What Does The Mars Society Do? (Issue #33)

By: Nicole Willett

blog 33 aThe latest episode of Neil DeGrasse-Tyson’s Star Talk, featuring, Bill Nye, President of The Planetary Society, Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator, and Astrophysicist, Dr. Michael Shara, was chock full of great information and insight.  While watching, my heart ached for our civilization to understand the importance of a manned mission to Mars.  Charles Bolden stated NASA’s plan is to be on Mars around 2030 with the current budget of half of one percent of the US budget, we believe with more resources and cooperation from various countries and private organizations we could be on Mars sooner and possibly cheaper.  A major reason for needing a human touch on Mars is for exactly what Bill Nye stated which is that a human scientist could do in one minute the job that a robot does in a week, it’s about a ratio of 1:10,000.  The problem was stated clearly by Dr. Michael Shara, “Frankly, we are not as brave as we should be.” These statements are extraordinarily important to be shared with the public.  We are not as brave or as curious as we should be. Dr. Robert Zubrin, President of The Mars Society and one of the bravest men I have ever known, says we could be on Mars in ten years with the proper funding.

Shopping bags, MonbiotAren’t you curious? Is curiosity lost to our civilization for the most part?  Some days I think it is.  I often get asked this question, “What does The Mars Society do?”  This question sometimes frustratingly comes from a place of condescension and rarely a place of curiosity.  I have to remind myself that the work we are doing here is to take humans to another planet, an event that would change human history and that most people unfortunately have no concept of why it is so important. The short answer is:  We are an advocacy group to promote the human exploration and settlement of Mars.  Our goal is to educate the public through our Education Department, bring like-minded people together at chapter meetings and our annual conventions, and promote a human mission to Mars via projects and competitions.  Sounds simple right?  Well, not really. You see, people really like the societal pleasures of who is who, who is wearing who, what team are you for, what kind of car do you drive, what do you do for a living???? On and on this goes.  Meanwhile, billions of people are left uninformed of what is really important: Curiosity, knowledge, and exploration.  Instilling curiosity, providing access to true knowledge of scientific facts, and the goal of Mars exploration by humans, is an important part of what we are trying to accomplish.

blog 33 koolfmIt is frustrating for sure, as a teacher of young people, to see that most are much more interested in the latest phone app than the intellectual curiosity for really learning anything.  The way the educational system is set up is flawed and is partially responsible for the noninterest to learn.  People do not enjoy memorizing things in order to take a test.  People want to LEARN.  Only learning can create critical thinking and curiosity, maybe this is the source of the apathy in America.  I encounter some very curious minds, but sadly too few.  Learning takes place with hands on experience and discussions, not workbooks and vocabulary lessons.  We need to have a strong work force of critical thinkers, not robotic followers.   The Apollo 13 Mission was not saved by people that had been able to get the highest SAT score blog 33 nasabecause they memorized a bunch of facts, those brave scientists were able to quickly and critically think and creatively solve a problem and save the lives of three brave men.  The Mars Society is an organization that is involved in many projects that make an environment conducive to learning by hands-on experience and discussions, which lends itself to creativity and critical thinking.  Going to the Moon took about 400,000 people, going to Mars will take many more.  We need strong minded, willful, brave problem solvers to get to Mars.

So, what does The Mars Society do to move this endeavor forward?  Well, with a lot of patience and a group of very dedicated and passionate volunteers.  The Mars Society was founded by Dr. Robert Zubrin in 1998, stemming from the Mars Underground which was started by Dr. Carol Stoker, NASA, Dr. Chris McKay, NASA, and Dr. Penelope Boston.  The Mars Society is involved in many projects, including but not limited to:  holding annual conventions, an Education Department for public outreach, STEM Education Events, Red Planet Pen (an educational blog), Red Planet Radio (podcast), a Speakers Bureau, having two analogue stations named Mars Desert Research Station and Mars Arctic Research Station, the University Rover Challenge and the Youth Rover Challenge.

