“Life on Mars”: Art and astrobiology in Brooklyn

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Last weekend, I had the opportunity to talk about Mars One with a crowd of art-lovers who also appreciate astronomy (or, perhaps, astronomy devotees who also appreciate art). The format was a panel discussion on Mars exploration with a focus on astrobiology (i.e., the possibility of life on the Red Planet), and the venue was Grumpy Bert, a gallery and event space in Brooklyn run by  (Here’s a flyer for the event.)

I shared the stage (the staircase, to be precise) with Caleb Scharf, Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University, and our conversation was mediated by Miriam Kramer of SPACE.com. The event was facilitated by Summer Ash, Director of Outreach at Columbia’s Department of Astronomy.

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Summer live-tweeted the event, and I’ve compiled her photos and tweets (along with some images taken by gallery owner Albert Chau, the eponymous Grumpy Bert) as a Storify, here.

For the first part of the discussion, Miriam guided Caleb and me through an overview of our reasons for believing that Mars was once a warm wet world, potentially hospitable to life as we know it, and how past life might have left traces in the soil and rock of the planet.

Throughout the conversation, we repeatedly returned to the mantra of astrobiology: “Follow the water.” Thanks to the efforts of several robotic missions, we are now fairly confident that the Martian soil contains a significant percentage of water (as ice), and that water may still flow on or immediately under the surface under some conditions during warmer seasons. This led to some enjoyable speculation about how life might still persist on Mars, possibly deep beneath the visible surface, analogous to the subsurface lithoautotrophic microbial ecosystems (SLiMEs, one of the best acronyms ever) here on Earth.

Caleb was a delightful partner for the event, and (unsurprisingly, given that he actually does astrobiology for a living), I learned a great deal, especially about the ancient history and evolution of Mars (about which more below). We also had really good stage chemistry, and our interactions led to some memorable exchanges:

 

We could probably have continued in that vein for hours, but we also wanted to open the floor for questions, which occupied the last half of our time on the stairs. The audience was enthusiastic about every aspect of the topic, and the questions were split roughly equally between Martian planetology and more directed queries about Mars One. Here are a couple of quick examples, based on some notes I took (on my hand) while we answered:

Q: Why is Mars dry? (i.e., where did the water go?)

A: We’re not sure, and because we don’t actually know how much water was originally present, it’s hard to make confident assertions about where it went. (It’s worth mentioning that there’s still a huge amount of water on Mars in absolute terms, enough in the southern polar cap to cover the planet in an ocean 10 meters deep, so one might just as well as ‘Why is Mars cold?’ Turns out the answer is related.) Caleb offered a number of possible explanations, most of which ultimately invoked Mars’ (present) lack of a magnetic field: no planetary dynamo –> no magnetic field –> no way to hold on to hydrogen ions produced when atmospheric water is split by solar radiation.

Q: Is radiation exposure an obstacle to permanent settlement on Mars? 

A: My thinking on this is evolving, but the basic framework for my answer is that radiation dose is a function of the environment and the technology we bring with us. One of the major controversies about Mars One is whether the project’s plans for radiation abatement are sufficient, and at the moment that’s still an active debate. That said, there is certainly no inherent reason why radiation would be an absolute barrier to success; we just have to make sure that we use the right shielding technology for the interplanetary voyage, and then get under as much rock as we can as soon as possible once we’re there. Which leads us to…

Q: Why don’t you plan to live in caves?

A: In some ways caves would be optimal, and from orbital imagery we already know that there are many, many caves on Mars that are open to the surface. Indeed, serious thought has gone into choosing the right caves for human settlement (q.v. the Caves of Mars Project). That said, the Mars One landing site (TBD) will be chosen subject to a large number of constraints: far enough north that there’s plenty of water in the regolith; far enough south that solar power could be collected efficiently; and flat enough that the landing itself is straightforward. If there’s a cave near an appropriate site, then I say go for it. That said, there might not be.

Q: Will you terraform Mars?

A: Not me personally; it takes kind of a long time. Early efforts will focus on constructing enclosed habitats in which humans can live increasingly independently of pressure suits and radiation shielding, but without any efforts made toward true planetary engineering. The audience member followed up by asking the possibility of domes, to which Caleb replied by describing something I’d never thought of before: rather than freestanding domes, settlers could tent existing valleys, taking advantage of the natural protection of the rock and requiring less shielding material to boot—”like a human-made cave with a skylight.”

There were many more excellent questions—about the psychological stresses of a one-way trip, the structure and architecture of the settler’s habitats, the rate of meteorite strikes (which I really need to look up), and a variety of planetological issues. Overall, we had a fantastic and wide-ranging discussion.

Afterward, the venue opened into a gallery showing of Mars-themed art, which you can check out here. (Some of it is still available.) I was tempted to purchase some myself, especially the APAK piece that was used for the event flyer, but sadly it was a bit too rich for my blood. Rich benefactors, contact me via the form on the About page 😉

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As we wandered through the intimate gallery, the conversation broke up into one-on-one interactions devoted to follow-up questions. I met a number of fantastic people, many of whom I’ve stayed in touch with on Twitter. The overall tone was one of excitement, curiosity, and wonder. From what I could see, many people who walked in with no idea that the Mars One Project even existed walked away convinced that it could succeed. More importantly, everyone (including me) learned a great deal about the science of Mars (and science on Mars), and I consider the event to have been a smashing success.

