Since I was a young child Mars held a special fascination for me. It was so close and yet so faraway. I have never doubted that it once had advanced life and still has remnants of that life now. I am a dedicated member of the Mars Society,Norcal Mars Society National Space Society, Planetary Society, And the SETI Institute. I am a supporter of Explore Mars, Inc. I'm a great admirer of Elon Musk and SpaceX. I have a strong feeling that Space X will send a human to Mars first.
If we find life on Mars, it will either be microbial or fossilized and living under extreme conditions. The huge diversity of microbes on Earth and their long evolutionary history make them excellent candidates for Earthly models of Martian life. For this reason, many studies of microbial life on Mars analogue sites here on Earth are focused on the extremophiles or those microbes that live in areas where conditions are extreme, in terms of temperature or chemical composition.
Mars 160 is a twin desert study in a Mars analogue setting with the goal of characterizing life in extreme environments, advancing the understanding of the limits and constraints on life and defining protocols for future successful planetary scientific exploration. On our mission, field science team members carry out field and lab work as part of a multidisciplinary crew at an analogue planetary habitat, while simulating a crew on Mars.
This week I'd like to introduce you to our crew science team and talk about the science return as well as mention the science operations for the Mars 160 mission.
Ecologist Shannon Rupert, our Mars 160 principal investigator, coordinates the science program for the whole expedition. For her, there are two main goals for the mission.
The first is to look for life in extreme environments by examining patterns of biodiversity and distribution of organisms within geologic micro-habitats here on Earth that we suspect have analogues on Mars.
Shannon told me, "Since we do not know if there was — let alone if there still is — life on Mars, our work centers on having value as Earth-based biological research, while when done in sim can also be used to determine field protocols and exploration strategies that are applicable for future planetary science missions. The lichen work we are doing for this mission is an excellent example of this, and has the added benefit of demonstrating our approach to the microbial work we are doing in a way that people can visualize and more easily understand."
The second goal is to engage a team of Earth-based experts in collaboration with the (analogue) Mars-based crew, because, while there are a limited number of scientists who will be the actual astronauts on a Mars mission, there are many scientists on Earth who could contribute to the success of the science. Shannon suggests that current thinking is that astronauts on a human mission to Mars or another planet will be science generalists, and an integrated part of science operations will be for these generalists to work in tandem with the scientists in the field and also fully participate in the collaboration done with science backrooms on Earth.