Are we alone in the universe?

Why NASA still believes we might find life on Mars

 July 30

How and when will humans get to Mars?

 

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Jim Green, head of NASA’s planetary science division, answers your questions about human travel to Mars. (Gillian Brockell, Sarah Kaplan/The Washington Post)

The day Gil Levin says he detected life on Mars, he was waiting in his lab at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, watching a piece of paper inch out of a printer.

Levin snatched the sheet and scrutinized the freshly inked graph. A thin line measuring radioactive carbon crept steadily upward, just as it always did when Levin performed the test with microbes on Earth. But this data came from tens of millions of miles away, where NASA’s Viking lander was — for the first time in history — conducting an experiment on the surface of Mars.

“Gil, that’s life,” his co-investigator, Patricia Straat, exclaimed when she saw the first results come in. There was jubilation at JPL. Afterward, Levin said, he drove into the mountains above Los Angeles, sat on the ground and stared up at the night sky.

“I was sort of trembling, you know?” he recalled. It was July 30, 1976.

Forty years later, Levin and Straat still believe that their experiment was evidence of microbiotic Martians. But few people agree with them. To NASA, and to most scientists, the 1976 Viking mission was a technical triumph but a biological bust. Scientists, such as Carl Sagan, who had wagered that large organisms “are not only possible on Mars; they may be favored,” were disappointed to see images the lander sent back of a dry, barren planet. Two experiments aimed at finding life turned up negative, and NASA concluded that the results of Levin’s test, called the Labeled Release experiment, could be explained by chemical processes rather than biological ones.

“I was sort of set aback,” recalled NASA chief astrobiologist Penny Boston, who was still in college at the time. “I was thinking, ‘Gosh, I want to work in exobiology, as we called it at the time, and now it seems like it’s just a pile of rocks, and there’s no life there at all.’”

Viking put a 20-year damper on Mars exploration. Even when NASA did return to the Red Planet, it completely quit trying to test for living organisms directly.

But hope was in the air at Langley Research Center last week, where NASA held a two-day conference to honor the 40th anniversary of the Viking landing. After decades of pointedly not looking for it, the space agency is more optimistic than it’s been since 1976 that it might find life on Mars yet.

“Every new piece of information we get about the planet seems to point to greater and greater habitability,” Boston said. “It just seems more and more likely.”

The issue with the Viking experiments is that they expected to find too much too soon, speaker after speaker explained over the course of the conference. Detecting life with Viking would have been a breakthrough of unprecedented proportions, and science doesn’t usually happen that way. Most “breakthroughs” come after years of accumulating incremental increases in knowledge.

So, for the past four decades, “we’ve engaged in creeping up on the problem,” Boston said.

Some evidence in favor of a livable Mars came from the same mission that seemed to quash the possibility: Viking itself. While the two landers relayed bleak photos and disappointing data from the surface, the orbiters that were launched along with them revealed landscapes that looked strikingly like ones on our own planet.

Ellen Stofan, now NASA’s chief scientist, was then a summer intern at JPL assigned to map Mangala Valles, a system of crisscrossing channels near Mars’s equator.

“What was so fascinating were all these features that were so familiar from our studies of the Earth,” she recalled. “Things like teardrop-shaped islands, abandoned oxbow sections of channels, features that by looking at rivers on Earth we could understand that these features on Mars had been carved by water, and in some cases by great floods of water, coursing across the Martian surface.”

Images from the Viking orbiters confirmed what the Mariner 9 satellite found when it arrived at the planet five years earlier: Mars once had water, a key ingredient for the evolution of life as we know it. But that water existed hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions, of years ago, offering little promise that organisms might still exist.

Today, the space agency has two rovers and three active satellites surveying the planet. Among them is the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) a bulky spacecraft shaped like a metal water bird that flew into Mars orbit in 2006.

