NPR Story
9:21 am
Fri April 26, 2013

Studying Earth To Learn About Mars



This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Take a look at some of the pictures coming back from the Mars rovers. What do you see? Rocky fields, cliffs, dry ground. They look a fair amount like some of the pictures of parts of southern Utah, especially if you put on a pair of rose-colored glasses. It turns out that researchers are studying the geology of Utah to help explain some of the features that the Mars rovers and orbiters are seeing. And, at the same time, other people are using Utah as a companion to Mars in another way, as a training ground to help develop tools and techniques for humans one day living and working there on the red planet.

Joining me now here in the Grand Theatre in Salt Lake City, from the campus of the Salt Lake Community College, are my guests, Marjorie Chan, professor of geology in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Utah. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.


FLATOW: And Charles Killian, he's the CapCom coordinator for the Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station that's in southern Utah, near Hanksville. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CHARLES KILLIAN: Thank you very much.


FLATOW: Thank you. Now, Dr. Chan, what is it about Utah that makes a good match for studying Mars?

CHAN: Utah is just a fantastic place for geologists, because things are so well-exposed, and we don't have a lot of vegetation, as was mentioned previously, that's covering things up. So we can make comparisons of what the surface, the landscape looks like, even from satellite-type images. And we can get on the ground and look at it in person.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. How closely does what you see here track to what researchers are actually sending back from the rovers and things? Do they match up, the kind of things?

CHAN: It's been really exciting, and in part because some of the newest discoveries on Mars have found sedimentary rocks, and sedimentary rocks are the ones that contain life. And this is exciting because it really evokes the question: Are we alone in the universe? And can we find potential life on another planet?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's talk, Chuck, about the Mars Society. What's there about Utah that makes it a good place for the Mars Society?

KILLIAN: Well, in about the year 2000, a survey was done to find a place where one could build a habitat in an area that was a close analogue to Mars. And it turns out, southern Utah is perfect, because there's little-to-no vegetation, and the scenery is right, which is probably because the geology is right. If I can tell just a quick antidote.

FLATOW: Sure, sure.

KILLIAN: I was out there, oh, in October and got up early and was looking out a porthole, and the sun was coming up. And it was kind of the rosy glow you get in the desert that time of the day. It looked just like a photograph from one of the rovers. It was absolutely perfect.

FLATOW: Wow. What sort of things are the field crews doing at the Mars Desert Research Station? What do they do out there?

KILLIAN: Well, typically, they do things like biology, geology. They do - they work with small rovers, occasionally. What they're out there to do is to develop - as you stated - tools and techniques to - that may be useful in - during the human exploration of Mars. They, for instance, might go out and bring back samples and analyze them in the lab there - and they have - for biologics. Same thing with geology studies, that kind of thing.

FLATOW: If you have a question in here in the audience, please, step to the mikes if you want to know something about the geology of Utah and the comparison to Mars. One of the things that was quite interesting, Dr. Chan, a few years ago, the Mars rover found some really spherical-looking objects. You're shaking your head, or you know what I'm going to call them, those blueberries, blueberries on Mars.

CHAN: Right.

FLATOW: What - did you figure out what they were?

CHAN: Well, prior to the landing of that particular rover, I had been looking at some of these marbles, these round balls, and these are sandstones that have preferential - that have cement that are making them much harder. And...

FLATOW: Natural cement?

CHAN: Natural cement made of iron oxides. And, typically, some of the minerals hematite and what we called graphite. And these are iron oxides. And this is really the history of how fluids have moved through the rock in the subsurface, and I had been studying these. And, actually, we had proposed an idea that this could explain some of the hematite that they were recognizing on Mars. And it wasn't soon after we had come up with this idea that the Mars rover opportunity started sending pictures back of the spherical balls that they called blueberries. And I was one of the few people that was looking at similar types of things here on Earth. So it was really exciting, because we could say there's been groundwater on Mars. And we've got all kinds of really cool balls here on Earth, and it really helps us better understand the processes on Mars.

FLATOW: That looks like little flying saucer that you have there.

CHAN: This one does look like a flying saucer.

FLATOW: What is that? Same thing? Same kind of formation?

CHAN: Yes. It's the same kind of cemented mineral mass that we call a concretion. But there's one layer in here in the middle that's just slightly coarser-grained. And that means that it's easier for the fluids to flow along this particular band. And so it tends to stretch out that way. So you get all kinds of neat and cool shapes.

