Life on Mars

Kathryn McGonagle

The gusting snow and freezing winds didn’t keep Kent State students and faculty from attending astrobiologist Dr. Lisa Pratt’s public lecture last night about the exploration of Mars.

“I feel it’s about time we start exploring the rest of our solar system for signs of life in a more aggressive way,” senior English major Will Kucinski said.

Pratt, a provost professor of geological sciences at Indiana University and a NASA researcher, discussed a plethora of questions about Mars and how future landings will be a great step toward answering some of them.

Not only did the Phi Beta Kappa visiting scholar address the topography and geology of Mars, but she also discussed potential for discovering living organisms.

“I can hardly imagine anything that would philosophically change things more than a secondary origination of life,” Pratt said.

But, further research, experimentation and samples are needed before more investigations can continue. Not only is knowledge being sought about Mars, it’s also being sought for our own planet.

“We’re going through a revolution in biology right now when classifying life on Earth,” Pratt said.

“We don’t even have a definition for life that’s well accepted right now.”

Showing a whole slide of different definitions of life, Pratt said during the presentation that if scientists and philosophers have such a difficult time defining life on Earth, classifying life on Mars will be that much harder.

Pratt also showed pictures of her work in gold mines near Johannesburg, South Africa. Spending 10 hours in a mineshaft with temperatures reaching 120 degrees, she gathered water samples beneath the earth’s surface, searching for and finding bacteria. This discovery aided scientist to better understand the organisms on Earth, therefore shedding light on potential organisms on Mars.

The next step, Pratt said, is a proposed 2018 or 2020 landing of a MAX-C rover that will collect, document and package samples to study Martian rocks and bring them back to Earth.

There is still major debate over where the landing site will be, but the new technology infused into the rover will allow it to explore places scientists were never able to before, Pratt said.

NASA, partnering with the European Space Agency, will send this high-tech robot to the surface of Mars to collect samples that will then be transported via rocket back to Earth.

Pratt said NASA can’t afford to take on a scientific mission like this and is instead embracing a “collaborative global community,” she said.

“Probably all the technology is the most interesting,” Samantha Yost said about the sophisticated equipment required to bring samples back from Mars.

But Yost wasn’t the only one who said the technology was extraordinary.

“I found the whole landing process incredible and a little unbelievable,” Kucinski said.

Pratt said that a fundamental change may occur in the way scientists and the public view Mars within the next decade. She said not only geologists, but philosophers, sociologists and even people who watched Star Trek, will be impacted by the discoveries made from these samples.

“We don’t know what the outcome is going to be,” Pratt said. “Mars will surprise us.”

Contact arts and sciences reporter Kathryn McGonagle at [email protected].