In the fall, NASA announced that photos from MRO showing dark, tendril-like formations called recurring slope lineae were actually evidence of liquid water on the planet’s surface. It’s only a tiny amount, and only appears under specific circumstances, but “it’s really important from a scientific point of view,” Stofan said last week. “… If there’s life on Mars, that’s probably the environment in which we would find it.”

Other spacecraft have uncovered organic compounds in Martian soil and fluctuating levels of methane, which is usually a biological byproduct, in the atmosphere. Mars may be a frigid, atmosphere-less, radiation-bombarded desert, but it is slightly less of an inhospitable wasteland than the version Viking first captured 40 years ago.

NASA confirms new evidence of water on Mars

 

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On Sept. 28, NASA announced the strongest evidence yet for liquid water on Mars. This new research increases the possibility for astronauts to rely on the red planet’s own water in future space travel. (NASA)

Meanwhile, here on Earth, scientists have begun to realize that even apparent “wastelands” aren’t as inhospitable as they seem.

When Viking landed in 1976, our understanding of the capacities and diversity of microscopic life was fairly limited. Most microbiological knowledge came from medicine, in which scientists focused on the bacteria that lived in our bodies or infected them.

“It’s almost like we were looking for a gut bacteria on Mars,” Boston said. “We were naive, really, about the capabilities of microbes and what you need to do to find them.”

But a year after the Viking experiments, divers discovered bizarre creatures living in the dark, toxic waters around hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the Pacific — the first organisms capable of making a living off chemicals, rather than sunlight. Scientists have also found microrganisms deep within the oceanic crust and high up in the stratosphere.

Boston herself, who spent 30 years studying life in caves before being appointed director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute this year, has discovered microbes that can metabolize minerals in dark cracks in the earth. Similar environments — lava tubes, the bottoms of lake beds, rock overhangs, tiny cavities in the soil — exist on Mars and would offer protection from the planet’s frigid climate and punishing solar radiation.

“That’s where I want to go look,” she said.

This kind of talk is frustrating for Levin, who has held for 30 years that life on Mars has already been detected. At the anniversary event Wednesday, he exhorted the audience, “there is no scientifically acceptable explanation to the Labeled Release experiments on Mars, except life.”

Off stage, Levin admitted he was surprised he was invited to speak at the conference (when he announced his opinion at the 10th anniversary celebration, he says he was pelted with shrimp).

“I’m very glad because I was invited, despite this long convolution of disagreements. I kind of hope it means they’re beginning to consider the experiment again,” he said.

In a statement, Walt Engelund, the director of the Space Technology and Exploration Directorate at NASA Langley, said there was no “implicit motivation” in inviting Levin. He was an integral part of the mission’s science team, and merited a chance to “discuss and defend his own perspectives,” Engelund said.

But it is true that NASA is gearing up to start a more focused search for Martians past and present. The last decade and a half of Mars exploration has focused on “following the water” to identify spots where the Red Planet might potentially be habitable.

“It’s a much more sophisticated approach,” Boston said. “We’re trying to map out the parameters that we know are conducive to life surviving — and it’s a whole lot more work than we realized.” (Levin, ever impatient, scoffed at that excuse.)

A new rover scheduled to launch in 2020 will carry several instruments aimed at finding organisms, or at least organics. Among them are SHERLOC, which will use ultraviolet light to search for carbon molecules that might indicate ancient life and the organic compounds that could be signs it still exists, and PIXL, which uses x-rays to detect microbial biosignatures. The mission also includes plans to cache soil samples that will be returned to Earth at some later date.

But Boston believes a human mission to Mars is our best bet at detecting life beyond our planet. Other potentially habitable worlds, like the ocean moons Europa and Enceladus, are harder to get to and pose their own challenges for exploration (namely, thick outer layers of ice). Robotic Mars rovers have dramatically expanded our understanding of our neighbor, but there’s a limit to how much they can achieve. It took Opportunity 11 years and two months to move 26.2 miles — the distance of a marathon, which an average human can cover in a few hours.

