Rock, water & microbes. . .but no people on Mars, yet

Rover spurs increased interest in space
Friday, February 13, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:17 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 30, 2008

The extraordinary successes of the Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have captured the imaginations of Missourians, including one who has played a major role in previous space explorations.

Charles Gehrke is a former MU professor and scientist who was commissioned by NASA to analyze rocks gathered during the Apollo moon missions. He sees the potential for the rovers to detect the microscopic life on Mars that he never found on the moon.

“I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, they might (find life),” Gehrke said. “It hasn’t been many years that people said, ‘Well, they’re looking for green men up on Mars,’ but they’re not. Only microbes. Microbes and water.”

Satellite evidence already has indicated that water has existed on Mars, so part of Spirit and Opportunity’s missions is to find geological evidence of that water. The two 400-pound rovers spent seven months traveling to Mars before touching down on the planet in January.

“They’re measuring elements: calcium, magnesium, iron, sulfur, oxygen, hydrogen,” Gehrke said. “They’re measuring with spectroscopic measurements of wavelengths reflected off and transmitted through (the rocks),” he said.

Life on Mars?

Val Germann, an amateur astronomer and 26-year member of the Mid-Missouri Astronomy Association, is skeptical that the rovers will discover evidence of life on this trip.

“That is really old terrain there, it is really bleak,” he said. “If there were living systems on Mars at one time, I don’t see how much evidence of that could be there.”

But if the rovers are to turn anything up, Germann said they’re in the right place to do it, as Opportunity had the good fortune to land in a crater.

“That’s a big break, to actually get access to the underlying layers without having to work for it,” Germann said. “They were hoping for something like that, I’m sure.”

Opportunity has already found evidence of a mineral called gray hematite, which indicates that the area held liquid water at some point.

“I think this is what they call serendipity in science, when something happens that was very, very favorable and wasn’t really expected,” Germann said.

Gary Kronk, a science writer and amateur astronomer from Troy, Ill., said that the two rovers are not well-equipped to analyze for life.

“They’ll find the elements and materials that might be necessary” to support life on Mars, but “they don’t have anything that will really find life,” he said. The British lander Beagle 2 had equipment that could be used in searching for life, Kronk said, but that vehicle hasn’t been heard from since its scheduled landing day of Dec. 25.

Manned space travel discussed

Riding the public’s rekindled interest in the space program, President George Bush recently broached the subject of manned space travel. Similar proposals were made during the past presidential administrations of George Bush Sr., Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Bush’s plan resurrected the idea of building a station on the moon, from which people could be sent on to Mars. The announcement has generated discussion among those who follow astronomy developments.

“Nothing spurs the public’s interest in space more than man’s space flight,” Kronk said. But the prospect of restarting manned missions to space is a double-edged sword.

“They’re going to be sacrificing a number of unmanned probes over the next 10 years,” Kronk said. He added that some of these projects have already received funding, and some are near launch.

Among programs that will be scrapped, Kronk listed plans to send another rover to Mars, orbiters to circle the moons of Jupiter and satellites to study planets around other stars.

“Basically, what NASA’s going to be doing is putting all their eggs in one basket, sending someone back to the moon and then possibly on to Mars,” Kronk said. “We’re doing really good with Mars right now, and I don’t know if we need to send a man or woman or crew there. I hate to see the unmanned programs get trashed. There’s a lot of people whose dreams will be sacrificed in order to go back to manned space exploration.”

None of this talk is new to Gehrke. For the past 30 years he has participated in conferences and projects designed to put humans permanently on the moon. One such conference in Dijon, France in 1993 brought together representatives from around the world to detail the requirements that must be met for human survival on the moon.

The conference spawned the Dijon Declaration, a document that states, among other points, “That the true and proper goal of space exploration programs must be the creation of permanent, self-sufficient human settlements — in Earth orbit and on the Moon at first, but eventually on Mars and beyond.”

“You’ve got to go to the moon first, and learn to live on the moon,” Gehrke emphasized.

Do potential benefits outweigh costs?

Supporters of space exploration say its potential benefits for humanity are innumerable. But others question the costs of doing so.

“The ultimate building of a moon base would be awesome if we were in a better financial situation right now,” Kronk said. “Astronauts on Mars could probably do a better, faster job (than rovers).”

The time scale of Bush’s proposal is also an issue.

“It will overlap into several presidencies, potentially. Public opinion is going to play a large part in it, obviously,” he said.

Diverting funds to a manned space program has already meant a slow death for the Hubble telescope. “That thing has rewritten astronomy books in almost every category,” Kronk said of the telescope. The space shuttle program also will be discontinued with the program’s shifting priorities.

Gehrke said past manned space missions led to significant technological developments for earthlings.

“There’s all kinds of things that have developed medically-wise regarding monitoring and scientific instrumentation and so on as a result of the lunar programs,” Gehrke said.

But do humans have to travel to new planets to develop this technology? Not necessarily, according to Gehrke and Kronk. Manned missions give scientists a tangible goal of reaching a destination — technological advances are often a by-product of the requirements to make the missions happen. In the 1960s, Kronk said, “We had a desire to do something. A lot of the things that allowed us to go to the moon weren’t available.”

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