Why Could We Be Descendants of Martians? (Issue #22)

By: Dr. Steven Benner and Nicole Willett

For many years, scientists have considered the model that life originated on Mars and was transported to Earth, rather than originating on Earth.  This model turns on answers to the question: What molecular structures are necessary for biology to “switch on”, moving from an inanimate state to a living state, where reproduction and adaptation (key parts of Darwinian evolution) are able to allow life to manage challenges to its blog 22 dnaexistence. For many, this switch requires the emergence, from a “prebiotic soup”, genetic molecules such as DNA and RNA. And, if this is true, the model then turns on the questions: Could genetic molecules have emerged on Earth? Could they have emerged on Mars? And given what we think about the environments on early Earth and Mars, which were more suited for the kinds of prebiotic chemistry that might give genetic molecules?

Dr. Steven Benner, of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida, presented findings at the Goldschmidt Conference in Florence, Italy last week that suggest that Mars was more suited. His research increases the chance that life originated on Mars and was transported to Earth via meteorites.  Some people say this is an outlandish claim, while others are becoming more intrigued by the facts that support this model.

To understand this subject, let’s start with some background information about chemistry and biology.  Chemistry is the study of the elements (atoms) on the periodic table and how they connect and interact to make up everything in the universe, including you.  Prebiotic chemistry is the study of how complex molecules that might allow the “switch” to biology might have emerged without life. Models in prebiotic chemistry describe how these non-biological molecules might, under defined conditions, somehow become biological.  The missing link is the “somehow become biological”.  Many studies and journal articles have been published on this subject.  Some have been found to be incorrect and others linger with unanswered questions.

blog 22 single cell fsu eduThe first form of life was, we presume, a single celled organism.  Even so, the cells were complex compared to the prebiotic molecules that preceded them.  The most important elements to early cells are, we presume, also those important to modern biology: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. These were almost certainly combined on early Earth and Mars, first into small molecules (hydrogen cyanide, for example, HCN, or water HOH, or formaldehyde, HCHO). Processes are known where they can be further assembled (without life) to give components of genetic molecules, including the nucleic acid bases adenine, thymine, uracil, guanine, and cytosine. These bases are the individual letter codes commonly seen in articles and television shows where people check DNA tests.

But here the chemistry becomes more difficult. To further assemble these units into genetic molecules like RNA (believed to be a precursor of DNA), several things must happen. First, the organic molecules present on early Earth and early Mars, must avoid decomposition. As anyone knows who has left the stove on too long in the kitchen, organic molecules given energy tend to devolve into tar. For RNA to have a chance of emerging prebiotically, the devolution of its building blocks must be prevented.

In Florence, Benner presented evidence that minerals (like borax) containing the element boron (in the form of borate) are able to prevent this devolution. Borate captures carbohydrates that are formed in the prebiotic soup before they devolve to a tarry fate.

blog 22 meteor maryland weatherSecond, the atoms in the borate-captured carbohydrates must be rearranged to give ribose, the “R” in RNA. Dr. Benner presented the results of experiments that showed that minerals containing the element molybdenum (in its oxidized form, molybdate) can do this rearrangement.

Third, the ribose must be attached to adenine, uracil, cytosine, and guanine, each by forming bonds that are not easily formed in water. Then, phosphate must be added, also by forming bonds that are not stable in water. To do this, the amount of water available must be controlled; from time to time, the mixture must dry out.

This is all simple enough in the laboratory today. However, Dr. Benner pointed to models from geologists who hold that water was so abundant on early Earth that no dry land was available. Further, these models suggest that borate could not have been presented in useful concentrations. They also suggest that early Earth was insufficiently oxidizing to give molybdenum in its oxidized molybdate form. In short, geologists were suggesting that RNA could not have emerged on early Earth, at least not by way of the prebiotic chemistry that Dr. Benner has proposed.

blog 22 MarsAsteroidImpactHowever, conditions on Mars appear to have been more favorable for Benner’s prebiotic chemistry. First, Mars has always had less water; it was easier to dry out on Mars. This should have allowed borate to be concentrated. Mars may have also had a more oxidizing environment, allowing for molybdate. Finally, phosphate may have been more accessible on early Mars.

We know of this thanks to the orbiters, landers, and rovers that have been studying Mars for nearly 40 years.  We have also collected a large number of meteorites that have come from Mars.  These meteorites contain, among other things, borate minerals and other species that Benner’s prebiotic chemistry requires for the formation of RNA, which is believed to be a predecessor to DNA.

