The Search for Life on Mars from Viking to Curiosity (Issue #3)

by: Nicole Willett

For centuries there has been speculation about life on Mars, from microbes to little green men.  Scientists have spent an enormous amount of time and resources searching for clues to previous or current life on the Red Planet.  The latest mission to search for the clues to life on Mars is NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity.


With much fanfare, on August 5, 2012, the MSL Curiosity landed successfully in Gale Crater on Mars.  The landing site was named Bradbury Landing site in honor of the late science fiction author Ray Bradbury.  There have been many predecessors to the Curiosity Rover on Mars, including orbiters, rovers, and landers.  Over the past few years NASA has been using the “follow the water” strategy in an effort to find evidence of past or current life on Mars.  We know that everywhere we have water on Earth we have life.

The Viking 1 & 2 landed on Mars in 1976.  The main purpose of the scientific experiments was to search for life.  The first soil test for Viking yielded positive results for life, however the tests that followed all yielded negative results.   These results are controversial and are still being studied and debated to this day.  Another important finding from the Viking missions was that water vapor was released from the soil samples that were heated in the gas chromatograph mass spectrometer.

The Pathfinder Sojourner Rover landed on July 4, 1997.  The Sojourner Rover was the first rover deployed on another planet.  The X-ray spectrometer examined the soil and determined that Mars clearly had a warmer and wetter past.  The Sojourner Rover confirmed previous volcanic activity by discovering basaltic rock.  Scientists state that volcanic ash increases soil fertility.  The rover also found many elements including magnetite.  The discovery of magnetite is important because it is found on Earth in bacteria, brains of bees, termites, fish, mollusk teeth, some birds, and humans.  Scientists must use Earth as an analog for any discoveries made on Mars.

The European Space Agency launched the spacecraft, Mars Express, which arrived at the Red Planet in December 2003.  This orbiter is tasked with high resolution imaging of the entire surface as well as mapping the mineral and atmospheric composition.  The information gained from Mars Express helps space agencies determine landing sites for future rovers and landers.

The Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars three weeks apart in early 2004.  These two wonderful rovers were scheduled to work only 90 days, which they far exceeded.  Spirit landed January 4, 2004 and sent its last communication to Earth March 22, 2010.  The Opportunity Rover landed on January 25, 2004 and continues to roam the Martian surface.  The twin rovers were sent to assess habitability and evidence of past water. Both have discovered evidence of past water on Mars.  One discovery was hematite, a mineral that forms in the presence of standing water over a long period of time.  The principal investigator for the MER’s, Steven Squyres, has stated that not only did Mars have water, but it had at one time large quantities of water on its surface. 


The Phoenix Lander arrived on the surface of the Red Planet in the north polar region on May 25, 2008.  Phoenix was searching for environments suitable for microbial life.   Phoenix discovered water ice and when scientists watched as it sublimated in front of the lander’s cameras.  Phoenix’s wet chemistry lab tested the ingredients of the soil and found perchlorate (ClO4).  This chemical could be used by future colonists for everything from rocket fuel and a source of oxygen. 

The Mars Society Convention hall, in Pasadena, was filled as we watched Curiosity land flawlessly in Gale Crater on August 5, 2012.  The rover landed to a worldwide audience anxiously watching.  This landing site was picked for many reasons, such as, the alluvial fan (ancient river delta), the depth of the crater, and the height of the peak (Mount Sharp).  Curiosity is equipped with 17 cameras, an entire science laboratory, and is tasked with assessing the habitability of Mars.   

Previous missions have found elements in the atmosphere and in the soil as well as previous liquid water which are all clues to previous life on Mars.  One piece of evidence still missing from the puzzle is organic carbon.  Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) is a suite of instruments that will analyze the contents of the Martian soil.  SAM will look for carbon containing compounds and other elements associated with life, such as, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen.  Scientists are hoping to find organic carbon with a biological origin.  If found this will have to be studied and tested many times to prove what the origin actually is.  There will likely be debates about whatever Curiosity finds until there is unequivocal inarguable evidence. 


On October 8, 2012 the Curiosity Rover, scratched the surface of Mars, scooping up its first soil in order to clean the inside of the rovers sample handling mechanism.  The sample will be shaken vigorously and then emptied onto the ground.  This procedure will be repeated several times.  The cleaning is to ensure that any contaminants left over from Earth will be discarded before any true testing takes place.  Once the instruments are cleaned and the soil tests take place, they will determine whether or not the area was once a favorable environment for microbial life.  Curiosity is equipped with more scientific instruments than any spacecraft deployed on Mars.  Her planned two year mission is sure to make many wonderful discoveries. 

Stay tuned for further updates.  ~OnToMars~
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Evolution and The Journey to Mars (Issue #2)

by: Nicole Willett

dinodeadcrashApproximately sixty-five million years ago a meteor hit the Yucatan Peninsula.  This event wiped out the dinosaurs (mostly) which had reigned supreme for nearly 240 million years.   While nothing is certain, it is safe to say that dinosaurs never invented an airplane or built a spaceship, although they had plenty of time to do so.  There has not been any archaeological evidence of such progress by dinosaurs.  Homo sapiens have walked the Earth for a mere ~200,000 years.  This is just the blink of the eye astronomically speaking.  However, in this short time we have lived here, we have accomplished many great technological feats.

