s 2030-something date to go to Mars, Tito stated, “I can’t wait until 2030. That’s too long of a time to maintain enthusiasm,” he said. “I think if we’re going to fly to Mars, we have to do it with a short sprint to show we can do it, and then we can take the time necessary to do the whole enchilada, which is boots on the ground.”

 On May 8th in Washington, D.C. there was a Humans to Mars Summit to discuss these issues.  The list of speakers was long and included Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator, Chris McKay, NASA Ames, and Buzz Aldrin, Apollo XI.  Subjects discussed were:  Human and robotic precursor missions, Humans to Mars: Science and Engineering, Living on Mars: Biomedical Challenges, Habitation & Life Support/Mobility & Space Suits and many more.  The occurrence of this event at this time is very telling of the direction we humans are going in.  That direction is Mars.

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Buzz Aldrin, who spoke at the Humans to Mars Summit, has recently written a book entitled, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration.  This book discusses in detail Aldrin’s vision and ideas for the future of Mars human exploration and settlement.  Aldrin speaks out as a very important and influential voice in the human quest to push the boundaries of our capabilities in the solar system.  In his book he plots out his vision of putting humans on Mars by 2035 as well as for settling the Red Planet.  As one of the first two men on the moon, it is vitally important to be aware of and to support his vision for human exploration and settlement of Mars.  After all, he is a very courageous and forward thinking human to have risked his life to expand the human presence in the solar system.  For that we owe him our gratitude.mission-to-mars-cover-2 blog 17

There are several major reasons for humans to go to Mars.  The following are excerpts from the Mars Society’s Founding Declaration, outlining the long-held beliefs of the organization’s founders, its membership and supporters in general.

“The time has come for humanity to journey to the planet Mars.

We’re ready.  Though Mars is distant, we are far better prepared today to send humans to the Red Planet than we were to travel to the Moon at the commencement of the space age.  Given the will, we could have our first crews on Mars within a decade.

The reasons for going to Mars are powerful.

We must go for the knowledge of Mars. Our robotic probes have revealed that Mars was once a warm and wet planet, suitable for hosting life’s origin. But did it? A search for fossils on the Martian surface or microbes in groundwater below could provide the answer. If found, they would show that the origin of life is not unique to the Earth, and, by implication, reveal a universe that is filled with life and probably intelligence as well. From the point of view learning our true place in the universe, this would be the most important scientific enlightenment since Copernicus.

We must go for the knowledge of Earth. As we begin the twenty-first century, we have evidence that we are changing the Earth’s atmosphere and environment in significant ways. It has become a critical matter for us better to understand all aspects of our environment. Mars, the planet most like Earth, will have even more to teach us about our home world. The knowledge we gain could be key to our survival.

We must go for the challenge. Civilizations, like people, thrive on challenge and decay without it. The time is past for human societies to use war as a driving stress for technological progress. As the world moves towards unity, we must join together in common enterprise, facing outward to embrace a greater and nobler challenge than that which we previously posed to each other.

We must go for the youth. The spirit of youth demands adventure. A humans-to-Mars program would challenge young people everywhere to develop their minds to participate in the pioneering of a new world [and promote the passion for STEM related subjects.] The net result would be tens of millions more scientists, engineers, inventors, medical researchers and doctors. These people benefit the world in innumerable ways to provide a return that will utterly dwarf the expenditures of the Mars program.

We must go for the opportunity. The settling of the Martian New World is an opportunity for a noble experiment in which humanity has another chance to shed old baggage and begin the world anew; carrying forward as much of the best of our heritage as possible and leaving the worst behind. Such chances do not come often, and are not to be disdained lightly.

We must go for our humanity. Human beings are more than merely another kind of animal, -we are life’s messenger. Alone of the creatures of the Earth, we have the ability to continue the work of creation by bringing life to Mars, and Mars to life. In doing so, we shall make a profound statement as to the precious worth of the human race and every member of it.

The Case for Mars 2We must go for the future. Mars is not just a scientific curiosity; it is a world with a surface area equal to all the continents of Earth combined, possessing all the elements that are needed to support not only life, but technological society. It is a New World, filled with history waiting to be made by a new and youthful branch of human civilization that is waiting to be born. We must go to Mars to make that potential a reality. We must go, not for us, but for a people who are yet to be. We must do it for the Martians.

“Believing therefore that the exploration and settlement of Mars is one of the greatest human endeavors possible in our time, we have gathered to found this Mars Society, understanding that even the best ideas for human action are never inevitable, but must be planned, advocated, and achieved by hard work. We call upon all other individuals and organizations of like-minded people to join with us in furthering this great enterprise. No nobler cause has ever been. We shall not rest until it succeeds.”

