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]

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]

Humans to Mars (Issue #17)

by: Nicole Willett

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

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

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

inspiration 2

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

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

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

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

The reasons for going to Mars are powerful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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