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Mars matters to today's teens

April 24, 2007|by ALAN SOKOL

NASA engineer Steve Squyres, who recently spoke at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, Pa., sat down with Pulse writer Alan Sokol. Here is an excerpt of their discussion. To hear the whole interview, visit Alan's Yak at www.antpod.com

Mars - a mysterious rusty planet that might have once held life, almost like a long-lost brother to Earth.

But did it actually harbor life at all in its history?

I went to an expert to find out. Steven Squyres, the lead engineer of the Mars Exploration Rover project, has given us some answers that might help us to better understand what's going on with Mars.

Alan Sokol: The Mars rovers were designed to run for about 90 days, but now they're going past 1,100 days. How did you manage this?

Steven Squyres: It was partly luck. Part of it was good work. We built good hardware, and we're proud of that. But we got very lucky with the weather. We thought that dust was going to build up on the rover solar panels and kill the vehicle. Dust indeed did build up, but on several occasions we've had lucky gusts of wind that have cleaned the dust off the vehicles and given us a new lease on life. So we've had some good fortune.

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Sokol: Myself and a few of my friends at school are quite interested in the whole Mars Rover project, but some of my classmates aren't interested at all. Why do you think teenagers aren't interested in planetary exploration, and what could we do about it to make it more interesting?

Squyres: There are a lot of things competing for teenagers' attention these days. I have two teenage daughters and I know that their lives are very busy and very full, and they've got a lot of things going on. It's a matter of what grabs your attention, what's important to you.

What we've tried to do with these missions is to present them to the public in a way that teenagers - who are at a point in their lives when they are trying to make decisions about their future - can see how much fun it can be to build a robot and drive it on another planet.

NASA does lots of interesting things. NASA does cosmology. NASA does gamma-ray spectroscopy. Some of those things are esoteric, and they're kind of hard to understand. (The rover) is a robot; it's looking at rocks. It's pretty simple stuff.

And yet when you get into the details, it's rich in technical complexity which is the kind of stuff that (geeks love). Say you're the kind of person who's into computers. Man, we've got computers. We've got computers like crazy on this mission. If you like robots, if you like rockets, if you like that kind of stuff, this is a cool mission.

Sokol: How big of a deal would it be if we actually found evidence of past life on Mars?

Squyres: I think it would be a very big deal. I think a big question you'd have to ask yourself is: Did that life originally arise on Mars, or did it arise on Earth?

Now that sounds like a funny question. But in fact, we have rocks from Mars here on Earth. It turns out that you can do the calculation in reverse and you find out that rocks from Earth can get to Mars. Earth and Mars have been swapping rocks for billions of years, and suppose some bacteria hitched a ride on one of those rocks and got transported from one planet to another.

So the first question you have to ask is: Did that life arise independently on Mars? And suppose you can conclude that it did. Now, there are a lot of planets out there. There are a lot of stars out there, and many stars have their own planetary systems. If you can show that life arose twice independently just in this one solar system, then it takes no great leap of imagination or faith or anything else to believe that life could have arisen many times in many solar systems, and therefore life could be commonplace in the universe.

Right now we know of one example of life, and that's (here) on Earth. This is a situation where two is a much bigger number than one.

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