LOS ANGELES – For three years, a new explorer will move on to Red Planet. Wheels that sore, rolling machines, the rover will be crushed over the rusty terrain, looking for stones to send back to earth – rocks that can prove to be once on Mars.
This is the first time history historians have had a real shot when dealing with one of the deepest issues of humanity: Are we alone?
First, they have to decide where to look.
There are three options: one earlier hot our NASA has visited once, a dried river section fed into a craters lake and a network of old mesas that can have hidden layers of underground water.
In the coming week, after decades of dreams, years of research and a three-day debate at a Los Angeles workshop last month, NASA's Scientific Officer will choose which place to explore. The place he chooses will put the scene on which generations of scientists probe the mysteries of our existence.
The discovery of fossils can highlight the origins of life on earth. It may indicate if someone else is waiting to be found.
"I want to know," said Matt Golombek, a NASA researcher who is responsible for leading the search for a landing site. "Do not you? I want to know what's there. I want to know how big an accident we are."
Hunger for knowledge is what affected hundreds of people to the latest workshop – veterinary researchers and ambitious doctoral students, an 18-year-old college beginner and an 80-year-old retirement consultant – to assess which plan was best. Today they discussed with curiosity and weak coffee that the outcome of their meeting could affect NASA and shape history, acutely aware of what they did not know.
So much about Mars is still a mystery. The very perception of foreign life is hardly more than an educated guess based on wild hope.
They are hopeful.
Why not there?
On earth, microscopic life is inevitable. Biology began here almost 4 billion years ago, when the planet was bombarded by debris left from the formation of the solar system. Today, small, solid organisms are spraying hot Springs National Park's hot springs, flying in clouds, freezing in Antarctica and lurking up to a mile and a half below the ground.
If this can happen here, why not there?
Mars has been visited by more than two dozen satellites and robbers, which showed that it was not always the desert world we see today. Dormant volcanoes and frozen floods show that the planet once had an active interior that ran tectonic activity. Empty channels, gold and lakes suggest that liquid water once squeezed the surface – which could mean that a thicker atmosphere was found to keep the water from boiling.
Then the disaster struck. Less than a billion years in history, most experts say that the planet's melting kernel stopped peeing. This led to the decline of coal-bearing volcanoes and the loss of Mars protective magnetic fields. Cosmic radiation and energetic particles from the sun removed the atmosphere of the planet, causing the water on the surface to evaporate. By the sea as long as lakes farewell to damp soils and bubbling volcanic outlets – all kinds of places that life likes to live.
Mars is seen as a "failed planet", a scary alternative reality version of the world we live in.
"It's the Earth where the Earths went away," said Bethany Ehlmann, a planet scientist at Caltech at the workshop. "So the question is why? And when?" And, most important of all, "Has life had a chance to arrive before that?"
These questions can only be answered by Mars stoning back to earth, says most researchers. A person in a top laboratory could analyze the samples atomic with atom and reveal small structures that a robot could not see.
The detection of even a few chopped molecules left by a microbe would be historical.
Knowing that biology occurred on two nearby planets would suggest that life is common throughout the universe. The environment in which the Martians exist – whether it is a warm spring, a river or an underground sanctuary – can provide a clue as to where life on earth originates.
The knowledge that a world could take life and then fail would emphasize our incredible happiness. The conditions for Earthling's continued existence can not always be so secured.
"We must get the samples, and they must be the right ones," said Golombek.
On the back of the ballroom a researcher turned to the person next to her and laughed: "Are you ready for the showdown?"
The alternate one for the mission is a field of Yellowstone-like hot springs explored by Rover Spirit between 2004 and 2010. Here, next to a rocky disc called Home Plate, the quinned rover revealed weird, finger-like structures made of silica, a mineral associated with water and life.
The rover was not equipped with instruments that could detect complex organic compounds, so the mystery of these structures went unresolved.
Seven years later, Spirit Instrument Operator Steve Ruff received an unlikely epiphany via volcanology journal: Researchers had discovered a worldwide geyser field in Andes, which featured structures just like those on Mars. At the site, called El Tatio, host-producing microorganisms produce silica deposits in wires, rugs and spirals.
"This is the place that is the most Mars-like of what attitude I've ever been," said Ruff.
