Terraforming Mars (Issue #24)

By:  Nicole Willett

The Sun has an approximate lifespan of ten billion years.  Most scientists believe we are about halfway through that life span.  Recently scientists have stated that the Sun will begin its death throes in about 2.8 billion years.  If humans behave in a way conducive to the health of the planet and themselves, we may still be in existence by then.  If that is the case we must be able to take humanity to a new home.  The Red Planet is a perfect first stop in this process.  He will survive longer than Earth.  But Mars will eventually perish as well.  In that case we must use Mars as a “practice” ground for learning how to take humanity to extrasolar planets in order to spread humanity around the galaxy.

blog 24NASA and other science organizations have been discussing a process called terraforming for a very long time.  Terraform means to make like Earth.  Many proposals have been submitted on the best way to make Mars like Earth.  The timelines proposed have varied from 100 years to 100,000 years.  We must find a balance between moving too fast and too slowly.  If we terrraform too fast, we may end up with a runaway greenhouse effect similar to what we see on Venus.  If we move too slow, we run the risk of other complications, such as the natural rhythms of the Red Planet changing during the process which could interfere and complicate any progress we may be making.  Terraforming Mars is of utmost importance in order to learn to live on other worlds.  Humanity must have the ability to be a multi-planet species in order to preserve Homo sapiens for millions or billions of years.

How could we go about terraforming Mars?  The 1,000 year plan seems to be a reasonable timeline.  If you utilize a version of Dr. Robert Zubrin’s, President and Founder of The Mars Society, Mars Direct plan, we would send up a series of habitats ahead of humans.  An automated system to manufacture fuel on the surface of Mars would be included in the initial payload.  This would allow the visitors to Mars to have a fuel supply ready for the return to Earth at a later date.   Humans would then take the six month trip and each crew would stay for 18 months, some may eventually choose to stay on the Red Planet.   Crews of Marsonauts would have an enormous responsibility to lay the groundwork for future Martians.

blog 24 natgeo3The first visitors would set up the habitat modules and start the greenhouse work.  When each successive group arrives at the initial home base, all necessary groundwork will have been laid for them to immediately begin working on the next set of tasks. This may include creature comforts.  In order for the settlers to feel at home on Mars, the habitats would need to be comfortable and roomy.  We would like the crew to feel at home, which will help with psychological concerns.  The greenhouses must also be a top priority.  COis already present in the atmosphere of Mars for plants to utilize for respiration, and they will return the favor by “exhaling” breathable O2 for the settlers.  Humans may feel depressed and isolated, but the aesthetic value of plants could make them feel more at home.  Plants will also serve as a major source of food which is essential to our survival.  They will also provide oxygen for breathing.  The Curiosity Rover has confirmed that the Martian soil is at least 2% water, so we will be able to heat up buckets of soil and extract water for plants and it must also be used for human consumption.  The H2O can also be divided into hydrogen for fuel and oxygen for breathing when necessary.  After we have perfected plants in greenhouses on the Red Planet, we may be able to allow bacteria and lichens, which are able to survive in arctic environments, to grow on the outside of the habitats and greenhouses.   The rovers on Mars have confirmed that the soil is already conducive to certain types of plants.

blog 24 natgeoNow we are ready for the next set of terraforming duties.  What is needed next is a nice thick and warm atmosphere.  Several suggestions have been proposed as to which approach for this is best.  Ideas have been as varied as giant orbiting mirrors to nuclear explosions and everything in between.  A common suggestion has been to release the CO2 frozen in the soil and in the polar ice caps into the atmosphere using factories spewing out what we consider greenhouse gases on Earth.  Whichever tactic is utilized to thicken the atmosphere, once it is warm enough for the polar ice and ground ice to melt and turn some H2O to liquid and some to gas then we are well on our way to add more complex plant life.  The water cycle should begin to look more Earthlike.  Rivers should start to flow, seas will develop, and rain will fall.  Regular weather patterns will develop and Martian meteorologists will surely scramble to predict weather as they do now on Earth.  Next we will add insects and flowering plants.  The soil will become more enriched with the addition of each more complex organism.  This will allow for the addition of even more complex plants and animals in succession periodically, for instance large trees will allow forests to take hold.

blog 24 natgeo2Energy is a must for the spread of civilization.  It is hoped that we have learned from our mistakes on Earth, and we will use all clean energy with little waste on Mars.  Transportation and city planning systems will be developed.  An entire new branch of humanity will start to evolve on the new Mars.  Plants and animals will grow and change over time being separated from their parent species on Earth.  Entire ecosystems will develop on their own trajectory, separate from all life on Earth.  Over the 1,000 year period Mars will be turned from a vast desert with a coral sky into a bountiful planet full of life with a beautiful blue sky.  It may look similar to Earth, but the inhabitants will become truly Martian.

