Penn State researcher sees potential for historic life on Martian floor

Curiosity rover photographs strata at the base of Mount Sharp on Mars


A view from the bottom of Mars’ Mount Sharp taken by the Curiosity rover. The rock layers within the foreground dip towards the bottom of the mountain, indicating historic water circulation.

Picture: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Pictures taken by the Mars Curiosity rover might present a desolate rocky panorama to some, however to Penn State researcher Christopher Home, the photographs present potential for historic life.

Professor of geosciences and director of the NASA Pennsylvania Area Grant Consortium, Home is a collaborating scientist with NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission tasked with figuring out whether or not the crimson planet’s Gale Crater might have supported life 3.5 billion years in the past. In accordance with the scientist, the analysis means that it might have.

“Gale Crater seems to have been a lake atmosphere,” Home stated, including that the mission has discovered numerous finely layered mudstone within the crater. “The water would have continued for one million years or extra.”

The lake ultimately crammed with sediment and turned to stone, which then eroded, Home stated. The identical course of occurred to the sand dunes that got here after the lake.

“However the entire system, together with the groundwater that ran by it, lasted for much longer, even perhaps a billion or extra years,” he stated. “There are fractures crammed with sulfate, which signifies that water ran by these rocks a lot later, after the planet was now not forming lakes.”

Christopher House visits the test-bed rover at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Christopher Home, professor of geosciences, pictured with the test-bed Mars rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Home works with the Mars Science Laboratory’s Pattern Evaluation at Mars (SAM) and sedimentology and stratigraphy groups. The SAM crew makes use of an instrument that heats up rock samples and a mass spectrometer to measure molecules launched by the heated samples. The mass of the molecules helps the researchers establish the forms of gases launched.

Home and Penn State graduate pupil Gregory Wong are significantly excited by sulfur gases from sulfate and sulfide minerals as a result of the presence of decreased sulfur minerals, like pyrite, would point out that the atmosphere might have supported life previously.

Home serves as a lead for the sedimentology and stratigraphy crew, which research the rock layers on the Martian floor to interpret the atmosphere by which they fashioned. He’s additionally concerned within the rover’s tactical planning. As a science theme lead, just a few instances per thirty days he directs the day by day teleconference held with scientists from across the globe to plan the rover’s operations for the following Martian day.

“It’s been enjoyable to be concerned within the day by day operations, selections like the place to take a measurement, or the place to drive, or whether or not we should always prioritize a selected measurement over a special measurement given the restricted period of time on the floor,” Home stated. “Every day is proscribed by the facility that the rover has and the way a lot energy the rover will want. It has been an excellent studying expertise for a way missions function and an excellent alternative to collaborate with scientists from around the globe.”

Home finds the tempo at which the mission operates exhilarating and generally bewildering.

The Curiosity rover's selfie at Aberlady and Kilmarie

The Mars Curiosity rover took this selfie after drilling into two targets, pictured to the decrease left of the rover.

IMAGE: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Area Science Methods

“Every time we drive, we get up to a completely new area of view with new rocks and new inquiries to ask,” he stated. “It’s kind of an entire new world every time you progress, and so typically you’re nonetheless fascinated by the questions that have been taking place months in the past, however you must cope with the truth that there’s a complete new panorama, and you must do the science of that day as properly.”

That is the golden age of planetary science, in keeping with Home, who credit the Mars Science Laboratory for the push to discover and ship astronauts to the crimson planet.

“Missions like this have proven liveable environments on Mars previously,” Home stated. “Missions have additionally proven Mars to proceed to be an lively world with doubtlessly methane releases and geology, together with volcanic eruptions, within the not too distant previous. There’s positively nice curiosity in Mars as a dynamic terrestrial world that isn’t so totally different than our Earth as another worlds in our photo voltaic system.”

Home’s work with NASA and the company’s exobiology program, which focuses on the seek for life and origin of life, has led to a number of latest breakthroughs. These embrace figuring out cyanide compounds in meteorites and complicated chemical mixtures that might have led to the origin of life on Earth.

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