Guest Blog by Bob Bruner
Bob Bruner is an amateur scientist that has attended all the Case for Mars conferences given by the Mars Underground in the 1980’s and 1990’s and joined the Mars Society at its founding. This story is a case of an amateur scientist actually having an impact on NASA decisions for its next big mission to Mars, the Mars2020 rover, by suggesting a specific mineral to cache and return to Earth in the 2020’s.
The new year is a time many of us look back on what has been accomplished and look forward to the promises the future holds. I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, and in 1948, when I turned 10, my father gave me a 3-inch diameter reflecting telescope with a cardboard tube with which to observe the stars and planets. My uncle gave me a box of rocks and minerals of many shapes and colors. I spent many a summer evening looking through the telescope, mainly at planets like Jupiter, Saturn, Venus and Mars. I also collected more rocks and minerals to go with my starter collection. Little did I know how important collecting rocks and minerals would be in the future.
When I went to college, I wanted to be an astronomer, but I didn’t understand calculus, so I switched my major to business, and spent my entire working life in the business world. I retired in 2001, but I had continued my interest in astronomy, volunteered at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in the Space Sciences Department, and joined the Mars Society.
When Dr. Stephen Benner presented his idea that life must have started on Mars and then been brought to Earth on meteorites, I really liked his way of “thinking outside the box”. He said that in order to create RNA, the precursor of DNA, you had to have stabilizing minerals such as boron and molybdenum, which were probably not available on early Earth. The Mars Society Education Department had a blog on this in September, 2013. I helped with the blog, and as a result, I was able to get into my first scientific meeting with a poster because Dr. Benner remembered me. The meeting was the Gordon Origin of Life Conference of 2014 in Galveston, Texas. My poster was entitled “Meteorites and Minerals associated with the Origin of Life”. I read a lot about the origin of life and picked the meteorites and minerals I thought would be appropriate. No publication is allowed after a Gordon conference. It is considered a “starter conference” for new grads, post-docs, etc.
In 2014, I re-packaged the exhibit, expanded it, and applied to the 8th International Mars Conference (only held every few years by NASA). By a lucky coincidence, this conference specifically asked for a contribution from the Origin of Life community, so I hit it just right. My poster was on display in the courtyard of Caltech, and I attended along with 650 scientists from all over the world, including those who had been my inspiration for many years. I made it into the ISSOL (International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life) and was published on the conference website. I made many friends in the Mars scientific community.
One of the theories of the Origin of Life is that life started near hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean in environments known as “Lost City” after that discovery in the Atlantic Ocean. I met a scientist, Dr. Mike Russell of JPL, at the Gordon conference after his lecture, and felt his ideas had a lot of merit. I felt this same process could have happened on Mars. So when NASA held the 1st landing site meeting for the Mars2020 rover, I sent in the idea in an email to the chairman of the meeting. It was too late, but I could submit it for the next meeting. This summer the 2nd Landing Site meeting for the Mars2020 rover was held in Pasadena, California just a few miles from Caltech. Not only was my idea accepted, but I was allowed 10 minutes on the agenda. I collected all the minerals involved with the process at Lost City called “serpentinization”, and interviewed all the top scientists who had developed this theory over the last 15 years. Again I got published on the conference website. The idea is to cache for return to Earth samples of serpentine, a mineral created by serpentinization to examine it for signs of life.
So instead of looking through a telescope to spot Martians, like I was trying to do in 1948, I used my rock-collecting skills to assemble exhibits acceptable to NASA in the 21st Century. I never dreamed this would happen. But if one keeps on trying, anything is possible.
Post written by Bob Bruner
[Images: Deviant Art, The Economist, NOAA, Bob Bruner, ]