Those powerful words have inspired millions of people.  However, some critics of a human mission to the Red Planet have said that it is too dangerous, and we do not have the technology.  These things are untrue, and the dangers are overstated.  If Columbus and Magellan listened to their critics, think of how the beginning of globalization would have stalled and how that would have negatively affected the future of humanity. Cartographers would put dragons on the maps before Columbus and Magellan made their incredible journeys.  It is time for us to leave low-Earth orbit and take the dragons off the map.  We need to come together as fearless forward thinkers with the innate desire to become a two-planet space faring civilization.  
Others say we must take care of the Earth first.  To that I say if we wait around for the overfed, over-medicated and under-educated sociologically immature Earthlings to take care of the Earth first, then we will surely die here without accomplishing the goal of becoming a space faring civilization. This mission must happen, for all of us.  
Lastly there are critics who raise concerns for the loss of human life.  As Dr. Zubrin has said, and this is my favorite quote, “All people die, it is a matter of what you do with your life before you die.”  To me that is the answer to all of the fears and anxieties.  What are we going to do with our lives?  Stay a one (dying) planet species and live in fear?  Or will we put aside our fear and reach out to Mars, step foot on the beautiful coral colored soil, settle and become an interplanetary species we were meant to be?   That insatiable desire for us Martians at the Mars Society and all over the world may even be ingrained in our DNA.  For these and many other reasons we must go! ~On To Mars!
[Images: BBC, Inspiration Mars, Aldrin, Zubrin]

Mars at a Glance (Issue #16)

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by: Nicole Willett

The Mars Society is dedicated to the human exploration and settlement of the planet Mars.  As such the Education Task Force is charged with educating the public with everything about Mars.  A general overview is the best way to introduce the Red Planet.  That leaves a sense of curiosity and room for further inquiry into the subject.

The following is a brief overview of the planet Mars.

General Information:

  • The planet Mars was named after the God of War from Greek/Roman mythology.
  • It is the 4th planet from the Sun, also known as the Red Planet.
  • Mars has what is known as a superior orbit – meaning it orbits the Sun outside of the orbit of Earth.
  • Orbit Order: Sun—Mercury—Venus—Earth—Mars—Jupiter— Saturn— Uranus—Neptune
  • Mars orbits the Sun at an average distance of 1.5 Astronomical Units (1 AU is the distance from the Sun to the Earth).
  • Mars is regarded as the 2nd most hospitable planet for the appearance of life, after Earth.
  • Mars is about half the size of Earth.

Mars_Earth_Comparison

  • A year on Mars is 687 Earth days.
  • A day on Mars is 24 hours and 37 minutes.
  • The axial tilt on Mars is 24o, which gives Mars seasons similar to those on Earth.
  • Mars’ surface gravity is 1/3 of Earths.
  • The temperatures on the Martian surface range from -87oC to 20oC.

Mars has 2 satellites (moons) named Phobos and Deimos:

  • The moons are oddly shaped and look like potatoes!
  • They are much smaller than Earth’s moon.
  • Phobos and Deimos orbit Mars very quickly and are much closer to Mars than the Moon is to the Earth.
  • The satellites are visible through some larger telescopes on Earth.

Some major geographical features on Mars:

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  • Valles Marineris – A 3,000 mile long “Grand Canyon” that looks like a giant crack on the surface of Mars.
  • Olympus Mons – The largest volcano on Mars and in the solar system, it is 3 times as high as Mt. Everest and the size of Texas!
  • Mars has thousands of craters covering its surface, and they range in age from billions of years old to others that are much more recent.

Water and weather on Mars:

  • Telescopic observations from Earth have seen what appear to be channels on Mars for many years.
  • Many orbiting spacecraft have taken images of dry river channels on the Martian surface.
  • The landers and rovers on Mars have taken measurements, soil samples and images that have led to an overwhelming amount of data that suggests water existed on the surface of Mars, is there now in frozen form and occasionally briefly runs across the surface when the conditions are just right.

Mars_Viking_snowMars has a North and South Pole that are covered in ice caps.  The ice caps grow and recede through the seasons and are made of H2O and CO2.

Mars has Earth-like weather systems, including clouds, wind, dust storms and it even snows on Mars!

Major U.S. spacecraft to have visited Mars:

  • Mariner 4 – 1964 launch, flyby mission, July 1965, took the very first close-up images of Mars
  • Viking 1 Lander – reached the surface July 20, 1976
  • Viking 2 Lander – reached the surface Sept 3, 1976
  • Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner Rover (2-part spacecraft) – reached the surface July 4, 1997, first rover deployed on another planet
  • Spirit Rover – reached the surface Jan 4, 2004
  • Opportunity Rover – reached the surface Jan 25, 2004-Still operating on the surface of Mars
  • Phoenix Lander -­ reached the surface May 25, 2008
  • Curiosity Rover ­- reached the surface Aug 5/6, 2012-Still operating on the surface of Mars

The spacecraft listed above have carried many scientific instruments including spectrometers, rock abrasion tools, many types of cameras, chemistry labs, a drill and even a laser.  The discoveries they have made are varied, such as the discovery of the first meteorite on another planet, that water existed on the surface of Mars and in the soil, the inside of the rocks on Mars are grey (not red!), and that there are simple organic molecules inside the rocks on Mars.  These are just a tiny sample of what has been discovered on the Red Planet in recent years. 

