By Bobby Lane – Special to the Pahrump Valley Times
The latest Mars rover prototype cruises across a barren landscape, taking soil samples, testing the chemical-laden air; someday it could be a rover piloted by real people.
But today, it’s just a test. And instead of martian rock samples or sulfuric air, the rover is crossing a salty flat in the shimmery plains of Death Valley National Park.
The similarities between some of the park’s eerie landscapes and that of the red planet have long sparked the interest of NASA scientists and those charged with developing the next generation of Mars landers.
NASA appears so smitten with the park as a testing ground for new Mars toys, in fact, a recent festival marked the unfolding love affair.
The “Mars and the Mojave Festival” took place March 9-11 at the Furnace Creek Visitors’ Center. The festival celebrated the role Death Valley has played in the space agency’s preparation for future Mars exploration missions.
Festival organizers hope to make the “Mars and the Mojave” an annual event, especially as NASA takes on more Mars missions.
The space agency’s latest unmanned rover, named “Curiosity,” will arrive on Mars the first week of August. The rover was launched on Nov. 26, 2011.
The Death Valley festival was organized by a handful of NASA scientists, including Dr. Lora Bleacher, NASA Goddard, Dr. Rosalba Bonaccorsi, NASA/SETI Institute, Dr. Liza Coe, NASA Ames, and Andrea Jones, NASA Goddard, education and public outreach specialist. Stephanie Kyriazis, educational specialist from Death Valley National Park, also played a key role. All the scientists and professors volunteered their time and travel costs to put on the festival.
The scientists provided visitors an inside look into some of their Mars work. Dr. Chris McKay of NASA’s Ames Research talked about how he is handling two instruments on Curiosity. Dr. Susanne Douglas discussed studying extreme life in Death Valley and Dr. Aaron Zent, also with NASA Ames, talked about engineering solutions to entry into Mars’ atmosphere and dealing with its terrain.
More than 200 people were in attendance to hear the opening night keynote address by McKay. During his keynote, he spoke of Curiosity’s mission to search for organics and evidence of life on Mars.
Over the festival’s next two days, various field trips throughout Death Valley were made, showing the public what scientists have learned about Mars by studying Death Valley.
One of the field trips was to Badwater, 17 miles south of Furnace Creek. Badwater contains springs that form salt pools. The resulting salt that forms are called evaporites.
It is in these evaporites where Douglas has studied various microorganisms who seem to thrive in the hostile environment. She teaches that the evaporites at Badwater may be analogues for possible life forms in the evaporites of Mars, and are being studied in order to define what life needs in an evaporate environment.
About 150 people made the field trip and asked many questions, such as “How far down does the rover have to dig before it could find life?” and “Do the bacteria on Mars need oxygen to exist?”
Douglas explained that if life does exist on Mars, a digging machine beyond the capabilities of Curiosity would be needed to drill deep into the planet’s surface. She said many bacteria found on Earth do not need oxygen so she expects the same possibly exists on Mars.
Douglas was also asked about the rover and how it will land on the surface of the planet. Dr. Sarah Marcotte is a NASA scientist who specializes in the landing of the rover and just happened to be there listening to the lecture. She said, “Mars does have a very thin atmosphere and this time the rover will employ the largest parachute ever sent to Mars and this one will be over 60 feet across.”
Douglas is one of the few people in the nation allowed to dig up samples from the Badwater ponds at Death Valley. During her lecture she showed her listeners evidence of the various forms of life that exist in the hottest, deepest part of Death Valley.
The first sample passed around appeared to be a lifeless rock but instead was a salt rock that contained microorganisms in the form of bacteria. Douglas said the brownish color of the salt indicates where the bacteria live.
The second sample passed around was a brown slimy substance that smelled like brown sewage. Although it too seemed to be lifeless, the brown ooze, like the salt rock, was teeming with life. The fact that the two life forms could live in such extreme conditions on Earth gave hope that such life forms could be found in the thin atmosphere of Mars.
Kyriazis was in attendance along with a contingent of park rangers. She said “A lot of our rangers regularly give programs here at Badwater so we came to learn here too from the NASA scientists. We have a talk at Badwater every day. Mostly we talk about the geology here . . . and to learn about the life in the pools is pretty exciting.”
The festival included trips to Mars Hill, with Zent and about 100 participants engaging in a talk there. Mars Hill is located midway between Badwater and Furnace Creek. The location got its name from a group of artists in 1983 who said the volcanic landscape was similar to photos returned to Earth by the Viking 2 Mars mission.
Zent taught that Mars Hill has been used to test engineering solutions to entry, descent, landing and trafficability problems of scientific craft bound for the red planet. He said this means that the rocks on the surface of Mars Hill are comparable in size, shape and abundance to those at the two Mars landing sites. Mars Hill and some of the Mars landing sites, particularly during the Viking 1 and Pathfinder missions, share a similar geologic origin.
On the final day of the festival, Dr. Luther Beegle summarized that Mars is the most Earth-like planet in our solar system. If Earth can be called the water planet, then Mars can be considered the “had surface water planet,” as there is copious evidence that Mars at one point in its past had oceans, lakes and rivers.
He concluded by saying, “In Death Valley and the Mojave, we see a similar environment to Mars where wet environments slowly dried out as the Earth emerged from the last ice age.”
Although the festival closed, the scientists promised to return to the valley. Jones said they want to continue to work with the National Parks in the future in places that share similarities with the environments on other planets. For further information on the festival go to http://www.seti.org/mars-mojave-festival-2012.
Freelance reporter Vern Hee contributed to this report.