U Hawaii Scientists Say
Life Likely On Mars

By Helen Altonn
Honolulu Star Bulletin

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 <>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 the surface.
"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 impacts?"
The scientists discussed Mars explorations in interviews during meetings of the <>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 to Mars.
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


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