But even if Mars was a more suited planet for life to form, that life must have come to Earth. The idea that life is delivered to one planet from another is called panspermia.  This is certainly possible. About one kilogram of Mars comes to Earth every day, after it is flung from Mars into the Solar System by a meteorite impacting on Mars. The low surface gravity of Mars makes escape from the Red Planet easier than from Earth. Reentry is sufficiently fast that microbes that originated on Mars would survive, arriving on Earth without damage. Here, they would find a planet that was habitable, able to sustain life, even Earth was not suited for life to originate in the first place.

blog 22 icebreaker model nasaTo further this analysis, we must fund and support missions to Mars that include new technology, such as the Icebreaker Mission.  This mission has a six foot drill that will drill beneath the surface of Mars in order to get samples that are far enough below the surface to be shielded from harmful UV radiation.  We must also fund and support missions that will send humans to Mars.  We need humans on Mars in order to respond imaginatively to uncertain conditions on the planet, required to do the appropriate science with the proper laboratory equipment in order to get the answers that have eluded us for decades, possibly centuries.  We need to find life on Mars in order to compare the DNA of the Martians to the DNA of the Earthlings.  Could we all be Martians?

“The emergence of life on Earth might have been an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics, and if that is true, then a living cosmos might be the only way our cosmos can be”   [Professor Brian Cox]

[Images: Benner, FSU, Md Weather, Spaceports, NASA]

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]

Where Are We in the Universe? (Issue #20)

By: Nicole Willett

blog 20 MWG and sun teachastronomy com

Imagine a shapeless infinite area of subatomic particles.  All of the particles slowly started to be attracted to each other.  Over millions of years clumps of particles formed and even coalesced into molecules and compounds.  After millions more years the compounds formed into small objects, probably pebbles.  After a billion years or so there were pockets of material that were separated by millions of light years.  These pockets of material were primitive galaxies and they can be 100,000 light years or more across.  They were swirling around and inside of these young galaxies, like our Milky Way Galaxy,  were primordial solar systems.

blog 20 scale of the planets and stars -bailescu A solar system like ours, started with a swirling cloud of gas and dust.  Our solar system is approximately one light year across.  As this one light year across solar system was taking shape approximately 5 billion years ago, there were somewhere between 200 and 400 billion other solar systems forming in the Milky Way Galaxy.   In the universe it is estimated that the 100 billion (1011) galaxies make up 70 sextillion (70 x 1022  ) stars in the universe.  *These numbers are estimates and each publication may have a slightly different number and each year they refine the data.

blog 20 solar systemAs our home solar system started taking shape, the bulk of the mass went to the center, where the sun was born.  As soon as she had enough mass and gravity to force together those first few hydrogen atoms in a process called nuclear fusion, our sun became a star. The sun turned on.  Without her we would not exist.  Think about that when you look at her every day.   Around our Sun were countless particles, molecules, and compounds.  As these objects were attracted to each other they became larger and larger.  These interactions formed the planets, moons, asteroids, meteors, and comets.  The solar system probably had between 50 and 100 planets when it first started taking shape.  It was very chaotic and there was no definite order to the solar system at this point.  We know that more than likely the orbits we see now of the planets were probably a lot different 4 billion years ago.  As the solar system has matured and become a bit more stable, we have the order of the 8 planets that we see now.   The order starting at the Sun and moving outward is:  Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

So to map out the universe from largest to smallest the list is as follows:

blog 20 scale_of_the_universe bThe Universe, filaments and groups of galaxies, galaxies, solar systems, planets, you!

So, why are you reading this on an educational blog about Mars?  The reason is simple.  Our star, the sun, has a finite life.  We must understand our place in the universe in order to appreciate the importance of why we should send humans to Mars.  Mars is our neighbor, with many similarities to Earth.  We must learn to inhabit other blog 20 humans on mars fanpop comworlds if we are going to sustain humanity.  We are life, we have the ability to preserve ourselves and venture out into our solar system and then to other solar systems.  We have discovered thousands of other planets in a very short time.  Our neighboring star system has planets.  It would behoove us to learn how to go there.  But first we must take steps, the first giant leap was a man on the Moon, the next enormous leap will be humans on Mars, and the next colossal leap will be humans to Alpha Centauri and beyond.

~Humans to Mars as a bridge to the stars.

