- Scientists involved with Mars Odyssey experiments say
they would be surprised if no form of life is found on the planet, especially
since their instruments reveal vast regions of subsurface ice.
- "Very primitive, very simple, but life," said
Igor Mitrofanov, who leads the <http://www.iki.rssi.ru/hend/>High
Energy Neutron Detector developed for the Mars Odyssey by the Russian Aviation
and Space Agency.
- "It would be different from what the public perceives,"
said Peter Englert, a New Zealand nuclear chemist who is now University
of Hawaii-Manoa chancellor.
- "We're not talking about something hopping around
and jumping up and down."
- If Mars has water, or had it in the past as enormous
channels and scour marks suggest, microorganisms possibly lie buried under
- "It would be a phenomenal discovery, phenomenal
because how did it get there?" said William Feldman, principal investigator
of the Odyssey team at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
- "Did it get there through cometary debris? Did it
come from the galaxy before the solar system was formed? What are the ingredients
to support the genesis of life? Does it require ambient conditions on a
planetary body to be benign to develop life? Or is there life indigenous
long before planets formed and you just deliver it by cometary or asteroid
- The scientists discussed Mars explorations in interviews
during meetings of the <http://grs.lpl.arizona.edu/>Mars Odyssey
Gamma Ray Spectrometer science team last week at the University of Hawaii.
- The team is headed by William Boynton of the University
of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Institute, which developed one of three
instruments comprising the spectrometer. The other two were developed by
Feldman's Los Alamos group and Mitrofanov's team in Moscow.
- Boynton and Englert were involved in planning an earlier
instrument lost on the Mars Observer in 1993.
- Englert said he became engaged in the mission because
of questions about the types of life forms that might exist on Mars and
where they are.
- Beyond that is the question of intelligent life elsewhere
in the universe, he said.
- "So far we have reason to believe we are unique,
but, philosophically speaking, we have reason to believe that we're not.
We have reason to look beyond our planetary system."
- There is evidence that Mars once was warmer than it is
now, Feldman said.
- "We have some just beautiful pictures, and there
are channels that look every bit as much as these channels we see on Earth."
- That means Mars at one time had flowing water, and it
was "a living breathing planet" instead of the "cold, dry
dead planet" that it is now, he said.
- If there was life on Mars, what circumstances caused
it to become dormant, he asked, explaining many life forms in bad conditions
go into a stage of dormancy that can last a long time.
- Another outbreak of volcanism on Mars possibly could
regenerate the atmosphere and reactivate any dormant life, he said.
- "But these are all speculations. Nobody knows."
- People have spent a lifetime looking for extraterrestrial
intelligence and haven't found anything, Feldman said. Maybe that's because
intelligent life isn't stable, he said, or "maybe we are at such a
level that we require so many benevolent things to happen to support us."
- The earth is 4.6 billion years old, yet humans have been
around only 7 million years, he pointed out.
- "That's an instant."
- Mitrofanov said Boynton invited him in 1997 to join the
Odyssey team after he participated in two other attempts to send instruments
- He said he's a physicist, not a biologist, but "my
personal feeling is that life should exist in these places. We know in
some early time Earth and Mars were quite similar," and Mars could
have had primitive life when it was more like Earth, he said.
- Mitrofanov and Englert believe humans will land on Mars
this century, although no manned mission is scheduled now. They hope it
will be in their lifetime, they said.
- Some people resented the United States for sending people
to the moon, Englert said, but it was essential to send human beings to
do things only humans can do, he said.
- "Especially in the search for life or past life,
the human discoverer is essential."
- The Odyssey and other missions will lay the groundwork
for human travel to Mars, the scientists said, describing the dangers from
solar flares, radiation and other unpredictable factors.
- What is being done now with the Odyssey would be different
if the Observer had been successful and produced the same results eight
years ago, Mitrofanov noted.
- "But in 1994 nobody was sitting around with laptops
comparing maps," Englert said, pointing to significant advances in
instruments, data retrieval and information technology.
- Besides his chancellor duties, Englert holds a faculty
position and office in the Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, where
he'll continue research and work with undergraduates and postdoctoral researchers.
- "My days should have 28 hours so I could sleep for
four," he joked.
- © 2002 Honolulu Star-Bulletin