MarsonautThe Mars Society is dedicated to the human exploration and settlement of Mars. Part of this goal includes promoting educational outreach with STEM subjects. Many scientists believe that the Red Planet can be terraformed (made Earth-like) over the next few centuries, providing humanity with a second home.  In order for the human race to accomplish these goals, we must educate ourselves and each other.  Please join us in helping to reach our objective.

~On To Mars

Contact for inquiries or volunteer information:  nicolew@marssociety.org

Also please visit our Main website:  http://www.marssociety.org

[Images: The Mars Society, NASA, JPL, Exploremars.org]

2013 Mars Society STEM Education Event at the Boulder Convention (Issue #15)

Education logo
*Updated Aug. 9, 2013*
by: Nicole Willett
The Mars Society is convening its 16th Annual International Mars Society Convention at the University of Colorado at Boulder from August 15 – 18, 2013. The convention will include many key scientists and policy experts and also involve panel discussions on various Mars-related topics.  Some of the speakers include Dr. Carol Stoker, NASA astrobiologist, Dr. David Brain of the University of Colorado/Boulder and MAVEN co-investigator, and Dr. Steven Squyres of Cornell University and principal investigator for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers as well as the recipient of the 2013 Mars Pioneer Award.  For more information and registration details, please visit our web site.  Also a list of confirmed speakers is now available online.

The Boulder convention runs from Thursday thru Sunday.  On Saturday, August 17th our organization will be hosting a special program called the 2013 Mars Society STEM Education Event.  There will be hands-on activities, guest speakers and special presentations.   The purpose of this program is to inspire young children and students while simultaneously encouraging them to learn more about STEM subjects, investigate space sciences and delve into the issue of the human exploration and settlement of Mars. 

**FREE Admission to the STEM Education Event for ages 0-18**

Dr ZDr. Robert Zubrin, President and Founder of the Mars Society, will address the guests of the event with a very special talk aimed at students.  Dr. Zubrin is also President of Pioneer Astronautics, an aerospace R&D company located in Lakewood, Colorado.  Formerly a Staff Engineer at Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver, he holds a Masters degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics and a Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Washington.  Viewed as a respected author and a renowned expert on Mars, Dr. Zubrin has testified in recent years before several U.S. government committees and in 2009 spoke in front of the Augustine Commission on the subject of the future of America’s human space flight program.  
Astronaut_Abby_PhotoAlso participating in the program will be Astronaut Abby, a 15-year-old student from Minnesota, who will talk about her journey and desire to become the first astronaut on Mars.  Abby has always had a dream to be the first astronaut on the Red Planet. Her quest has taken her on quite a journey so far.  Abby’s adventures include witnessing several space shuttle launches at Kennedy Space Center, participating in space camp and visiting many space museums and education centers.  Her accomplishments include being guided by various NASA, Canadian and ESA professionals including an ESA astronaut mentor.  Abby has shared her enthusiasm and vision to thousands around the world. Recently, she has been given a rare invitation to the legendary Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic, to personally witness the Soyuz TMA-09M, to the International Space Station. She was invited by Italian Astronaut Luca Parmitano, who has been active in her mentoring.  For more information about her adventures , please visit her web site.
YRC13 ModelChuck McMurray, Deputy Education Director for the Mars Society, will be launching the organization’s Youth Rover Challenge for middle and high schools.  This challenge is a national competition targeted at middle school and high school students from grades 8-12. The program is designed to give younger students the chance to learn more about the engineering and design challenges required to build and operate a rover. The competitive events allow students to measure the capabilities of their rover designs, as well as the ability for the rover to execute surface exploration and other duties. Younger students will get a chance to test their skills and prepare for the university level competition, while building on skills needed for future STEM careers that support planetary exploration and Earth-based research in harsh Mars-like environments.
Other exciting guests will include Christopher Nie and the Mars Foundation. Christopher is from theUniversity of Colorado/Boulder’s Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (CUSEDS) chapter and will be on hand with many interactive activities, such as developing space related postcards, stomp rockets, Alka-seltzer rockets, Mars rock geology, space mining, and crater formation.  The Mars Foundation will also be displaying how 3-D printing works.  This presentation is important to future Marsonauts.  3-D printing may very well be used to “print” habitats utilizing the resources found on the surface of Mars.
STEM Event Schedule:
  • 10:00 Mars Foundation, Bruce MacKenzie Mars Settlement
  • 10:30 Mars Foundation, Bruce MacKenzie & Seth Sinnemma 3-D printing for Mars
  • 11:15 Victoria Jordan Weather Balloon project
  • 12-1 Lunch Break
  • 1:00 Chris Nie CUSEDS
  • 1:30 Carol Kendall Red Planet: Read, Write, Explore!
  • 2:00 Dr. Robert Zubrin
  • 2:30 Chuck McMurray Youth Rover Challenge
  • 3:00 Astronaut Abby Quest to Become the First Martian Astronaut

You may register for the event here.

3-d printing hplus magazine com

We hope to see you all in Boulder on August 17th! 
  
[Images: TMS, Astronaut Abby, hplusmagazine.com]

For program inquiries and information about volunteer opportunities, please contact nicolew@marssociety.org.

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. 

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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.
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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]