Reviewing a website may mean there's less to learn, many researchers worry. What happens if Ruff is wrong with the silica structures?
Ruffs answers: "What happens if we are right?"
"If one of the drivers to explore Mars is to answer this question," Are we alone? "And we find a place that can handle that question and we turn away from it because it is not guaranteed that we will find it, I think it's just" – He stopped and searched for a term. "A conservatism," he finally said. "And that's just not characteristic of NASA."
If any version of sending a rover 50 million miles through space can be called "conservative" landing in Jezero Crater can be that.
It resembles most similar environments where ancient fossils have been discovered on earth: divided, where sediment from large waters accumulates and preserves.
"Sedimentary rocks tell the story of what happened in one place," said Tim Goudge, a geologist at the University of Texas, Austin. "It is recorded in the layers, and you can read them as a book."
Jezero contains minerals that are associated with life on earth, such as carbonate, as well as clays called smectites that are known to "destroy" organic matter.
The site is covered with dunes – a potentially lethal danger to a robber.
"They scare me away," said Ray Arvidson, a researcher at Washington University in St. Petersburg. Louis. On a mission to Mars, there is no restart.
Diversity of stones
Ehlmann, the Caltech scientist, has spent many years on maps of mesas in northeastern Syrtis. It is a clear martian environment, which could be home to a unique marine life.
"This would be a chance to become a geologist," she said. "I want to look at the rocks, to understand them, tearing up the story they're telling."
The site appeals to many researchers because of the diversity of old rocks it contains.
Debris from ancient meteorite effects, called "mega breccias", would be some of the oldest stones sampled from any planet in the solar system. Stones one billion years younger could reveal how Mars became the world it is.
In the area there are minerals, such as carbonates, which suggest that it once ended up in an underground aquifer – a potential refuge for organisms seeking protection from the planet's harsh and climatic climate.
Emily Lakdawalla, a geologist and leading editor of planetary society posed a question that aroused over each site being considered.
"What happens if the samples do not return?" She said.
Golombek took the microphones. "We have decided to decide for this conversation," he said. "It's all about being an optimist or a pessimist, right?"
At the moment, he called on his colleagues to be optimists.
Explore all sites
At the last morning of the workshop there was no agreement on the best place to land the rover. Some researchers said that their minds changed with each presentation, their opinions ping-ponging as they heard compelling evidence from followers of each site. Others had become more anchored in their positions.
What if they did not have to choose?
The mission-based science team had thought of an ambitious expanded mission centered around a new landing site on the edge of northeastern Syrtis called "Midway", not far from the Jezero crater.
It would take hundreds of March days – equivalent to several years on earth – so that the rover could imagine from one place to another, so that you got the best tests. The travers would carry the rover over steep mountainsides, narrow mountain ranges and dangerous winds.
"This is incredible grand prospecting," said Ken Williford, deputy project researcher for the mission.
Even at Mars standards, Midway was full of unknown.
Researchers had not been able to carry out detailed analyzes of the rocks it contains, and the proposed 15 mile traffic was at the edge of what could be achieved by a lumbering robber.
There were many ways that this could end badly, some worried.
"But" project researcher Ken Farley opposed "there is more than one way to fail".
"Personally," he continued: "I do not want to fail because we have not been ambitious enough to make the test cache scientifically worthy."
In the end, the decision would come down to Thomas Zurbuchen.
As NASA's Associated Administrator of Science, he oversees more than 100 missions aimed at understanding the solar system and beyond.
"This is the most risky," he said about the $ 2 billion mission. "But suppose everything goes just as we hoped. The landing place I'm the deciding officer on will make history."
Days before he was scheduled to get his final compilation about the landing options, Zurbuchen was undecided.
He had participated in a part of the landing workshop. There was still so much to consider: the engineers' safety assessments, the potential for follow-up missions, the need to balance astrobiology research with other scientific issues.
Then there was the vision he thought when he closed his eyes to dream – a consideration that was not economical or scientific, but pure hope. A probe carrying the Mars test runs back to the ground. Researchers get the cache and get their first glimpse of the pieces on another planet. The lab where the rocks are analyzed, the complex instruments that will search for signs of ancient organisms.
A science classroom where his future granddaughter sees and reads a textbook called the name of the place he chose – a place where humanity learned for the first time we have not always been alone.