The search for life on Mars got up close and personal for Lee Vining students when a group of NASA scientists test-driving a Mars rover robot prototype got rained out last week and decided instead to drop in on Lee Vining High School.
Rover and all.
Piled into a classroom, surrounded by rain-spattered kids, the rover robot, named Pluto, took center stage. Squat, spike-tired, its many cameras hoisted high up on a pole, it looked like nothing so much as a many-eyed alien from another planet. It wasn’t hard to imagine its heavy metal tires covered in red dust, its cameras trained on the crimson line of a Mars horizon.
In front of it, though, was something entirely earthly: a big chunk of Mono Lake tufa, ready for a test drill by the robot.
The Mono Lake Basin, the scientists explained, is one of the best places on Earth that is similar to Mars billions of years ago, when the last water on Mars evaporated from a confined lake very like Mono Lake.
“Look at this tufa,” rover engineer Paulo Younse said. “It’s full of holes. When we go looking for life on Mars, we will be looking at rocks very like this one, because the holes give microscopic life a place to grow.”
The calcium carbonate tufa is similar enough to a rock formation recently discovered on Mars that scientists’ believe it is one of their best chances to find life on the red planet, they said.
“There are only a few places in the world, the bottom of the ocean, the Arctic, the Mono Basin, a few more, where these are found,” he said.
Testing the rover here on Earth, especially the coring bit that will be used to extract samples for the long journey back to earth in test tubes, is absolutely critical.
“If something goes wrong up there, you can’t call Triple A to fix it,” he said.
“You have to get it right the first time.”
At this stage of testing, while the technology they are working on is still relatively immature, it’s much easier logistically to visit Mono Lake than doing the work in the Arctic where much of the research work for the project is being done, another scientist said.
For their part, the kids seemed mesmerized.
“What kind of life do you think might be on Mars?” the scientists’ asked.
“Aliens, of course!” the students answered with great enthusiasm.
“How many of you think there is life outside of Earth?” he asked.
Almost every student in the room raised their hands.
“Why do you think we have so many cameras up on the Rover?” he asked. “Why not just one?
That one stumped them for a moment, then someone got it.
“Depth perception, to see in three dimensions.”
Exactly, he said. He pointed out that the cameras were also set up on the pole above the Rover at about the same height of a human. That is that so that the “driver” of the Rover down at a desk on earth, could “see” what the Rover sees, and make sure the Rover didn’t fall off a cliff or get stuck.
“How will the samples get back to earth?” someone asked.
“We will use a Mars ascent vehicle (to send the samples up into orbit around Mars) then another one will swoop in and get it and bring it back here,” he said.
This mission, where for the first time ever, researchers will get their hands on real Martian soil and rocks, is set for 2018.
“So you’ll all be in college then, said NASA’s Dr. Pamela “Pan” Conrad, the project’s team leader. “You could maybe even work on it.”
The show and tell session with the rover took another turn later in the day. This time, rain still falling steadily, snow obscuring the mountains, the scientists talked about their own journeys.
The big room was silent as the kids listened, entranced.
No fuddy-duddy dry and boring science geeks here it was clear, as their stories tumbled out.
“I was in a Goth band for ten years before I got tired of it,” one woman scientist said.
“Then I went back to school to study oceans. I wanted to know how life began. Now I’m working on this.”
“Ten years ago, my dad told me I might as well find something I loved, because I was going to have to have a job,” said another scientist, Jennifer Eigenbrode.
“You need to find something you love, make it your own. The doors will open for you, I assure you,” she said.
“I’m a college drop-out. I hated it. I was then a professional singer for many years,” said Conrad.
“Later, I got my Ph.D. I did all this after the age of 50.
“You are never too old to change what you are doing.”
It doesn’t matter where you start in life, they said, collectively.
“But you have to go to college. Don’t underestimate how much fun it can be,” they said.
Finally, they ended with a plea.
“You live in a very special place. It is very rare.
“So look after it for us so we can keep coming back.”