A master artist describes NASA's Mars Rider 2020, with its extended robotic arm.
Within three years, a new Explorer will wear down on the Red Planet. The wheels of the belt, the machines spinning, the rider would stretch out on the rusty surface and look for rocks to be sent back to Earth – rocks that would prove once they lived on Mars.
For the first time in history, scientists have a real shot in addressing the deepest questions of humanity: Are we alone?
But first they have to decide where to look.
There are three options: former hot springs, NASA once visited a dried-up river delta that fed a crater lake, and a network of ancient masses that may have hidden layers of underground water.
Next week, after decades of dreaming, years of research and a heated three-day discussion at a workshop in Los Angeles last month, NASA's senior science officer will choose somewhere to explore, and the site he chooses will determine the stage in which generations of scientists will explore The mystery of our existence.
This rover, scheduled to launch in 2020, is only the first phase of billions of dollars, four-step process of returning the sample. To put pieces of Mars in the hands of scientists will require landing to retrieve the samples; Check to bring them home; And then a highly secure storage facility that will preserve the earth's life from the Martian-Martian pollution – and vice versa.
However, the discovery of fossils in these samples can illuminate the sources of life here on Earth. It can imply if someone else is still out there, waiting to be found.
"I want to know," said Matt Golombak, a NASA scientist who is in charge of the search for a landing site, "I want to know what is there, I want to know how big we are."
This hunger for knowledge is what has attracted hundreds of people to the last workshop – the veteran space explorers and ambitious doctoral students, an 18-year-old college student and an 80-year-old retired accountant – to assess which plan is best. For days they argued, fueled with curiosity and weak coffee, aware that the outcome of their meeting could affect NASA and the history of shape, aware of what they did not yet know.
So much on Mars remains a mystery. The very idea of alien life is nothing more than an educated, buoyant guess in wild hope.
They are hopeful.
On Earth, microscopic life is inevitable. Biology began here almost 4 billion years ago when the planet was still bombarded by the debris left from the formation of the solar system. Today, tiny, stubborn organisms crashing into the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park, flying in the clouds, froze in Antarctica, lurking for a mile and a half underground.
If it can happen here, why not?
Mars visited more than two dozen satellites and riders, who showed it was not always the desert world we see today. Hidden volcanoes and frozen lava floods show that the planet was once an active internal active tectonic activity. Empty trenches, exiles and lakes suggest that liquid water is once on the surface – which means that a thicker atmosphere exists to keep the water from bathing.
But then disaster hit. Less than a billion years in its history, say most experts, the molten core of the planet has stopped turning over. This led to the reduction of carbon-belching volcanoes and the loss of the protective magnetic field of Mars. Cosmic radiation and energetic particles from the sun stripped the planet's atmosphere, causing all water on the surface to evaporate. Goodbye, Ocean; So long, lakes; A farewell to damp soils and volcanic ventilators-all sorts of places that life loves to live.
Now Mars is considered a failed star, a frightening version of an alternative reality of the world we live in.
"This is the Earth where the Earth's environments have gone," said Bethany Elman, a planetary scientist at Caltech, in the workshop. "So the question is, why, and when?" Most importantly, "Does life have a chance of getting there before?"
These questions can only be answered by returning the Martian rocks to Earth, most scientists say. A person in an upper laboratory could analyze the atomic samples by the atom, revealing tiny structures that a robot could not see.
The discovery of even some shabby molecules left by the bacterium will be historical. Knowing that biology has arisen on two neighboring planets will suggest that life is common throughout the universe. The environment in which Mars is located – whether it is a hot spring, a river delta, or an underground sanctuary – may provide a clue to where life is based on Earth.
Knowing that a world can land a life and then fail will accentuate its unbelievable good fortune. Conditions for the continued existence of Earth may not always be safe.
"We have to get these samples, and they have to be the right ones," Golombek said.
At the back of the ballroom, one of the interrogators turned to the person next to her and smiled: "Are you ready for a confrontation?"
One option for the mission is a field of Yellowstone-like hot springs explored by the Ruud Spirit between 2004 and 2010. Here, along with a rocky cleavage called the "Home Home Plate," the rider released from it released strange, finger-like structures made of silica, a mineral associated with water and life. But Robert was not equipped with devices capable of identifying complex organic compounds, so the mystery of these structures went unanswered.
Seven years later, the wind instrument, Steve Ruff, received an unexpected incarnation through the journal Volcanology: scientists discovered another geyser field in the Andean world that contained structures just like those on Mars. On the site, called Al-Tatio, heat-loving microorganisms produce silica deposits in strings, mats and spiers.
"It's the most Mars-like place I've ever been in," Raph said.
But revisiting the site may mean there is less to learn, many scientists are concerned about. What if Raph was wrong with the silica structures?
Raph's only reply: "What if we're right?"