blog 33 cuaThe Mars Society will convene the 18th Annual International Mars Society Convention on the campus of the Catholic University of America from August 13-16, 2015.  The annual four-day event brings together key experts, scientists, journalists and policymakers to discuss the latest news on Mars exploration and efforts to promote a humans-to-Mars mission in the coming years. We have many notable speakers, including Dr. Robert Zubrin, President and Founder of the Mars Society, Apollo astronaut Dr. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt will give a plenary address, Dr. Deborah Bass, Deputy Project Scientist for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, will discuss the planned exploration mission, Dr. Vint Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, will give a plenary talk about his long-term vision for solar system exploration and the role communications will play in this endeavor, Sam Scimemi, Director for International Space Station (ISS) at NASA Headquarters within the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, Dr. Pamela G. Conrad, an astrobiologist and mineralogist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Deputy Principal Investigator for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, will talk about the potential habitability of the planet Mars, and many, many more!
blog 33 mdrsThe Mars Society has two analog research stations.  One is the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) and the other is the Mars Arctic Research Station.  Analog Research Stations are laboratories for learning how to live and work on another planet. Each is a prototype of a habitat that will land humans on Mars and serve as their main base for months of exploration in the harsh Martian environment. Such a habitat represents a key element in current human Mars mission planning. Each Station’s centerpiece is a cylindrical habitat, “The Hab,” an 8-meter diameter, two-deck structure mounted on landing struts. Peripheral external structures, some inflatable, may be appended to the hab as well.  College students gain credit by living and working at the MDRS hab for two weeks at a time.

The Mars Society Education Department maintains an educational forum website with resources free to all students, teachers and Mars enthusiasts.  Opportunities for speakers, online or in person, are available to enhance students’ educational experience around the world.  The Speakers Bureau of experienced Mars advocates can be contacted to speak and do a presentation and will either come to you or organize an online event for your group or class.  The website also has an archive of blogs with a vast amount of information about Mars and the spacecraft that have visited the Red Planet.  To enhance all educational materials, The Mars Society has a YouTube Channel that has hundreds of videos of talks from previous conventions.  All of these resources are meant to stimulate minds and allow anyone to learn as much as they can about Mars and what a human mission to Mars entails.

blog 33 urcChuck McMurray, the Mars Society’s Deputy Education Director, launched the Youth Rover Challenge in 2013 which is geared toward middle and high school students.  The rover program consists of two levels of competition to get kids started earlier and also prepare them for participation in the University Rover Challenge held annually at MDRS in Utah.  Grade levels 5 through 12 will be invited to compete in the Youth Rover Challenge.  The University Rover Challenge (URC) was started in 2007 and run by URC director, Kevin Sloan.  It is the world’s premier robotics competition for college students.  Held annually in the desert of southern Utah in the United States, URC challenges student teams to design and build the next generation of Mars rovers that will one day work alongside astronauts exploring the Red Planet.

So, what does The Mars Society do?  All of these things and so much more.  We want the world to know the importance of a human mission to Mars.  The reasons are many, but here are a few that can be found in our Founding Declaration:

We must go for the knowledge of Mars.

We must go for the knowledge of Earth. 

We must go for the challenge. 

We must go for the youth. 

We must go for the opportunity. 

We must go for our humanity. 

We must go for the future.

 

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

[Image credits: NASA, Guardian, koolfm, NASA, CUA, TMS, TMS]

The Curious Case for Methane on Mars, methane and active organics discovered on Mars (Issue #32)

 

By:  Nicole Willett

methane molecule 2 drsusanrubinOn December 16, 2014 at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco, a panel of scientists working on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity Rover data announced what we have all been waiting decades to hear.  John Grotzinger stated unequivocally, “…there is methane occasionally present in the atmosphere of Mars and there are organics preserved in (…) rocks on Mars.”

Why is this important?  All life on Earth that we have discovered so far is carbon based, aka organic.  Carbon is found in the DNA of all life forms on Earth.  Carbon can bind with many other elements to form thousands of molecules that are involved in biological processes.  Needless to say, finding organics and methane is a game changer for all of science, from astronomy to zoology.  Organics in general refer to molecules that are often found as components of life.  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.  In fact approximately 90% of Earth’s methane has a biological origin.  However, about 10% of methane on Earth is a result of geological activity.  According to author Jeffrey Bennett from the University of Colorado, Boulder, “The amount of methane in the atmosphere appears to vary regionally across Mars, and also seems to vary with the Martian seasons.  This has led some scientists to favor a biological origin (…)if the source is volcanic (…) the amount of (…)heat necessary for methane release [could] be sufficient to maintain pockets of liquid water underground.”  Pockets of liquid water would be conducive to life.

blog 32 eath marsThe Earth and Mars have many similarities including a 24 hour and 24 hour 37 minute day respectively, a similar axial tilt causing seasons to occur, a rocky surface with many of the same types of rocks and minerals (which may be used as a source of energy), volcanic activity and hydrothermal vents past and/or present, water that is/was fresh, salty, acidic, and/or basic.  Now and perhaps most important of all, organic matter and methane.  In addition to the aforementioned facts, the fleet of rovers and orbiters that have arrived at Mars have proven an environment conducive to microorganisms existed and may currently exist on the Red Planet.   We know this thanks to the many spacecraft that have visited Mars and sent back ample amounts of data.

blog 32 natgeo3The Viking missions were sent to Mars in the mid 1970’s.  They carried a variety of scientific instruments.  Some of them sampled the atmosphere and some examined the regolith.  The results of these experiments have been studied repeatedly since they were performed.  The Labeled Release Experiment, designed by Dr. Gil Levin, made a controversial and still contested discovery of life on Mars.  Viking also discovered methane at 10.5 parts per billion (ppb) in 1976.  It seems both of these discoveries were discounted over the past four decades.

