SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

Life on Mars? Rutgers professor breaks down NASA’s most recent discovery

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

A Martian dust storm is currently silencing NASA’s Opportunity rover. But NASA’s rovers have already found evidence on the Red Planet of ancient organic material, methane and a bacteria that can turn light into fuel and release oxygen. Could it one day help humans colonize Mars? That’s what an international team of scientists is suggesting. Rutgers scientist Professor Paul Falkowski shared some of his insights with Correspondent Leah Mishkin.

Mishkin: Professor, thank you for joining us here today. Let’s talk about NASA‘s latest discovery, these organic molecules. Tell me a little bit about them.

Falkowski: Well, we’ve had missions to Mars since the 1970s. We’ve landed on Mars several times, but the last missions here have been a few years in the making of trying to discover was there potentially life on Mars in the distant past. So, there were two papers that were published last year in a journal called ‘Science’, which is one of those most prestigious scientific journals in the world actually. In the first paper, it was reported that there was methane on Mars that was seasonal. That means that a Martian year is 1.88 Earth years, so it’s almost two years. And, what they found is that there was a peak and then a trough, and then a peak and a trough over three cycles of Martian years, which means that the methane had to come from somewhere. And it comes from, what they speculate, is what’s called clathrates, which is a frozen form of methane, which is geologically preserved. It’s found on Earth and it must seep up through the rocks and come through cracks or fissures, and be released when it’s a little bit warmer in the year, and trapped when it’s a little bit colder. So that was quite exciting because it gave them a feeling for the sources of methane.

The second paper was looking at complex organic molecules. So methane is a very simple molecule. It’s a carbon atom with four hydrogens attached to it, and we obviously burn it as a fuel in our homes to make heat or cook with it. It’s a very, very abundant gas. But the more complex molecules are found in what’s called mud stones, and these stones are thought to be at least three billion years old. The molecules in there are not things that we normally find on Earth. So, they’ve been preserved in some way, which we don’t really understand. The authors didn’t take a leap and say this is proof that there was life on Mars in the distant past.

Mishkin: Right, but it is an indication that they’re not ruling it out at this point.

Falkowski: It’s a very strong indication that something had to make those molecules that was complex and was preserved.

Mishkin: What are some of the other options of what could’ve caused these organic molecules? I know meteorites might be one of the possibilities.

Falkowski: Right. So, meteorites contain organic matter and so bombardments from meteorites and their preservation. But, why would they be preserved in these mudstones? So that really makes it a little bit more complicated. Mudstones on Mars, to be honest with you, when I first knew that there were mudstones on Mars I was totally shocked because most of Mars is a very simple, what we call, regolith. It’s just basically rust, which is why it’s orange and it’s been oxidized, and all the organic material has been long gone. So it’s like adding hydrogen peroxide to whatever it is as a thin film. It bubbles away and it just gets lost. So this was preserved, which was very, very interesting.

Mishkin: So, what does this indicate to you?

Falkowski: Well, I think what we’ll probably be doing in the next Mars missions, and you have to plan these missions about a decade ahead because the engineers need that much time to make the payload up with the scientific tools, and figure out how to land it, and where to land it and to make sure everything works three times over.

Mishkin: What’s interesting though, going off that point, is Curiosity, the rover, that discovered this was sent there in 2012, and was only supposed to last a couple of years, and look where we are now.

Falkowski: Well, the engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other NASA engineers are extremely good. They are obviously going to be very conservative. They’ll predict a lifetime and if the lifetime exceeds that, that’s great. It’s like free mission. So it did exceed the lifetime, and you really have to commend these engineers because they will work sometimes for 20 years on one mission and that’s it.

Mishkin: I know there are a lot of different initiatives to try to get humans to Mars. There’s SpaceX, NASA’s working on something as well. Do you think this has an impact on that mission in some way?

Falkowski: Well, getting a human to Mars is a long-term problem. There are several issues that go along with this. One is radiation exposure can be extremely high, and this is something that is very, very difficult to control. The second is the duration of the flight would be very, very long so the weightlessness would be very hard to control, you’re in space for many months. And then the third is the payload. How do you get so much mass to Mars and then return it? So these are engineering hurdles that are very difficult to overcome.

Mishkin: But if we do overcome them, we will bring you back here to discuss it.

Falkowski: Definitely, I mean every astronaut in the NASA astronaut pool is dying to go to Mars, but let’s hope they don’t die getting there or back, so that’s the issue. Every time we send a human being into space, the administrator has to sign off personally that that human being has a very high probability of returning alive.

Mishkin: Well, very interesting discovery, and thank you so much for being here, professor. We appreciate your time.

Falkowski: Thank you very much for inviting me.