It will take people, Boston argued, to recognize the remains of life that might have existed billions of years ago, when scientists believe that Mars was a warmer planet with an ocean and an atmosphere not unlike our own. And if organisms still survive in the harsh environment on the planet today, they’re probably buried beneath the surface, where a human with a rock hammer can get at them much more easily than a clumsy rover could.

“Nature has a lot of secrets that she’s only going to reveal if we go looking for them in person,” she said.

How soon such a mission can happen is debated. This week, the Government Accountability Office warned that NASA’s new rocket aimed at taking humans into space may end up behind schedule and over budget. Others have cautioned that we don’t know enough yet about the effects of a trip to Mars on astronauts — or, indeed, the effect astronauts might have on Mars. It might prove impossible to explore the planet without contaminating it.

But at the Viking celebration, the optimists had the day. By the 2030s, Stofan promised, there will be a new kind of life on Mars: us.

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified the rover that has traveled a marathon distance. It is Opportunity.

Read more:

Andy Weir and his book ‘The Martian’ may have saved NASA and the entire space program

Here is NASA’s three-step plan for getting humans to Mars

Can Mars, or any other planet, have just a little bit of life?

Why can’t we just send our rovers to look for life on Mars?

Mars once had great lakes and rivers, according to rover data

The Mars Society Education Panel

 

Bob Barboza will be presenting on the opening of the new Barboza Space Center and participating on the STEM educational panel.  He leads a team of scientists, engineers and educators as they prototype solutions for Martian habits, satellites , robots and science experimental centers.  He works in partnership with Columbia Memorial Space Center in Downey, California.

http://www.BarbozaSpaceCenter.com

Bob Barboza, USA Occupy Mars Project copy

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Since its founding, the Mars Society has consistently been a major advocate of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education, viewing this as a critical need if humanity is ever to begin seriously exploring the solar system, including the planet Mars, and moving in the direction of becoming a multi-planetary species.
As part of this, the Mars Society has organized a special panel discussion on the subject of “STEM Education & the Pathway to the Human Exploration & Settlement of Mars” for the 19th Annual International Mars Society Convention, scheduled for September 22-25, 2016 at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Participants in the STEM panel discussion will include:

Jennifer Mandel, Director, STEM Program, Lockheed Martin Corp.
Jennifer Mandel is responsible for leading Lockheed Martin’s STEM philanthropic giving and employee volunteerism. Part of her portfolio includes leading Generation Beyond, a program to spark student interest in STEM and inspire the next generation of astronauts and engineers. Prior to this, Ms. Mandel managed strategic communications for the transportation solutions line of business within Lockheed Martin Information Systems & Global Services.

Alyssa Carson, Teen-Age Astronaut-in-Training & STEM Advocate
Alyssa Carson has dreamed about being an astronaut visiting the planet Mars since a young age. A regular participant in NASA space camps and other astronaut-related training programs, Ms. Carson hopes to be among the first persons on the Red Planet in the 2030s. She is also an in-demand public speaker at schools and conferences regarding the importance of STEM education.

Bob Barboza, STEM Advocate & Founder, Kids Talk Radio
A former high school teacher, Bob Barboza is a major proponent of STEM education and space exploration for young students through a variety of related initiatives. Mr. Barboza founded and hosts a popular online podcast called Kids Talk Radio Science and recently established the Barboza Space Center in the Los Angeles area, a teaching and learning platform for future astronauts, engineers and scientists interested in exploring the planet Mars.

Nicole Willett, Panel Moderator & Mars Society Education Director
Nicole Willett is the long-serving Director of Education for the Mars Society and a member of the organization’s Steering Committee. Currently an astronomy instructor at Benedictine Military School in Savannah, Georgia, Ms. Willett authors the Mars Society’s Red Planet Pen blog and serves as a regular contributor to many science-related magazine articles, books and online news sources. In addition, she is an Astronomy Professor at Savannah College of Art & Design and is pursuing her Master’s degree in Astronomy.