While utilizing the NASA Infrared Telescope in Hawaii, Michael Mumma, of NASA Goddard, observed methane using ground based instrumentation in 2003.  When he followed up the observations in 2006, the methane had vanished.  Some scientists have stated that is indicative of a seasonal plume.  According to NASA’s astrobiology website Mumma and his team observed 20-60 ppb of methane near the poles and up to 250 ppb near the equator.  It is interesting to note that the levels of methane are significantly higher near the equator where the temperature is higher and possibly more conducive to life.

Concentrations_of_methane_on_Mars esaA decade ago the European Space Agency (ESA) announced they had discovered plumes of seasonal methane on Mars.  In March of 2004, ESA announced that the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer on Mars Express detected about 10 ppb of methane in the Martian atmosphere.  A spectrometer is a device that “looks” at a sample of something, in this case atmospheric gases, and takes reading(s) to determine what molecules make up the sample being observed.  A computer generated graph of some type is then read by scientists to analyze the spectral data.

Although ESA and NASA themselves had previously detected methane on Mars, it was important to for NASA to continue the search, using the MSL Curiosity, on the ground in order to again verify the results.  The public may get frustrated with the continuous “discoveries” of methane, but science is always retesting results to essentially try to “disprove” itself in order to make sure the facts are real.  The Curiosity Rover landed on Mars in August of 2012.  It seemed that almost as soon as the Curiosity Rover started exploring her new home on Mars she discovered a dry riverbed where fresh water once flowed in Gale crater.  When she drilled into the rock dubbed “John Klein” scientists realized that the rock contained what biologists call CHNOPS. That acronym stands for Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorus, and Sulfur. Those are the six elements needed for all life on Earth to exist.  Another discovery were molecules that included carbon which scientists called “simple organics”.  The most recent and most important discovery includes more complex organic molecules than previously discovered, such as methane and chlorobenzene.  We know Mars is enriched with all of the same chemicals to make life that the Earth has.  This latest and greatest discovery puts to rest the long debate about whether Mars has organics.  Some scientists and laymen have been vehemently denying that it is possible.  For the community of “believers” in Martian organics, we feel Methane SAM graph nasa 2vindicated.

The amount of methane reported over the past forty years on the Red Planet ranges from 5-250 ppb from a variety of sources, NASA, ESA, orbiters, rovers, and ground based Earth telescopes.  Many peer reviewed scientific journal articles have been published regarding Martian methane and the possible explanations for its existence.  Some of the potential sources of methane include the presence of life, volcanoes, hydrothermal vents, and several other geological processes.  Methane breaks up and only has a lifespan of several decades to 300 years, which is a short time on a planetary scale. It then breaks down into water and carbon dioxide.  That being said, since methane is present on Mars, it must be getting replenished biologically or geologically currently.

Over the last few decades scientists have discovered amino acids in comets and meteorites, which we know slam into planets, so it is common sense to see that whether Mars originally had organics or not that organics would have landed there sometime in the last 4.5 billion years.  In 2012 it was announced that even Mercury has organics on its surface.  The moon Enceladus, orbiting Saturn, has organics spewing out of the ice covered surface from the salty ocean below.  It seems that everywhere we look we find organics.  We must ask ourselves, how easy is it to form organics and life?  Is life everywhere?

Mars Society Logo (High quality)“[A] striking aspect of the Curiosity discovery is that the concentration of methane detected varies sharply over time. That can only be the case if the source of the methane is locally concentrated, as a globally spread source could not cause such sharp variations. Thus, there may be a patch of ground relatively close to Curiosity which is the source of the emissions, and, therefore, a prime target to drill in an attempt to find subsurface life. Similar biologically suspect spots may well exist elsewhere. We need to locate such spots, and then send human explorers to drill and find out what lies beneath,” states Dr. Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society.

~Humans to Mars as a bridge to the stars

[Images: drsusanrubin.com, NASA, NatGeo, ESA, NASA, TMS]

Note: The article snip above is from the Jan 1977 National Geographic magazine.  Below are the next few paragraphs.

blog 32 natgeo4blog 32 NatGeo1blog 32 Natgeo2

Eyes in the Martian Sky (Issue #28)

by:  Kathryn Sharp

aaWhile the rovers Opportunity and Curiosity cruise the surface of Mars, three operating satellites orbit above, keeping a keen eye on the planet. In addition to documenting the surface of Mars with an unprecedented level of detail, these satellites continue to provide critical support for ground missions. They relay vital communications between the rovers and Earth, monitor surface weather, look for safe driving paths around large boulders, and identify points of interest for further study. Although they often work in tandem to support the rovers, each orbiter has made its own fundamental contributions to our understanding of the red planet.