FLATOW: Let's go right the questions. Up there in the balcony, yes, ma'am, step up.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi. Thank you. Such a pleasure to be here. I have a daughter who is six, who really wants to be the first person to go to Mars. And Alice is a pretty determined little girl, but my background is in art. And so I really don't know how to steer her. So what advice would you give for a child that aspires to be a scientist in this field, and specifically to be an astronaut and possibly go to Mars someday?

FLATOW: And that's a good question because the people who study the planets like yourself, they're not really - they're not space people. They are planetary scientists, like geologists. Because you know the planet is there, you don't have to discover it. So would you not say to her, well, if she's going to study the surface, maybe she ought to study geology?

CHAN: Right. Both planetary science and geology are really important to understanding Mars. And I would say if your daughter is interested, go for it because it is so much fun to be a scientist. You never know what you're going to find, and we could use some good scientists, people that are young and enthusiastic in the field.

FLATOW: Before I go to the next question, I want to ask you about something new that was just discovered a matter of weeks or months. Not the blueberries but these little flowers. They were something like glassy flowers that started showing up. Do you know what I'm talking about?

CHAN: There's all kinds of different structures that have been recognized on Mars. And some of them still are open to interpretation of what they might mean. And this is why we can use more people that are interested in using Earth analogs to better understand Mars.

FLATOW: OK. Let's go down here to the audience.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I know that there are a lot of precious metals in impact sites on the Earth, like platinum that we use in a lot of industrial applications. I was wondering what do you think the potential is for finding resources like that on Mars that might make it actually maybe economically feasible to even mine some aspects of the Martian rocks and minerals.

CHAN: Yes. There has been quite a bit of interest in even trying to mine different asteroids for different materials. A lot of what's exposed on the surface of Mars seems to be similar to some of things that we find here on Earth. There seem to be a lot of materials like the salts, some sedimentary rock. And perhaps the asteroids are the ones that might have the greater metal potential.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me ask you this question, Charles. Do your crews mimic as much wearing suits and things as they would on Mars?

KILLIAN: Absolutely. We call that being in sim or in simulation. When they leave the Hab, they wear a Mars suit, if you will, and they lock in and lock out. We have air locks in the Hab, and they have to spend a certain amount of time waiting to go out and then come back in. They try to do all of their work in sim. And of course this increases the difficulty of what they're probably trying to accomplish by an order of magnitude anyway because they've got heavy gloves on and so forth.

But again, since their - one of their objectives is to develop tools and techniques that one might be able to use on Mars, this is a valuable part of the experience.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. OK. Let's go up to the balcony up there. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes. A colleague of mine, Jut Wynne, discovered a new species of troglobitic millipede over at the NAU. And I was just wondering what the possibilities of discovering other troglobitic life forms on Mars are.

FLATOW: What is he talking about?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, troglobitic are cave-dwelling organisms.

FLATOW: We don't allow jargon on this program. Now we have a jargon. That was - that's a good question.

CHAN: We have all kinds of life forms here on Earth that we call extremophiles, ones that are able to withstand what we would normally think are very extreme conditions for life. And it does seem like there's possibilities that life on Mars would be the kind that could withstand some of these extreme types of conditions.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's go down here. Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So my uncle is a soil scientist. And somebody he knew would send a sample of some - a sample from Mars, and the guy in the letter that he sent my uncle said the word soil. And my uncle, since he's a soil scientist, got mad and sent him back that it's dirt. So what's the terminology that should be used?


FLATOW: Dirt or soil?

CHAN: Yeah, what's the dirt on soil? Well...



FLATOW: I'm writing that down.

CHAN: Soil is some of the breakdown of materials under the some of the surface types of conditions. And so technically we tend to use the term soil. I don't know of anybody that's really gotten any samples from Mars except for some of the meteorites that might have come from Mars.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, I think that was it.

FLATOW: Yeah, because we find pieces of Mars around all the time here, don't we? I mean they come here naturally.

CHAN: They're rare, but they are present, yes.

FLATOW: They are present. Well, thank you for that question. Let's go over here. Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you. My question is for Mr. Killian. I'm curious a little bit more about the what Mars Society is doing. Are you practicing - it sounds like you're certainly practicing what you would do on Mars. Are you - are the people there staying confined in a shelter, for example? Are you growing food within it, and for some extended period of time trying to simulate what it would be like to be on Mars?