Many thanks to Caleb, Miriam, Summer, Albert, and Lynne for a fantastic event. I’m actively seeking more opportunities to talk about the project (and Mars in general) to groups of whatever size in the weeks and months to come.

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Fifteen seconds of fame: CBS Boston interview

Here are my first TV appearances as a Mars One candidate: excerpts from an interview with WBZ, preceded by  a promo spot that ran for a couple of days before the feature was broadcast. Hot tip: you must see the end of the main feature; the anchor says something priceless. Ladies, please form an orderly line.

Destination Mars (promo)

Two Somerville Residents On Short List For One-Way Trip To Mars

Talking on camera was not entirely new to me, but this was the first time that I spoke at length (more than 30 minutes) knowing that very little of what I said would actually be broadcast. I got some good advice from a friend in the TV news business about trying to speak in short, pithy sentences—rather than whole paragraphs, which is how I usually talk. I think I got a few good points across, and overall the experience was quite enjoyable.

I’m hoping for more opportunities to spread the word about Mars One in the coming weeks. Next stop will be the This Week in Science webcast — tonight!

Talking about Mars One with the Class of 2025

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I’ve been actively seeking opportunities to talk to people about the Mars One Project and my participation in it. As it turns out, one of my first chances to talk to a group arose at Loveland Elementary in Omaha, Nebraska — where I was a student more than 30 years ago — in a free-form discussion with the first-grade class The experience was joyous, educational (in both directions), and at times hilarious.

I confess that I had some initial trepidation: I feared that first grade might be too early, that 7-year-olds are too young to benefit from a conversation about space exploration. But that anxiety dissipated within a few seconds after entering the classroom. I was mobbed by students, every one of them full of questions, thrilled by the prospect of talking to someone who, someday, might be a real live astronaut.

Their questions were uniformly excellent; I would add “…for their level”, but I it turns out that their level was surprisingly high. Simple inquiries early on (“How do you get there?”)  led rapidlyto follow-ups that demonstrated an impressive understanding of the issues involved. After a quick discussion of rocketry, the students wanted to know what happened to the booster stages after they fell off the launcher, how the ship would slow down to enter Martian orbit, how the astronauts would get out of the lander, and how anything could stay in place on the surface of Mars. These questions led to lively discussions of recoverable launch vehicles, aerobraking, airlocks, and the differences between microgravity (in the interplanetary vessel) and reduced gravity (on a planet smaller than Earth). I didn’t even have to stay away from ‘big words,’ just define them carefully at a measured pace; the follow-ups made it clear that the students were staying with me. Each question provided a chance to teach a scientific principle, or elaborate one that the students already knew.

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The overall tone was one of wonder. In pleasant contrast to some of the more challenging (though still delightful) conversations I’ve had with adults, the children were curious without being critical, and more interested in how to make it work than why it might not.

That said, they were aware of the potential risks, and intrigued by them. One theme, to which we returned more than once, could be summarized by one of the first questions: “What if your rocket breaks?” (That was a girl; the boys tended more toward gleeful hectoring about the possibility of A CRASH.)

This was a difficult issue to address because the answer is scary (to me), and the last thing I want to do is frighten children; if nothing else, that would be inconsistent with the educational mission of a presentation like this one. So I tried to do what I always try to do with young kids: tell the truth in a way that is sensitive to their stage of emotional development. I told them about how the equipment would be tested to avoid failures, and the astronauts trained to solve problems, and the options available if something goes wrong. Ultimately, though, I had to say: “This is dangerous, the same way it was for our ancestors to go to new places and cross oceans. When I think about it, I’m a little scared sometimes, because it’s risky. But it’s important, so we want to try.” And they thought about that, and I could see the concern on their faces. They were OK with it; they understood. I’m glad I was frank.

Rather than focusing on the potential downsides, however, the class was more interested in practical considerations, like how we would eat, drink, breathe, and (of course) go to the bathroom. One marvelous wacky girl wanted to know how we would keep our wigs on. Wigs.

Most gratifying to me, and most touching, was the way in which the children put themselves in the position of an astronaut/settler, as evidenced by questions like “How would you talk to your mom and dad?”, “Can I bring my cat?”, and “How do you get home?” They weren’t thinking of Mars settlement as something that will happen to someone else. Instead, they were asking the questions they would need to answer for themselves if they had the opportunity to go.

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I came away from the experience more certain than ever that Mars One provides a precious opportunity to encourage young people to be interested in science. If all goes well, the Project will be the Apollo of this generation, and the media produced about it will provide countless opportunities for integration into science and writing curricula. I’m not sure that Mars One will be the effort that gets us to Mars, and I’m certainly not sure that I’ll be one of the few who are chosen to go. But I am sure that on Earth, right now, for sure, Mars One can inspire a generation, and I’m committed to finding more opportunities to engage with students of every age about the Project.

[If your school or summer program is interested in incorporating a talk by a Mars One candidate into your curriculum, please contact me using the form on the About page. If I can, I’d love to do it; if not, I can refer you to someone who is closer to you. I’m living in the Boston area, but there are candidates all over the world. We can make this happen.]

The Class of 2025 will be graduating from high school when the first colonization vessels leave Earth for Mars. Their generation will see humanity settle the solar system; the science educations they receive now will enable them contribute to those efforts.

I may go; I may not—but they will. It is never too early to start talking about it.