Mars Odyssey over Mars South PoleThe oldest of the three currently operational satellites orbiting Mars is the 2001 Mars Odyssey. Named as a tribute to science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s beloved work “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Mars Odyssey has been plugging away for well over a decade in low Mars orbit and has set the record as the longest serving spacecraft orbiting a planet other than Earth. Early in its mission, Mars Odyssey surprised scientists by detecting levels of water ice in the Martian soil that far exceeded expectations. This discovery intensified interest in the history of water on Mars and what that history could mean for the possibility of life there. Though perhaps its most important science work is done, Mars Odyssey has been granted numerous mission extensions, primarily to serve as a telecommunications relay between rovers Opportunity and Curiosity and Earth.

In 2003, the European Space Agency launched its Mars Express orbiter in with the goal of further investigating the presence of water and looking for chemical indicators of life. Mars Express is equipped with a host of instruments to accomplish these goals, including: two spectrometers, sub-surface radar intended to look for and map out frozen water beneath Mars’ soil, and among others, the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) which can take high-resolution photos of large regions on the surface.

040824_mars_express_02In the past decade, Mars Express has made remarkable discoveries. In January of 2004, ESA announced that water ice had been discovered in the Southern polar ice cap using its infrared spectrometer OMEGA. This discovery confirmed the 2002 findings of Mars Odyssey, which noted large quantities of water ice locked in the soil. Later that year, a large plume of methane was detected in the atmosphere. Since methane deteriorates in the Martian atmosphere in only 400 years or so, scientists postulated that the source of the gas must be ongoing: either organic life or volcanic activity. In either case, this exciting finding indicates Mars is, or was, more active than previously thought. However, recent measurements by Curiosity detect no significant quantities of methane in the atmosphere, calling into question earlier hypotheses. The topic presents a puzzle that will be the focus of several future missions, including the ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter, set for launch in 2016.

The newest satellite to reach Mars, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), carries a suite of state-of-the-art instruments intended to address many of the burning questions left unanswered from previous missions. The most compelling of these is whether or not water persisted on the surface of Mars long enough for organic life to arise. Answering this question continues to be one of the primary science goals of NASA’s entire Mars Exploration Program, and would likely be the focus of any manned mission in the future.

MRO_image-brThankfully, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been incredibly prolific, returning an unprecedented amount of data from Mars since its insertion into orbit in 2006. In 2013, NASA reported that the MRO has returned in total over 200 terabits of data: more than all other missions operating on the Deep Space Network and significantly more than all other previous Mars communications combined.

The majority of this data has come in the form of high-resolution images from the HiRISE camera, which works in conjunction with other instruments aboard the MRO to help scientists understand in detail the dynamics of Martian geology. To do so, the CTX (Context Camera) takes large regional surveys around features of interest, after which HiRISE narrows in to take a close-up photo of that feature. Simultaneously, the onboard spectrometer CRISM analyzes the mineral composition of that same region. By compiling data from these three instruments, scientists can distinguish between sediment deposited by moving water, wind, or other geologic processes and begin to piece together a picture of Mars’ fascinating history.

Warm-season Flows HiRISENot only are these images important for their scientific relevance, but they have also played a powerful role in engaging the public interest in Mars. Never before have we been able to see the surface of another planet in such striking detail. In these images, we are afforded more than a glimpse at a planet that is alive in many ways. Changing seasons, fresh impact craters, landslides, recurring flow-like features, and dunes shifting in the Martian winds, all witnessed from here on Earth. The HiRISE team has reached out to professionals, amateurs, and students with its HiWish Public Suggestion Page. HiWish is a tool that allows any interested citizen to log in and select a target where they think HiRISE should take an image. This is a fantastic opportunity for young scientists to engage with Mars and play a part in exploring its rich topography.

Each day, NASA and the ESA receive an enormous amount of data from the instruments aboard these three spacecraft, providing an invaluable link between the Earth and Mars. When humans finally arrive on the surface of Mars, it will be due in large part to the continued success of these three missions. We have sent them ahead of us to be our mapmakers: to chart safe passage, to help us find resources vital for our survival, and to unlock the secrets of a planet that does not readily tip its hand.

[Images: NASA, JPL, ESA, JPL, JPL]

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]

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]