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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Mars life closer to discovery

Erich Healy/ Arizona Daily Wildcat

A full-scale mock-up of the HiRISE imaging system sits on display in the Charles P. Sonnet Space Sciences Building. The actual camera is capable of a maximum resolution of 2520 megapixels and can be up to 28 gigabites.
Erich Healy
Erich Healy/ Arizona Daily Wildcat A full-scale mock-up of the HiRISE imaging system sits on display in the Charles P. Sonnet Space Sciences Building. The actual camera is capable of a maximum resolution of 2520 megapixels and can be up to 28 gigabites.

The mystery of whether there is life on Mars is getting closer to being solved.

“”It’s one of these really fundamental questions. You know you grew up reading science fiction about it,”” said Leslie P. Tolbert, UA vice president of research.

“”The point is, there are real questions to ask about where does life come from as well as where does the universe come from.””

Alfred McEwen, UA professor of planetary sciences, and a team from the UA will be building a color stereo camera for an orbiter scheduled to launch in January 2016.

“”(McEwen) is the perfect person to lead a project like this,”” Tolbert said. “”He is somebody that has a really stellar – that was a pun – really stellar track record.””

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are jointly funding the project, with NASA funding the camera while Switzerland will be producing the telescope.

The purpose of this mission is to study trace gases on Mars in detail with sensitive instruments to understand as much as possible about these gases being released on Mars.

“”(The project) builds on the last Mars mission, which looked for water on Mars,”” Tolbert said. “”Carbon-based life needs water, and so they found evidence for water and made everybody very excited.””

Shane Byrne, assistant professor for the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, estimates that the camera will begin returning its first images in 2016, if all goes well.

Once the originating point of the gases is found, the camera will be used to take 3-D topographical pictures.

“”We take a picture looking slightly forward. Once we pass the target, we swivel the camera 180 degrees and we take a picture slightly backwards, and we can put those two pictures together with those two view points to make a three-dimensional map,”” Byrne said. “”We look at the same patch of surface from two different directions. We can figure out the height of mountains and the depths of craters and things like that.””

By taking topographical pictures, the camera will be able to tell how the methane is being released.

“”Something is releasing methane into the atmosphere,”” McEwen said. “”It could be some active geological process, or even biological.””

Methane is one of the primary gases released by natural biological processes and could be an indication of life.

“”A couple of people have discovered methane in the Martian atmosphere from ground-based telescopes and from other space crafts,”” Byrne said. “”That’s really interesting because methane should be destroyed really quickly there, so we wouldn’t expect it to hang around for very long, so something is producing it right now. The two main things that produce methane are: one is lifelike bacteria on the earth and the other is a type of volcanic process that goes on deep underground.””

The gas could be released by some other process such as volcanism, or even ice melting, according to McEwen.

“”If biological, it would, of course, be the great prize,”” McEwen said. “”Evidence of life on Mars either current or past … that would be a very big discovery.””

The mission will take place in Boulder, Colo. The camera will be assembled there, but will be operated from Tucson in the Sonett Space Sciences building, according to McEwen and Byrne.

“”The basis for carbon-based life, that’s the kind of thing that would be really exciting to see,”” Tolbert said. “”If there is, that gives us one view of how life evolved. If there isn’t, it makes us think more specifically about what were the specific conditions on the Earth as the Earth started to cool that allowed life to develop here, these organic molecules to develop here and not elsewhere.””

The project is the latest in a long line of high-profile, Mars-related UA research projects.

“”This (project) is just another example of this huge success that our folks in space sciences, which is lunar and planetary and astronomy, have,”” Tolbert said. “”This is really, really, really exciting.””

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