Mars Exchange
Preparing new Martians to be scientists

Preparing new Martians to be scientists

by Vince on Wednesday, 7th January 2015 in Expert Opinions, People, Christopher McKay

Christopher McKay, PhD, (http://spacescience.arc.nasa.gov/staff/chris-mckay) is a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, where he has been involved in the Phoenix and Curiosity Mars missions. He is also an explorer with 35 years of experience in extreme environments. In a previous Mars Exchange interview, we asked him what Mars One astronaut candidates should be learning. He named two priorities: survival—covered in a previous story—and science.

Now that you’ve discussed some of the survival skills Mars One astronauts need, what are the scientific skills they should hone?

“After survival skills, Mars One candidates need to learn to do scientific exploration. That’s where I’m really interested."

“A human being is an incredibly useful tool. Having one on site on Mars would be wonderful for science—much, much better than any of the Rovers we’ve had. I’d want them to go out with a drill, start drilling and looking for evidence of past life, present life, basically understanding the history of Mars. So after survival they really have to learn to go out and do scientific exploration.”

So they need to learn to be the extensions of scientists back on Earth? 

“They are a just a few people, but they’ll be communicating with thousands of scientists on Earth. They can’t be experts in all areas, but they need to be able to communicate with and be guided by experts on Earth. That’s the approach. That’s in a sense what the Apollo astronauts did. Because the space station is close, we can actually send a person with a genuine specialty, someone to do a particular experiment and then return. But this is not an option for Mars."

“On Mars, communication with Earth will be intense and frequent, but Mars is far away. Because of the time delay, it will be like email, not real time. This is unlike the Apollo missions and the space station, where communications are all in real time, where mission control is on the phone all the time. Because Mars is so far way, you can’t really have a conversation. Instead, you’ll send a message and await a response. Today most communication is by email, so we’re used to packetizing information and waiting for a response. We’re still having a conversation, but it’s no longer in real time. Regardless, there will be a lot of interaction. They’ll be constantly communicating with interested scientists on Earth, asking ‘What does this mean? What should I do next? Here’s what I think, what do you think?’"

“So I’m on Earth, I’m going to ask them to drill down 10 meters to reach material unaffected by cosmic radiation over billions of years of Mars history, take that material to a habitat lab, and study it to see if it has molecules that are produced by biology. We are not looking for life, but we are looking for a molecule that life makes. DNA is the example that everyone thinks of right away, but it is not a tough molecule and it goes away very fast . There are other, better choices. DNA is very interesting but other molecules are better. For example, there’s a material called peptidoglycan that is the material for a cell wall, and it is especially resistant to decay. This is likely to be found after everything else has decayed."

“I hope they find evidence of life, and more importantly, I hope we are all surprised by the nature of that evidence. We could find evidence of life and it could tell us that the life there was related to that on Earth. That would be interesting but not surprising. But what if it is very different? Maybe still carbon-based—but different biochemistry, different in the details. From my point of view, the more different, the more interesting. The more we’re surprised, the more we will be delighted.”

Tell us what you think. And look for more from NASA's Christopher McKay, who, in future installments discusses living on Mars and the potential for making Mars habitable.

Story by Vincent Hyman, a writer and Mars One volunteer living in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. 

Photo credits header image:

  • Left: Ian White Photography LLC - Discover Magazine
  • Center: Ian White Photography LLC - Discover Magazine
  • Right: Chris McKay
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