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The Mars Landing: Seeking Key Clues to Our Own Planet's Future

The Mars Science Laboratory’s spectacular landing August 6 was not only a game-changer in space exploration, but it opened the door for scientists to answer a most compelling question: What happened to Mars? We know that eons ago, Earth and Mars were a lot alike. And in a recent interview with Science Matters, Dr. Joel S. Levine, Research Professor in the Department of Applied Science at the College of William and Mary, offered some tantalizing insight into that question.

Read excerpts from a Science Matters interview and watch this TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) talk to learn more.

“We know that Mars and Earth formed about the same time, about 4.6 billion years ago, in roughly the same location in the Solar System,” says Dr. Levine, who was Senior Research Scientist in the Science Directorate of NASA’s Langley Research Center, before joining William & Mary in July 2011.

“We know that life formed on Earth very early in its history. Probably by 3.8 billion years ago, microorganisms inhabited the surface and oceans of Earth. The question is, did this also happen on planet Mars?” Other similarities seem to indicate the possibility. Mars had planetary-scale oceans at one time in its Northern Hemisphere,” says Dr. Levine, [and they] “were approximately three miles thick like the oceans on Earth today.”

Also, Mars had a much denser atmosphere. Yet today Mars is a very dry planet -- no liquid water and a very, very thin atmosphere. Something happened on Mars to trigger a catastrophic change in the climatology of the atmosphere and the disappearance of miles of liquid water,” he says. “The Mars Science Laboratory will provide some clues as to what that catastrophic event was on Mars.”

So to ask the significance of MSL’s mission, is to peer into our own future on Earth.

“Will the oceans, atmosphere and climate of Earth also change?” Dr. Levine asks. “Will the atmosphere become thinner?  Will liquid water disappear? It happened on Mars and we don’t know why.” To find out, a dozen sophisticated instruments were selected for the MSL mission. Dr. Levine was on the MSL Instrument Selection Panel that selected them, and he explains what some of them will seek.

A mass spectrometer will search for organic compounds - the building blocks of life on the surface of Mars and the presence of gas, methanein Mars' atmosphere. Methane gas is “a strong indication of life,” Dr. Levine says. “In the Earth's atmosphere almost all methane is produced by life.”

And did microorganisms like those that are on our planet exist on Mars? “The measurements of biogenic gases like methane will be an indication of that,” he says. “Other tests will determine the surface radiation environment of Mars, something that will bear heavily on the hoped-for eventual presence of humans on Mars,” Dr. Levine adds.

There is of course much more depth to the analyses sought by MSL, and Science Matters will be following and reporting on that regularly, for the mission is not short-term but is expected to pave the way over the next two years to a future perhaps hinted in the title of a book co-edited by Dr. Levine and Harvard Astrophysicist, Dr. Rudolf Schild and published in 2010: The Human Mission to Mars. Colonizing the Red Planet.

“The most fundamental question in all of science,” Dr. Levine says -- “is there life outside of Earth? -- is important for us to know; and if it is, is it the same as life on Earth?” For that reason and more, the Mars Science Laboratory, some have said, is just as significant as the lunar landing of Apollo 11 in 1969.

Through its amazing technology -- MSL’s landing itself was a wonder. Dr. Levine recounts that the mission was launched nine months ago, travelled 350 million miles and landed in “‘seven minutes of terror’ as a thousand things had to occur in the right sequence approximately within 100th-of-a -second time intervals and … It couldn’t have been better!”  

That accomplishment reminds us all that the science fiction of the past can become the scientific fact of the present. At its debut in 1966, Star Trek’s introductory statement said it all: our quest is still for space as the “final frontier … to explore strange new worlds … to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Future stories to be featured here on Mars include Dr. Levine's, William and Mary’s, and NASA Langley Research Center's ongoing next project - flying a robotic, rocket-powered airplane (ARES) over the Red Planet.

Photo: Dr. Joel S. Levine, Research Professor, Dept. of Applied Science, the College of William and Mary at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA, standing in front of the full-scale model of the Mars Science Laboratory a few hours before the successful landing of MSL on the surface of Mars.

Article by Dougald Blue, Contributing Writer, Interview by Debbie Mickle, Science Matters Project Manager

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