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Mars Rover Science Featured At Astrobiology Conference

by Bruce Moomaw for SpaceDaily.com
Mountain View CA - Apr 22, 2004
The third of NASA's Astrobiology Science Conferences -- held every two years at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California -- has just ended. Every one of these has drawn a considerably bigger crowd of scientists than the previous one. This might seem peculiar for what one scientist has described as "the most lively scientific field not to have any actual subject material yet".

But another, at the Conference, noted that a sizable number of graduate students are attending these conferences AGAINST the advice of their advisors, thereby proving that the field has genuine emotional drawing power and an ability to ignite people's interest which may allow it to endure for a very long period of time until the first evidence of alien life finally does turn up.

Whereas the first conference in 2000 consisted entirely of sequential talks in a single multi-day session held in an auditorium, the number of speakers has now increased to the point that several hours of each day was devoted to six sessions of talks held simultaneously with each other, making it impossible for this poor reporter to make it to a lot of the talks he would have liked to attend.

The majority of them -- including all the single-session talks in the mornings and evenings -- were held in a literal Big Tent: an enormous plastic affair whose sides snapped and cracked in the Bay Area's winds like the sails of a three-master, leading to many an apprehensive upward glance on the part of the audience. But everything held together for the duration, and so I'm here to give a rundown on some of the conference's more interesting talks.

There were a great many talks -- some of them extremely esoteric -- on the chemical mechanisms that might play a role in the initial appearance and evolution of life, or in allowing so-called "extremophile" microbes to survive under incredibly rugged conditions that no one 20 years ago thought microbes possibly COULD survive.

There were, however, also much more accessible talks on subjects of far more interest to the general public -- and, as one might expect, Mars was the star of the show. As we'll see, there were a much smaller number of interesting talks and posters on Europa and the planets of other stars -- in fact, this time out there were only three actual talks on Europa.

The problem may be that, now that the Galileo spacecraft has gone to its reward, it's likely to be a  long time before we acquire any new science data on that strange distant world -- whereas new data was flooding in from five Mars spacecraft even as the conference went on, with the next one scheduled for launch next year.

The talk with the biggest attendance -- by reporters and the general public, as well as scientists -- was, as one might expect, by Cornell's Steve Squyres on the continuing findings of the two Mars Exploration Rovers. He did indeed have some intriguing tidbits that had not been mentioned up to then in any of the weekly MER press conferences at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

He had relatively little to say about the findings of the MER-A rover, "Spirit", on the floor of Gusev Crater. Gusev may well have served as a giant water-filled lake during Mars' earliest "Noachian" era 4 billion years ago. But Spirit -- while functioning beautifully, except for its two-week fit of now-corrected software collywobbles -- has so far mostly confirmed the fears of many scientists that any ancient lake sediments on its floor have since been covered over by a thick layer of non-aqueous material from other sources such as windblown dust, ancient volcanic ash from a big volcano to the crater's north, or rocks thrown into the crater by other giant meteoroid impacts on the surrounding Martian southern highlands.

Scientists had just finished driving it 250 meters to the 200-meter wide "Bonneville" crater in hopes of finding chunks of deeply buried sedimentary rock dug up from under that surface covering by the impact that formed the crater. But Spirit's photos of the crater's insides after its arrival showed a disappointing lack of any signs of exposed bedrock, and so the rover -- after analyzing a series of rocks on the crater's rim -- has now set off to see how close it can get to the low "Columbia Hills" 2.5 km to the south before its systems finally give out in the coming months.

The latest tests of the rovers' condition indicates that -- barring some unexpected breakdown -- they should both work for an absolute minimum of eight months, and perhaps a good deal longer; so there's a real chance that Spirit will make it all the way to the hills. Failing that, it has a good chance of getting close enough to analyze some fragments of their rock that have rolled down their slopes onto the plain over the millennia.

Click for complete report in print friendly HTML. 6900 Words

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Methane on Mars
Moffett Field - Mar 31, 2004
Considered suggestive of life, an atmosphere of methane on another planet is considered one of the four best candidates for detecting habitable conditions using remote sensing and telescope spectrographs.



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