For more information about the 2016 International Mars Society Convention, including registration details, a list of confirmed speakers and hotel accommodations in the Washington, D.C. area, please click here. The full program itinerary, including the date/time of the STEM panel discussion, is scheduled for release next week via the Mars Society web site (www.marssociety.org).

Calling All Science Teachers

Bob Barboza met with NanoRacks and visiting German informal scientists and educators on Thursday in San Diego, California and they talked about the Barboza Space Center and its high school STEM teams building collaborative STEM prototypes and planning to launch science experiments aboard the International Space Station.  We are seeking to work with other scientists , educators and engineers.   Contact:   http://www.BarbozaSpaceCenter.com and or Suprschool@aol.com

international_space_station_by_mcsdaver-d46to94NanoRacks Advances International Space Station Utilization

Cape Canaveral, Florida –15 July 2016—NanoRacks is proudly advancing International Space Station (ISS) utilization across a wide range of users – from education to international organizations to professional researchers –both inside and outside of Station– all on one mission. On SpaceX’s Commercial Resupply Mission-9 (SpaceX-9), scheduled for the early hours of Monday July 18, are over 25 payloads that will utilize NanoRacks commercial research facilities both in the U.S. National Lab and external to Station.

“NanoRacks is more than just a satellite deployment company,” says NanoRacks CEO Jeffrey Manber. “We offer a full scope of in-space opportunities, and we are watching the customer base grow larger and broader. NanoRacks will continue to offer the best research accommodations both inside and outside of the International Space Station, and beyond.”

Education and STEM Engagement

Working together, NanoRacks and DreamUp are launching 22 student experiments on the SpaceX-9 mission. Specifically, five of these payloads are being re-flown after being lost on Orbital CRS-3 and SpaceX CRS-7. These payloads come from the CASIS National Design Challenge, including the Awty International School of Houston, Duchesne Academy and the Cristo Rey Jesuit School.

Eaglecrest High School, a NASA HUNCH team, is also on this mission, studying the crystallization of silver nitrate in microgravity on a silver cathode.

Additionally, NanoRacks is launching 15 Student Spaceflight Experiment Program (SSEP) MixStix on this mission. SSEP is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE). Including this launch, the NanoRacks-SSEP-DreamUp partnership has engaged over 65,000 students across the United States and Canada to date.

NanoRacks External Platform Customers

The first users of the NanoRacks External Payload Platform (NREP) have payloads on SpaceX-9 as well. Yosemite Space is launching GumStix, a mission is to analyze and evaluate GumStix performance in low- Earth orbit and study if these microprocessors can withstand the radiation environment in space. Additionally, Georgia Institute of Technology is launching Solar Cells, their experiment to study a new type of three-dimensional solar cells and their response to the continually changing sun angles in the harsh environment of space.

Displaying U.S. Leadership

NanoRacks is excited to be launching a student-based experiment that comes from NSL Satellites Ltd., an Israeli organization. The experiment explores whether microgravity affects the mixing of oil bubbles. The data from this investigation will benefit materials research and future mixing methods in space.

NanoRacks is proud to be continuing to grow our international customer base and remain the leading commercial provider of access to space.

New NanoRacks ISS Hardware, and Professional Researchers

As previously announced, NanoRacks is launching a 2nd generation Plate Reader (NanoRacks Plate Reader-2) to the ISS on SpaceX-9. This improved plate reader will provide for a seamless transition from earth-based life sciences research to conducting biological studies in orbit.

Sanford-Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute will be running test microplates as the first to use NanoRacks Plate Reader-2 in orbit, testing spectrophotometer functionality, temperature control, and communications. The plates specifically will study chemical reactions using fluorescence polarization, which produces changes in light when molecules bind together.

This broad range of customers truly highlights all of the possibilities available in low-Earth orbit, and NanoRacks is excited to be facilitating this phenomenon in space.

