News Column

Mars Inspires Search for Water, Life

Aug. 7, 2012

Michael Lollar

mars

The Volkswagen-sized Rover's search for life on Mars may inspire visions of little green men, but scientists said Monday they would be happy to settle for even a single-celled organism on the desertlike terrain of the red planet.

"It would be a game-changer," said Joan Schmelz, a solar physicist and astronomer at the University of Memphis. "I think it would change the way we look at ourselves."

Her husband, author and astrophysicist Gerrit Verschuur, said he sees little chance of little green men walking into camera range nor even a single-celled organism oozing around on the dusty orb.

If there were life, it would probably be "microscopic things," said Russell "Deek" Hensley, an aerospace engineer who once worked with renowned rocket engineer Wernher von Braun to design a third-stage rocket for a "nuclear bus" between Earth and the moon.

Funding for that project ran out before it went anywhere, but Hensley, a retired professor at Christian Brothers University, was excited Monday by the technical achievement of the almost pinpoint safe landing of NASA's 2,000-pound rover, Curiosity. "I stand in awe like everybody else about the enormous complication and that we did it."

Hensley said Mars captures the imagination of the world. "Mars has sort of a special meaning to us. It's almost like a sister planet."

It's like a homely sister with no oceans, meager atmosphere and a surface that resembles the moon more than Earth.

But Verschuur said previous Martian rovers left little doubt that surface features of the planet were shaped by running water over time. "I know they've landed where they know water once flowed. I think it's probably way below the surface," he said. If the rover and its chemistry lab find no evidence of life, past or present, he said, "It just puts another perspective on the idea of why bother going to Mars?"

Verschuur said the money would be better spent traveling to asteroids to study their compositions. "Some time in the future they may threaten us. We need to know what they're made of, how solid they are."

If life or evidence of past life is discovered on Mars, it would make it "more important to go there and study it," but he said it would not justify a human colony on the foreboding planet. "I'm not a big fan of manned space travel because it's so expensive and you can do amazing things with robotic space travel."



Source: (c)2012 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.) Distributed by MCT Information Services


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