by Paula Wesson, Lifestyles Editor
NASA didn’t actually land at Cedar Crest College on Nov. 15, but NASA scientist Jennifer Stern did bring a wheel like the ones found on the Curiosity Mars rover. Her presentation entitled “Follow Your Curiosity: The Search for Habitability on Mars,” attracted many from the Lehigh Valley.
Before the presentation, Cedar Crest College President Carmen Ambar gave a brief statement, but Kayla Sween introduced Stern. Sween, a 2011 genetic engineering with a forensic science concentration graduate and current Master of Science in forensic science candidate, said, “[Stern] has forged a career that most of us can only dream of.”
Stern opened with the history of Mars exploration. NASA first landed twin Viking rovers on Mars in 1976. Since then, NASA has sent several other rovers to Mars.
Most recently, the Curiosity landed in August of this year. Its goals are to confirm previous discoveries and find possible habitats – past and present.
Although methane gas was reportedly found by an earlier rover, the Curiosity has been unable to find any. Methane is a gas that may be released by hydrothermal vents but is usually produced by life. You may know it as the smell from cow manure.
In 2009, ice was also discovered on Mars. The presence of water does not necessarily mean that humans can easily inhabit Mars, however.
For one, the planet is colder than Earth, reaching only 20 degrees Celsius or 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Mars also has a thinner, less protective atmosphere than Earth.
Stern said Mars may have had a warmer, wetter, more habitable environment at one time. She defined habitability as having “elements [like carbon], energy, light, [and] some way to bring these elements together.”
Although silicon has similar characteristics to carbon, NASA scientists are specifically looking for carbon, because there are no known silicon-based life forms. “We look for life as we know it.”
Stern explained that most of what they know about Mars is from pieces of the planet that have broken off. By analyzing these rocks with spectroscopy and gas chromatography, scientists have found amino acids, an important component of life on Earth.
The Curiosity is outfitted with two types of spectrometers and a gas chromatograph to analyze up to 74 samples. Not only can these instruments differentiate between elements, they can tell the difference between isotopes of an element, such as Carbon-12 and Carbon-13.
Sween noted, “Much of the same instrumentation is also used in forensic science, and I was quite happy that I actually understood what she was talking about. It was great to have cross disciplinary examples of how these instruments can be used.”
The Curiosity took its first sample at Rocknest, named after Rocknest Lake in the Northwest Territory of Canada. The locations of other rock and soil samples have also been named after places in Canada because some of the oldest rocks in the world have been found there.
The rover has also found round gravel too large to be carried by wind. This suggests water was once present on the surface of Mars. Scientists estimate a climate change around 3.5 billion years ago based on the age of the samples.
Once a sample has been analyzed, the rover sends a message back to Earth. It can take up to 20 minutes for the signal to arrive, depending on the orbit of the two planets. Antennas in California, Spain, and Australia can receive these signals.
Stern concluded her presentation, saying, “It’s hopefully energized people into being more into science.”
That seems to be the case with Gerlie Loyola, a freshman communications and psychology double major, who volunteered at the event. She admitted she is not very interested in science but added, “What interest[ed] me the most was when she talked about the Curiosity and how and where it landed.”
Loyola encouraged the audience to attend the reception afterwards, where they could meet Stern in person. Even so, Loyola noticed that “many people wanted to ask more questions, but there was limited time so many were left un-answered.”
For more information, visit http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/.