What are some of the obstacles to NASA’s efforts to find life on Mars?
The possibility of life on Mars has grabbed the imagination for centuries, inspiring books, films, records, and Earthbound dreamers to gaze into the sky and wonder what could really be out there. NASA is now looking at ways to see of Mars was ever habitable and if it contains life today. The agency is working to overcome an array of hurdles to achieve this long-held dream.
Advances in technology are driving robotic and potential crewed missions to Mars further with each passing day, but the possibility of contaminating the planet is a major concern. In a recent speech delivered in Washington, D.C., NASA’s Mars Planetary Protection Officer, Lisa Pratt, provided more details about current plans for the exploration of Mars.
Reducing contamination remains a priority for the agency, but NASA is now indicating that they are prepared to counter contamination to ensure that any life found on the Red Planet – did not originate on Earth. NASA is planning on launching two missions to the dusty world, Mars Insight and the Mars 2020 rover within the next two years.
Could There Really be Life on Mars?
Life on Mars would be very different from the variety depicted by Hollywood. It is thought likely that there could be some form of microbial life on the Red Planet. Data collected during the Viking project four decades ago along with a host of more recent missions, along with increasingly advanced computer simulations and analysis, has suggested that the planet contains many of the criteria needed for life to be possible. Areas known as ‘special regions’ have been identified as being particularly promising, as they have the potential to be warm, wet – and possibly habitable. NASA has long been considering the possibility of sending robotic spacecraft to carry out in-situ analysis of these zones.
An Evolving View of the Contamination Problem
Another obstacle to Mars exploration is that it will be phenomenally expensive, and one of the greatest costs will be ensuring that any spacecraft landing on Mars is sterile enough to prevent contamination. The risk that probes could transport microbes from Earth to Mars, and vice versa upon its return, has been seen as a major concern for many years and there are international treaties in place that specifically limit the amount of microbial contamination on any spacecraft bound for other worlds. Signaling a change of policy, however, Pratt now says that some level of contamination will have to be accepted if we are to explore the regions of Mars most likely to support life and that this should not prevent robotic exploration of the planet in the near future.
Viking and the Road to Mars
NASA’s Viking 1 and Viking 2 landing craft touched down on carefully chosen locations on Mars in July and Sept. of 1976. The project cost cost $1 billion in 1970’s dollars, or anywhere from $4 billion to $6 billion today. Viking is regarded as one of the most successful Martian missions to date. It is thanks to Viking that we gained our first insights into what it was like on the surface of Mars. The project also led to important advances in engineering and space science. These, and other Mars landings, have also provided the inspiration for space research at some of the U.S.’ top seats of learning, such as the Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Perhaps the greatest requirement to not only landing crew on the surface of the Red Planet, but finding past or present signs of life – is the need for trained engineers to develop and produce the systems required to make these discoveries possible.
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