Our ancestors “discovered” how to make fire, invented the wheel, figured out how to lift blocks of stone weighing thousands of pounds to build enormous monuments, learned how to cultivate crops, and began establishing towns and cities.  This was the beginning of human civilization as we know it today.  Groups of people began living and working together to accomplish a common goal.  Our goals have changed many times since the dawn of civilization.        
The planet Mars has been stared at, portrayed in artistic endeavors and studied for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  The road to the Red Planet has been long and interesting.  It has taken many people collaborating over the past 100 or so years, to collect enough data to design and accomplish Mars missions. 

The first real steps toward Mars began in 1903.  On December 17th, Orville and Wilbur Wright took a bi-plane, made of muslin and spruce, out to a field in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  As we are well aware, they accomplished the first human airplane flight.  These two brothers changed life on Earth as we knew it.  Since that time technology has moved at an exponential pace.  For instance by the time World War I broke out in 1914, there was already aerial warfare, and by World War II, Germany had built and implemented the Me-262 jets in battle (first combat 1944). Quickly thereafter Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, was successfully launched in 1957.  This was soon followed by Luna 1 in 1959, which was the first spacecraft to fly by the Moon. Next on the spaceflight agenda was Mars.

earth mars
In 1964, the spacecraft Mariner 4 was the first to fly-by and take a picture of the surface of Mars.  The pictures were black and white and they were not impressive to the untrained eye.  However, they were a major accomplishment for the United States.  Mariner 4 was followed by Mariner 6 and 7, both flybys in 1969.  This coincided with and was clearly overshadowed by the Apollo 11 Moon landing that same year.  Mariner 9 was the first orbiter to successfully arrive at Mars in 1971.  Since the 1970’s, there have been many successes and many failures with spacecraft seeking to explore Mars.

Some of the most notable missions were: Viking 1 and 2 landers (1975-6), the Mars Pathfinder-Sojourner Rover (1997), the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit (2004-2010) and Opportunity (2004-still operational), the Phoenix Lander (2008), and most recently and most impressively the Curiosity Rover (Aug 5, 2012). 

Together the landers and rovers have made many wonderful and exciting discoveries, adding to our understanding of the solar system.  They have sampled the soil, the atmosphere, and the mineral content of Martian rocks.  Some of what they have found include carbon dioxide (CO2) snow, mysterious globules that shrink and grow near the legs of the Phoenix Lander, interesting geological outcroppings, seasonal fluctuations of methane (due to biological or geological activity), unequivocal evidence of past (and possibly current) water on the Martian surface, as well as many other discoveries.  The Curiosity Rover is armed with more scientific instruments than any rover or lander that has visited Mars to date. Mars riverbed

Breaking News:  This week NASA released the news of an amazing discovery by the Curiosity Rover.  Curiosity has discovered a dry riverbed on Mars in Gale Crater.  The team of scientists at NASA chose Gale Crater because of the very strong evidence that water once flowed there.

Red Planet Pen (Issue #1)

by: Nicole Willett

There is a glowing red beacon in the sky, guiding us, no, calling us to her.  Mars, beautiful and majestic Mars…..she lures us in.  For those of us who are more Martian than Earthling, we understand.  The thought of one day standing on the Red Planet and looking out over the landscape may be beyond the imagination of some, but not to the members and friends of the Mars Society.

Mars in space (NASA-Christine Daniloff-MIT News)There have been myths and stories written about Mars for millennia.  From Edgar Rice Burroughs’, A Princess of Mars, to Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall, Mars has been the setting for many science fiction adventures. However, at the Mars Society, our aim is geared toward science fact.  Our mission is to reach out, educate the public, raise awareness and, most importantly, send humans to Mars.

One way we can accomplish this is by hosting an annual convention in the United States.  This year’s event, held in Pasadena, California, coincided with the successful landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on the Martian surface. We were host to many scientists, journalists, inventors, teachers and even a couple of astronauts.  Some of the highlights included speeches and talks by MSL rover program head Dr. John Grotzinger, SpaceX founder Elon Musk, Virgin Galactic’s George Whitesides and NASA’s Dr. Jim Green.  We are also in the process of launching an Education Task Force to reach out to educators, students and the general public to help expand their understanding of Mars, astronomy, space news and exploration (please contact me for more details about the task force).

If you have ever heard the saying, “It takes a village….,” well, we at the Mars Society are utilizing that concept to send humans to the Red Planet.  As an entirely volunteer organization, we have accomplished many great things since our inception in 1998.  An example of our research is the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS).  This facility houses volunteer crews of six Marsonauts, who live and do research as if they were on the surface of Mars.  We also dare students to participate in the University Rover Challenge (URC) where they build robotic rovers and compete until a winner is crowned.

The character of the human race will be measured by whether or not we have taken responsibility for our own future.  We must build our character by responding to what is happening around us.  What is happening is; we are outgrowing the Earth and need to become an inter-planetary species.  It takes a worldwide community of “Martians” to collaborate and reach the goal set forth by Dr. Robert Zubrin in the late 1990’s.  The goal is simple – explore and send humans to Mars.

Some may say the planet Mars is a frozen wasteland with robots slowly churning through a dusty and rocky landscape.  However, we think of Mars as the new frontier.  She is waiting, wonting, patiently orbiting her parent star while we decide when to set foot on her precious soil.  The time is now!

[Image: NASA/MIT]