To join this group of in-space researchers, reach out to NanoRacks at info@nanoracks.com and be sure to follow @NanoRacks on twitter for continued updates.

For media inquiries, please email Abby Dickes at adickes@nanoracks.com

About NanoRacks

NanoRacks LLC was formed in 2009 to provide commercial hardware and services for the U.S. National Laboratory onboard the International Space Station via a Space Act Agreement with NASA. NanoRacks’ main office is in Houston, Texas, right alongside the NASA Johnson Space Center. The Business Development office is in Washington, DC. Additional offices are located in Silicon Valley, California and Leiden, Netherlands.

In July 2015, NanoRacks signed a teaming agreement with Blue Origin to offer integration services on their New Shepard space vehicle. The Company has grown into the Operating System for Space Utilization by having the tools, the hardware and the services to allow other companies, organizations and governments to realize their own space plans.

As of March 2016, over 350 payloads have been launched to the International Space Station via NanoRacks services, and our customer base includes the European Space Agency (ESA) the German Space Agency (DLR,) the American space agency (NASA,) US Government Agencies, Planet Labs, Urthecast, Space Florida, NCESSE, Virgin Galactic, pharmaceutical drug companies, and organizations in Vietnam, UK, Romania and Israel.

Conducting Experiments Aboard the International Space Station

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The Barboza Space Center is looking to conduct experiments in zero gravity with flatworms.  www.BarbozaSpaceCenter.com. 

NanoRacks to Launch Second Generation Plate Reader to NASA’s International Space Station

Houston, TX – July 12, 2016 – NanoRacks, LLC, a leading provider of commercial pathway solutions aboard the International Space Station, is launching the NanoRacks Plate Reader-2 to the International Space Station. In May 2011, NanoRacks launched the first-ever microplate reader in space providing researchers the ability to conduct microplate reader experiments in microgravity for the first time.

The NanoRacks Plate Reader-2 is a reconfigured SpectraMax M5e, one of Molecular Devices’ most reliable, durable, and feature-rich microplate readers, and has been configured to operate comfortably in the microgravity environment of the space station. The self-funded NanoRacks Plate Reader-2 features a wide range of high-performance multi-mode reader capabilities ideal for life science research including absorbance, fluorescence, time-resolved fluorescence, and fluorescence polarization modes with full spectral range detection for 6-, 12-, 24-, 48-, 96-, and 384-well microplates. Researches can also utilize the CuvettePlate microplate adapter for cuvette samples.

This second generation platform now includes temperature control, allowing researchers to extend their experiments to long durations, and the ability to configure every aspect of the researcher’s experiment from an Earth-based workstation using SoftMax Pro, the industry’s leading data acquisition and analysis tool. With these improvements, NanoRacks is able to offer scientists the same flexibility they have with their experiments in their own laboratories.

“The quality of microgravity research continues to increase with commercial partnerships on the International Space Station. This newer version of the NanoRacks Plate Reader is even better as a result of listening closely to our customers and astronauts’ suggestions” said Dr. Carl Carruthers, Chief Scientist for NanoRacks. “From monitoring bacterial growth or gene expression to changes in material properties, the NanoRacks Plate Reader-2 provides researchers access to the same type of hardware and microplate format found in their lab, allowing a smooth continuation of their ground-based research to the microgravity environment of the ISS.”

The NanoRacks Plate Reader-2 is scheduled to launch aboard the SpaceX-9 Mission.
To inquire about researching on the International Space Station via the NanoRacks Plate Reader-2,

contact NanoRacks at info@nanoracks.com.

NanoRacks will provide regular updates on the Plate Reader program via @NanoRacks on Twitter and at http://www.nanoracks.com. For more information about the SpectraMax® M5e Multi-Mode Microplate Reader or other products from Molecular Devices, please visit our website (www.moleculardevices.com) or send an email to info@moldev.com.