[Images: teachastronomy, bailescu, static, fanpop]

 

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]

Teaching Mars (Issue #12)

by: Nicole Willett

As a full time secondary Astronomy teacher and the Education Director for The blog 12i abcteachMars Society, I teach a theme-based curriculum.  The theme is centered around Mars, putting humans on the Red Planet and the astrobiology of Mars.  I would not recommend starting any curriculum with Mars.  I always begin with a general overview of the solar system and our place in the universe.  This includes a presentation on the scale of the universe from quarks (sub-atomic particles) to filaments (the largest structures in the universe).  I continue with the planets, starting at Mercury and making my way through all eight planets.  We discuss the Earth-Moon system and the many spacecraft and humans that have visited our next door neighbor.  I also include the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) craft such as the Space Transportation System (STS) program and the International Space Station (ISS).  We discuss the unmanned and manned missions.  This sets up a base for the manned Mars mission proposals.

blog 12j space comWhen I reach the Mars chapter, I give basic Martian planetary data, orbital data, geology, etc.  I point out the similarities with the Martian and Earth day, having only an approximate 40 minute time difference.  Also, I display the axial tilt of both planets, Earth having a 23.5o tilt and Mars having a 25o tilt.  I point out that Earth’s seasons are caused by this tilt and that Mars also has seasons, even though it has a year that is twice as long.  We discuss the moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos.  I compare and contrast the Earth-Moon system with the Martian system.  I point out the fact that Mars’ moons are most likely captured asteroids that are much smaller than Earth’s moon, closer to Mars than our moon, and they orbit much more rapidly.  We discuss what will happen when Phobos crashes into the surface of Mars and when Deimos drifts away and the affects that will have on the humans who will inhabit the Red Planet at that point.

Next we discuss the spacecraft that have visited Mars from Mariner to Curiosity.  We learn the difference between an orbiter, a rover, and a lander.  The instrumentation on many of the spacecraft are discussed, such as different types of cameras and spectrometers and the purpose of each.  I then continue lecturing about the discoveries made on Mars using the aforementioned instruments.  Some discoveries I point out are the Martian blueberries, or hematite, discovered by the Opportunity Rover.  This discovery verified the assumption by some that water stood on Mars for long periods of time.  Perchlorate was also discovered and I ask them to ponder what affects that would have on any life that may exist on Mars now and the affects that will have on any plant life humans may bring to Mars in the future.   The implications of all of these discoveries are discussed in many ways.  I always encourage my students to ask many questions, open their mind to new ideas, and to question everything they read or hear, including what I say.

I wrap up the Mars section, after four to six weeks, with a student lecture from each student.  They are given a rubric to follow and they must present a five to seven minute power point (or similar format) about a specific subject.  I compile a list for them ahead of time and they get to pick from things such as specific spacecraft, terraforming, Phobos and Deimos, Olympus Mons, Valles Marineris, and many more.  This assignment shows the students that there are many resources available, print and web based, to find information about the Red Planet.  Also, it lets them know how many thousands of people have dedicated their entire lives to research and explore Mars. 

The second semester starts out by wrapping up the outer solar system, and continues with star formation and life cycles, galaxies, and extra-solar planets, and astrobiology.  Meanwhile, the Mars Project gets underway.  This is a complex and comprehensive project that encompasses all of the prior sciences the students have learned, ranging from biology to physics to geology and everything in between.    This culminates in a springtime Science Night where all of the projects are presented.  The projects are heavily Mars based.   212blog 12g nat geo com

One group is building a Mars Curiosity Rover which will be “driven” by guests over the Martian terrain which is also built by students.  The second class is building Earth based and LEO spaceports where the manned spacecraft bound for Mars will launch.  The third class is building dioramas representing six groups that are sending humans to the Red Planet.  Group 1 is Physics and Engineering who determine the trajectory to Mars and develop habitats for the landing crew.  Group 2 is Astronomy which researches weather patterns, the sky view on Mars and the moons.  Group 3 is Geology and they research the volcanos, Valles Marineries, the history of water, soil and rocks.  Group 4 is Chemistry and they delve into the atmosphere and decide how to utilize the gases to make fuel for a return to Earth.  Group 5 is Astrobiology and they are tasked with finding a “Martian” of some type to study.  The astrobiologists send the organisms to the Group 6 Biology Lab for DNA sequencing, to compare Martian DNA to Earth DNA.  The final class deals with terraforming Mars.  They are divided into six groups which build Martian dioramas to reflect Mars at Terraforming Year Zero all the way through year 1,000.  They must go from setting up habitats for the first human, building greenhouses, all the way through melting subsurface ice which will eventually thicken the atmospheric pressure.  At this point the water flows on the surface and rain falls with a backdrop of a blue sky and white clouds.  Each student must follow a rubic which includes a participation grade, a research paper and the appearance of the visual presentation.

The students thoroughly enjoy these projects.  They feel very engaged in science when they get to do hands on projects.  This project is completed by high school seniors; however, it can be tailored to any age group, broken up into pieces, or even separated into different grade levels.  Please see the Official Mars Society Curriculum for other ideas about teaching a Martian theme based class.  Feel free to contact me with any questions.  nicolew@marssociety.org