"If one of the drivers to explore Mars is to answer this question, are we alone? And we find a place that can answer that question, and we turn away from it because it is not guaranteed that we will find it, I think it is only. .. "He paused, looking for a term that would not hurt any of them colleagues. "Conservatism," he said at last. "And it's just not typical of NASA."
This site near the equator of Mars was investigated between 2004 and 2010 by Spirit Rover.
If any version of sending a 50 million-mile rover in space can be called "conservative," the Jzero crater landing could be it. It is very similar to the types of environments in which ancient fossils on Earth were exposed: plumes, where deposits are kept from giant water peaks.
"Sediment rocks tell us the history of what is happening on the site," said Tim Goudge, a geologist at the University of Texas at Austin. "It's recorded in layers, and you can read them like a book."
Jezero also contains minerals related to life on Earth, such as carbonate, as well as clay called smectites that are known to "penetrate" organic matter.
But the site is an arm with rolling sand dunes – a danger that could be fatal for a rover.
"They scare me out of the Breeze," said Ray Arroyson, a Washington University scientist in St. Louis. In the Mars mission, there is no reboot.
Ehlmann, Caltech's scientist, spent years looking at maps of mesas in the northeast of Syrtis. It is a distinct Mars environment, which can be home to a unique Mars life.
"It would be an opportunity to be a geologist there," she said. "I want to look at the rocks, understand them, expose the story they tell."
The site addresses many scientists because of the variety of ancient rocks it contains. Waste from the effects of ancient meteorites, known as "mega barccias", will be part of the oldest rocks sampled from the planet in the solar system. Rocks, a billion years younger, can discover how Mars has become the world today.
The region also boasts minerals, such as carbonate, that once offer an underground aquifer – a potential haven for organisms seeking protection from the planet's harsh and unstable climate.
But if life beneath the surface was sparse, even the most sophisticated laboratory instruments on the planet could not identify it. Scientists are more accustomed to looking for life in precipitation rocks like those of Jezero.
So Emily Lakdawalla, a geologist and senior editor of the planetary company, posed a question that over every site counts.
"What if the samples are not returned?" she said. "Can we think about that?"
There was silence when you thought about the possibility. NASA has yet to fund all three monitoring tasks required for sample return.
Golombek took the microphone.
"We decided to set this rule for this conversation," he said. "It all depends on whether you're an optimist or a pessimist, right?"
Meanwhile, he called on his colleagues to be optimists.
Until the last morning of the workshop, there was no agreement on the best place to land Rover. Some scientists have said that their brains have changed with each presentation, their views pinging and pinging as they heard compelling evidence from supporters of each site. Others strengthened their positions.
But what if they do not have to choose?
The mission's task force team arrived at an ambitious mission consisting of a new landing site at the northern tip of Sirtis known as Midway, not far from the crater rim of the Jorge.
It will take hundreds of days Mars – the equivalent of several years on earth – but Rover can conceive the way from one site to another, obtaining the best samples from both. The cross was to carry the rider across a steep mountain range, dense rock fields and dangerous terrain and wind.
"This is a grand investigation," said Ken Wilford, deputy project scientist for the mission.
Even by Martian standards, Midway was full of unfamiliar people. Scientists have not been able to perform detailed analyzes of the rocks it contains, and the proposed 15-mile crossing was at the edge of what could be achieved by trailing rides.
There were a lot of ways this could end badly, some worried.
"But," project scientist Ken Farley responded, "There is more than one way to fail."
"Personally," he continued, "I do not want to fail because we were not ambitious enough to make the sample cache scientifically worthy."
The vote stopped in hushed silence; There was hardly a murmur when the results were displayed on the screens of the ballroom. Columbia Hills received relatively low ratings. But Jezero, Northeast Syertis and Midway were neck, neck and neck.
In the end, the decision would have gone down to Thomas Zarbushan.
As NASA's associate director of science, he oversees more than 100 missions to understand the solar system and beyond, but of all these efforts, he said, Mars 2020 is where NASA has the most to lose – and humanity wins the most.
"It's the most dangerous," he said on the mission of $ 2 billion. "But let's assume that everything goes exactly as we expected … The landing site I am the official who decides on it will make history."
Days before he was supposed to get the final briefing on landing options, Zurbuchen remained undecided. He has participated in some of the workshop on the landing site, but there is still so much to consider: safety assessments of engineers, potential for tracking missions, the need to balance astrobiology research with other scientific questions.
And then there was the vision that filled his mind when he closed his eyes to dream-a consideration that was neither economic nor scientific, but pure hope. Testing carries Mars samples falling back towards Earth. Scientists retrieve the treasure and get the first glimpse into the pieces of another planet. The laboratory where the rocks would be analyzed, the complex instruments looking for signs of ancient organisms.
And a science class in which his future grandchildren sit, reads a textbook bearing the name of the place he chose – a place where mankind learned, for the first time, we were not always alone.
(Except for the title, this story was not edited by the NDTV team and published from an unedited update).