Recently Dr. Zubrin spoke about the importance of humanity rallying from different countries to go together to Mars.  This is an important step in terraforming the planet.  We are all aware that people from all over the world may have important contributions to make to a manned mission to Mars.  Our lack of sociological maturity should not stand in the way of such a humanity altering event.  Borders on maps should not prevent the forward motion of science, technology, and exploration.  It is time to band together as Earthlings to accomplish this goal.  There is nothing beyond our technological ability to stop us from reaching Mars and settling there.  Terraforming is the next necessary step in this plan.

[Images: Wikipedia, NatGeo, NatGeo, NatGeo]

Rovers and Spaceships Everywhere! (Issue #23)

Rover and Engineering Design Competitions- Levels:  5th grade thru Undergraduate

By: Nicole Willett, Chuck McMurray and The Mars Society

The Mars Society is host to three (3) design challenges.  They range in age from middle school thru college level.  The middle and high school level challenge was launched at the 16th Annual Mars Society Convention this past August.  It is called the Youth Rover Challenge.  One of the undergraduate challenges is called the University Rover Challenge and it has had several very successful seasons so far.  The final challenge was also launched at the convention in August.  It is an international student design competition.

YRC2The Youth Rover Challenge (YRC) is a multi-tier robotics education development program that is hosted, sponsored and operated by The Mars Society. The program commenced on August 6th, 2013 to commemorate the one year anniversary of the landing of NASA’s Curiosity Rover.

YRC is a STEM related educational effort that is designed for schools and organizations with students or members in grades 5-12 to have the chance to build and compete at a global level with a LEGO Mindstorms NXT 2.0 based robotic rover and competition arena intended to simulate the surface of Mars. The sandbox where the robotic rover operates is intended to be replicated so participants can operate the competition locally at your school, home or club. The Rover built for the competition is pre-designed to accomplish specific experiments (tasks) similar to what Mars Rovers accomplish today on the surface of Mars and other harsh environments on remote places on Earth. The competition is operated on-site at your self-built sandbox and the final operation of the field tasks are then videotaped and sent to each teams personalized YRC site for submission. Teams that have submitted videos that show the final operation of the rover completing the tasks under a time limit are then ranked against other teams.  The YRC is designed to prepare students for the University Rover Challenge that has operated successfully for the last 7 years directed by The Mars Society.

The University Rover Challenge (URC) is the world’s premier robotics competition for college students.  The URC has officially kicked off its 2014 competition.  This competition challenges students to design and build the next generation of Mars rovers which will one day work alongside astronauts on the Red Planet.

URC2Teams spend the academic year designing, building and testing their robotic creations. They will compete at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in the remote, barren desert of southern Utah in late May, 2014. The challenge features multiple tasks, including an Equipment Servicing Task that incorporates inflatable structures, and a more aggressive incarnation of the popular Terrain Traversing Task.

URC is unique in the challenges that it presents to students. Interdisciplinary teams will tackle robotics, engineering and field science domains, while gaining real-world systems engineering and project management experience.  University teams interested in participating can view the URC2014 rules online. The official registration process will open in early November; however teams are encouraged to begin their work now.

The Mars Society recently announced the launch of an International Engineering Competition for student teams to propose design concepts for the architecture of the Inspiration Mars mission. The contest is open to university engineering student teams from anywhere in the world.

Insp marsInspiration Mars Executive Director Dennis Tito and Program Manager Taber MacCallum were present for the announcement. “Inspiration Mars is looking for the most creative ideas from engineers all over the world,” said Tito. “Furthermore, we want to engage the explorers of tomorrow with a real and exciting mission, and demonstrate what a powerful force space exploration can be in inspiring young people to develop their talent. This contest will accomplish both of those objectives.”

Insp mars shipThe requirement is to design a two-person Mars flyby mission for 2018 as cheaply, safely and simply as possible. All other design variables are open.  Alumni, professors and other university staff may participate as well, but the teams must be predominantly composed of and led by students. All competition presentations must be completed exclusively by students. Teams will be required to submit their design reports in writing by March 15, 2014. From there, a down-select will occur with the top 10 finalist teams invited to present and defend their designs before a panel of six judges chosen (two each) by the Mars Society, Inspiration Mars and NASA. The presentations will take place during a public event at NASA Ames Research Center in April 2014.

Designs will be evaluated using a scoring system, allocating a maximum of 30 points for cost, 30 points for technical quality of the design, 20 points for operational simplicity and 20 points for schedule with a maximum total of 100 points. The first place team will receive a prize of $10,000, an all-expenses paid trip to the 2014 International Mars Society Convention and a trophy to be presented by Dennis Tito at that event. Prizes of $5,000, $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000 will also be awarded for second through fifth place.  All designs submitted will be published, and Inspiration Mars will be given non-exclusive rights to make use of any ideas contained therein.

Commenting on the contest, Mars Society President Dr. Robert Zubrin said, “The Mars Society is delighted to lead this effort. This contest will provide an opportunity for legions of young engineers to directly contribute their talent to this breakthrough project to open the space frontier.”

For more information on any of the above competitions email us at info@marssociety.org.

[Images: Chuck McMurray, The Mars Society, Inspiration Mars]

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]