Hunting for Martians on Svalbard
The search for life on Mars begins in a remote part of Norway
Christine Foster Meloni
What do Norway and Mars have in common? Surprisingly, quite a lot!
Two scientists from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, came to the October meeting of Lakselaget, D.C., to discuss their involvement in projects to find life on Mars.
Dr. Jennifer Stern, a Planetary Geochemist with a PhD in Geology, and Dr. Caroline Freissinet, an Astrobiologist with a PhD in Chemistry, have both participated in the Arctic Mars Analog Svalbard Expedition (AMASE).
In 2003 the U.S. space agency NASA identified the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard as an ideal location to study Mars.
Stern explained how scientists study Mars. First, they need to understand Earth and then they study Mars on Earth. Because Mars has an extreme environment, they focus on extreme environments on Earth in order to determine the range of conditions at which life may be present on Mars.
“We go to places that are Mars-like,” Stern said. “One of the places on Earth that shares characteristics with Mars is Svalbard, Norway.”
Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, located north of mainland Europe and about halfway between continental Norway and the North Pole. It is the northernmost settlement in the world with a permanent civilian population.
Freissinet said that “this archipelago is ideally located to maintain a frozen soil all year-round, which is called the permafrost. This characteristic, in addition to the mineralogical composition, makes many sites in Svalbard good Martian analogs to study.”
Svalbard is a stark land of snow, ice, and rock, but it also has volcanoes, glaciers, warm springs, and landslides dispersed across the terrain.
Stern and Freissinet had the exciting opportunity of working at Svalbard. Since they were there in the summer season, they had daylight 24 hours a day. The air, however, was relatively cool with the temperatures in the 40s and 50s.
The Research Vessel Lance, a Norwegian vessel with a Norwegian crew, was their home and means of transportation while there. The scientists and researchers on board, however, came from many different countries and, therefore, formed a very international group. The AMASE project, designed to conduct scientific research on current and future missions to Mars, is a close collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).
Working at Svalbard was similar to working on Mars. Stern and the other geologists collected uncharacterized rocks in the volcanic area. They then analyzed them in their laboratories back on the ship. They made one particularly exciting discovery. In some of the rocks at Svalbard, they found the same organic molecules that they had previously found when analyzing Martian meteorites.
Freissinet studied the content in organic molecules of the rocks and soil and how the Svalbard environment may or may not preserve these compounds. She used instruments and techniques that are currently used on Mars with the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument onboard the Curiosity rover or the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission.
This technique of extraction of the molecules from the solid sample by heating (pyrolysis) followed by a separation of the molecules by gas chromatography (GC) and identification of those molecules by mass spectrometry (MS) is today the most powerful and reliable technique for characterizing the organic content of a solid sample, rock or soil, in a robotic mission.
This is why this technique is also used on the comet Churymov-Gerasimenko for the Rosetta mission and is under development for the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA) experiment onboard the ExoMars 2018 future mission.
Another exciting discovery that was made during the AMASE II campaign was the differentiation, with GCMS characterization of organic molecules, of samples containing an extant form of life, an extinct form of life, or no life at all. The result will help on the experiment onboard the Curiosity rover. Its purpose is to acquire information about the geology, atmosphere, environmental conditions, and potential signs of life on Mars.
SAM GCMS measurements recently allowed the first detection on Mars of organic compounds indigenous to the planet in surface rocks and thus addressed a long standing objective of the Mars exploration program. The next step will be to understand the distribution of these organics, and thus be able to identify the origin, biological or chemical, of the compounds.
ExoMars is a large ESA-NASA-Roscosmos (Russian space agency) Mars rover mission to look for more complex organic molecules that could be signs of Martian life, past or present, by drilling down to 6.5 feet deep in Mars soil, where the molecules are protected from destructive radiation. The rover is scheduled for launch in 2018 and will help to unravel more of Mars’s mysteries.
The Final Question
The question-and-answer period that followed the stimulating presentations by Stern and Freissinet was animated. The final questioner asked the two scientists, who are so passionate about Mars, “Would you go to Mars?”
Without batting an eyelash, both women immediately and forcefully said, “No!”
Why not? They offered very practical reasons.
First of all, it would be a two-year commitment: nine months to get there, nine to get back, and six months on the planet.
However, with current technology, during that two-year trip to Mars and back, you would have received more than the lifetime recommended dose of radiation, likely causing cancer and ultimately death.
If you were to survive the trip and live on Mars, you would have to stay in a cave or underground (at least seven to 10 feet under) to avoid the harsh radiation environment at the surface. NASA scientists who study human biology are studying ways to mitigate the effects of radiation damage to the human body.
Even if you did reach Mars alive and did find a suitable abode there, you would have no way to return to Earth. No return means of transportation has yet been developed.
According to Freissinet, it is possible that the first humans to make it to Mars will establish a permanent settlement. If NASA foresees humans on Mars in the 2030s, however, the general plan has not yet been released.
Stern concluded by saying that the opportunity to go to Svalbard and see parts of the world virtually untouched by humans was an amazing experience. “The fact that we can study environments found here, and nowhere else on Earth, as analogs for Mars allows us to get as close to Mars as possible without actually going there.”
Freissinet emphasized that another very important point that came out of this experience was how much you need a team to accomplish such great things. The synergy between each of the members of AMASE was the main reason this expedition to Svalbard was a success. This team spirit and international collaboration is what also makes possible the Mars exploration.
The Future of Mars Exploration
Both scientists look to the future with excitement. Freissinet summarized the quest for Mars as follows:
“We use many tools to look for life on Mars and for the ingredients that would allow life to exist on Mars. We can look through telescopes, learn more about the surface from Mars-orbiting spacecraft, or send robotic rovers to make chemical and biological measurements.
“The next step of Mars exploration is to bring back a sample to study with the very latest technologies developed in the laboratories down here on Earth. The Mars2020 mission is part of this plan, with the aim of collecting interesting samples for a next Mars Sample Return mission.
“But nothing will be as good as having a human being trained in astrobiology and geology on the surface, able to truly explore. The next steps toward making human space travel to Mars a reality are happening now through work by NASA and its partners to make a safe and sustainable environment for humans to travel in space and on the Martian surface.”
This presentation was sponsored by Lakselaget, D.C., an organization of professional women and college students who are located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area and are Norwegian, of Norwegian descent, or interested in contemporary Norwegian issues and all things Norwegian. For more information about this organization, go to its website at www.lakselagetdc.org.
Many thanks to Dr. Stern and Dr. Freissinet for their invaluable assistance in the writing of this article.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 27, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.