Exploring Mars: Following the Water
June 19, 2012
On Tuesday, June 19, the Academites enjoyed a presentation by Dr. Scott Hubbard. The presentation was about the exploration of Mars during the last 10 years and where we are planning to go from here with future Mars missions.
Humankind has long been interested in exploring Mars because it is the most earthlike of the planets in our solar system. It is also the most likely to have past or present life because of the possibility of the existence of water on the planet. However, in our past efforts to explore the planet, not all have been successful. Only 14 of 47 missions have been fully successful so far. Right now there is a one-third chance of a Mars missions being a ‘perfect’ mission. In the mid 1990’s the mindset for Mars exploration was ‘faster, better, cheaper’, which proved to be a failure because of the embarrassing failed missions during that time, such as the Mars Polar Lander which crashed as it got to the Martian surface because of a missing line of code. Something had to be done about the mindset regarding Martian missions. This was done in October of 2000 after twin Mars mission failures in 1999.
When Dr. Hubbard took over Mars exploration in 2000, he realized that NASA had to take a different approach with the exploration of this fascinating planet. He decided to call it “Follow the Water”. Basically, when exploring Mars, it is important to keep in mind that the main reason for exploration at this point is to find water on Mars. Finding water could lead to clues of past or present life on Mars or a possibility for future life on the planet. The Mariner 9 found giant volcanoes and remnants of ancient riverbeds on the Martian surface. Viking found water vapor in the atmosphere. Both of these findings sparked great curiosity in the minds of NASA and the world.
Today, the robotic Mars exploration program has taken on the new approach proposed by Dr. Hubbard. The “Follow the Water” strategy is a science-driven effort to characterize Mars as a dynamic system. The program has implemented a series of orbiters and rovers. In June 2000, the Mars Global Surveyor images suggested ample water in Mars’ past because the flat northern hemisphere may represent the location of a large ancient ocean. The Mars Odyssey utilized gamma ray spectroscopy to show strong evidence of buried water.
The twin Mars exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, landed on Mars in 2003. An airbag bouncing technique was used for landing the two rovers. The rovers found much evidence of past water because of, for example, ‘berries’ of hematite found on the surface, which always (at least on Earth) means water. Opportunity is in its 9th year of operation on Mars. One main reason for the long operation length is because dust devils in the atmosphere clean off the solar cells and keep the rovers clean.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found evidence for recent surface meltwater: fluid flows in the Newton crater. The Phoenix Scout Rover also found water ice close under the surface. In January 2009 a strong release of methane occurred near the north pole of Mars. On Earth, methane comes from cows (life). On Mars, this could mean a previous biological process. The next step is the Mars Science Laboratory, the next generation of Mars rovers. It will land on Mars on August 5th, 2012. This rover has radioisotope power, meaning that it is the most sophisticated rover ever sent to another world, and it will tell us exactly what we are looking at (e.g., which element we are looking at).
For future Mars missions, sample returns are in the works; that is, land on the surface, pick up a sample, and a rendezvousing Mars orbiter brings it back to Earth. So, the potential for ancient life on Mars has increased, and modern life on Mars is now deemed possible. Through the past 10 years of Mars exploration under Dr. Hubbard, we have found that Mars is more diverse than we thought.