Is there life on Mars?
Many scientists dedicate their life to finding out whether the Red Planet was capable of sustaining life and any possibilities for new life to begin.
Planetary geologist and Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) systems engineer Dr. Sarah Milkovich spoke at the “Mars Science Laboratory: The Curiosity Rover Years 1 & 2” lecture in the UU forum Friday night. In the lecture, Milkovich discussed highlights of the mission so far, which hopes to assess the possibility of Martian life by looking at the surface landscapes and the composition of rocks and soil.
Her primary contribution to the mission involved the operations of the rover itself. As a systems engineer, Milkovich was interested in the interactions between the science and engineering teams and the rover’s instruments. She even taught the science team how to operate the rover to ensure a smooth transition once it landed.
“I work as a bridge between the science team and the engineering team,” she said. “The science team was all here in Pasadena for the first 90 days of the mission and they were living on Mars time.”
The team, composed of scientists from multiple countries, met in order to keep everyone on the same page. Otherwise, the team had to work through different time zones to answer any questions that came up.
Previous to her work on Curiosity, Milkovich contributed to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Phoenix Lander, and the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, which observed Saturn. Specifically with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, she was JPL’s representative for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera, or HiRISE. Although the camera is located at the University of Arizona, she noted that someone at JPL had to be the eyes and ears, which she was.
Future work includes the 2020 Mars mission where another rover will further look at the geology and habitability of the planet. With the discovery of ancient river beds and other evidence of water, the next step is to figure out how water influenced the formation of Mars’ surface.
“We’re looking for the same kinds of minerals we’ve been looking for that tell us about how the area formed and how water was involved in that history, but we also want to look for organics,” she said. “And not just carbon, but what [other] kinds of organic compounds are there because these can tell us, ‘was there possibly life there?’”
However exciting a discovery of life on another planet may be, Milkovich was quick to note that extreme caution that must be taken whenever samples are transported back to Earth for testing.
“You need to characterize any possible contaminations that you’ve [taken] with you and then brought back because the last thing you want to do is say ‘oh, we’ve found life’ and then discover it was [from Earth] all along,” she said. “Saying that you’ve discovered life – that’s a huge thing to say – so you need to have an abundance of proof and it’s very unlikely that just from a rover that you’ll be able to say anything as clear as ‘we found life.’”
If Martian life is ever found, scientists can hopefully understand the origins of life on Earth better. Such a discovery could change what we know of the Earth as it is believed Mars has similar conditions that an early Earth had before the first specks of life appeared.
When Ann Meister, president of the Mineralogical Society of Southern California, found out Milkovich would present rover information, she was ecstatic. Normally the group focuses on the Earth’s geology but she felt it was necessary to broaden their horizon since geology and mineralogy are headed toward an interplanetary level.
“We decided to try and make it a more public lecture than we usually have because I can remember when I was in the fifth grade and Sputnik shot off, and that was exciting,” she said. “It really opened up a whole new world for everybody to explore.”
Meister also hoped the lecture sparked an interest in the younger generation while educating an older generation. And that certainly worked as a handful of students attended the lecture in addition to the group’s usual members.
Of the students present, Vincent Dang attended due to his interest in physics and chemistry. The process of landing the rover and the difficulties it faced, such as the extremely cold temperatures of the planet’s surface and navigating the terrain interested him the most. Dang is also intrigued by potential findings of the Mars 2020 mission.
“I think it’s a really good thing to do …. If we decided to do other things with Mars, we’d have some experience with transporting things [to and from],” he said. “I see possible sources of growth for interplanetary transportation.”