KILLIAN: Absolutely. A typical crew rotation is about two weeks. And during that time there is what we call the Hab or the Habitat, and it consists of two levels. It's - the lower level is labs and engineering spaces. Top side is living quarters and so on. This is where they spend actually probably 80 percent of their time. There is also what we call a green hab. And this year the crews have been growing some vegetables to supplement their rations that they get when they come on site.

We try to simulate as much as possible what it would be like in terms of the human interactions and the physical interactions that are required to do the kind of human exploration that the Mars Society would very much like to see happen in the not too distant future. As a result, one of the things I didn't mention is that there have been a number of studies along human factors lines, how do people get along, and so forth to do the science on Mars.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me go the audience. This young - yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So I was wondering your opinion on when we go and find information on Mars, if we should send rovers or if we should strictly go there and use our ideas to find information.

FLATOW: Robots or people?

KILLIAN: Well, if I might, because I'm kind of passionate about this.

FLATOW: Yeah, I bet you are.


KILLIAN: The rovers are fine. I think they're great for reconnaissance. But I believe that at the end of the day it's human beings that need to go there and look around and live and work. I ultimately believe that for the human race to expand its horizons is extraordinarily important.

FLATOW: That's it. That's - you're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY on NPR. I'm Ira Flatow here in Salt Lake City. Let's go up to the balcony one more time.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What - have you send any drills(ph) or spacecraft like I've seen in documentaries? Do they go up to the ice caps in Mars?

CHAN: That's a good question. There was a probe that was sent to one of the polar regions and it turned out that there was ice damage to some of the machinery. And so there are more difficulties sending it to some of the cold areas, and many of the rovers have concentrated on some of the areas that are more in the equatorial area.

FLATOW: Why would you send it to the poles? What's to be learned in sending it to the poles?

CHAN: You might find things out about life that can live under extreme environments there. It's just some of the really different features that form there. There are some things that they called spiders that they think are these CO2 geysers that erupt. And there are just different things to see. It's a planet that's full of possibilities and things we still don't understand.

FLATOW: Do you agree with Chuck that we have to send people to Mars?

CHAN: That's interesting because I'm just teaching a class called Mars for Earthlings. And probably at the beginning of the class I thought, you know, robotic rovers are good enough. But now as I have kind of looked more about some of the advancements, we can now cut down the time possibly from eight months to get man to Mars to some of these new fusion processes that could possibly get man to Mars in maybe 30 days or in a month. And if that can happen, it seems like these are all kinds of new possibilities for really exploring the red planet in person.

FLATOW: What about the scientist - there are some scientists who say that a trip to Mars is going to be one way?


FLATOW: You've heard that.

CHAN: I think it is one way.

FLATOW: You do? And - but yet the people are still lining up to go, that one way trip.

CHAN: Yeah. They say that 40,000 people are - signed up on Mars One to try to go on that one-way trip to Mars.

FLATOW: Chuck, are these people a little...


KILLIAN: No, they're not.


KILLIAN: Sign me up.

FLATOW: Sign him up. OK.

KILLIAN: If you look at throughout the history of the modern world, it's replete with individuals who have made that one way trip. I mean, Utah was settled by folks that made a one-way trip. I don't think there will ever be any issue with finding people that are willing to do that. Good solid folks that will get the job done.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I think we have time for one more question in the audience. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Curiosity, if nothing else, is a huge triumph for robotics and brought it to the public knowledge in a major way. First of all, was Utah, in any way, a testing ground for space exploration, mechatronics(ph), and if so, what challenges we're going to overcome - the difference is obviously atmospheric, geologic gravitation and things like this for robotics on Earth versus robotics on Mars.

KILLIAN: I don't know about Curiosity specifically. But I know that robotics have been tested extensively down at MDRS in Hanksville(ph). There are many of the same kinds of issues down there that would affect a rover on Mars, specifically that betonite clay they've got down there, it turns to this fine dust that just screws up machinery big time. And so that's one thing they have to worry about. And just how do you power a rover and how do you communicate it with, those kinds of things.

FLATOW: Well, we've run out of time for this segment. I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

KILLIAN: You're welcome.

FLATOW: Good luck to you. Good luck to the Mars folks. Marjorie Chan, professor of geology, Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Utah; Charles Killian, he is the CapCom coordinator for the Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station. Thanks again for joining us today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.