A friend of mine told a story about a television station that once promoted a story about NASA finding life out there. It was not true at the time nor is it now. It does however point to the fact that finding life beyond our humble planet, even a microscopic blob, is like the quest for the Holy Grail. We want it. We want to find it. Not that we know what we’d do or could do even if we did! But just answering that question, “are we alone” with a NO (even if its just a blob) would be staggering news worthy of a television station’s promo!
NASA’s Curiosity Rover now celebrating its second anniversary on Mars won’t get we humans the answer but it may be getting us closer. And by all accounts, Curiosity has met or exceeded every expectation. Remember, finding life itself was NEVER an expectation.
Before and after that remarkable landing, seven minutes of terror as they called it, the science team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was quick to always point out that Curiosity was not engineered, didn’t really have the capability to go looking for little green men or blobs. What NASA did was send the Volkswagon sized rover to a spot called the Gale Crater where the ingredients for life to once have existed might be present.
Well, NASA scientists picked the right spot. In a place called Yellowknife Bay, Curiosity drilled down, grabbed up a couple samples and what do you know, the site, scientists determined, was once a lakebed with water. Curiosity also found rounded pebbles which is geological evidence that water once, no one know yet how long ago, flowed on Mars. And the chemical building blocks for life were there on Mars too. So the bottom line…there was a time in Martian history when the planet had what scientists call a “habitable environment.” But, and here’s the big BUT…that doesn’t mean life ever took hold.
For two years, Kay Lichtenberg has been working on the Curiosity engineering team, “There’s no smoking gun,” she says adding, “It’s more of a process of putting the pieces together.” Lichtenberg’s job is to help determine where the rover goes every day and how best to get it there. For her this has literally been an incredible ride. Although not a very long one…about five and half miles in two years. “I wouldn’t leave that for the world. It’s been amazing what this rover has been able to do. It’s been a fantastic mission to be on,” she says.
The next place Lichtenberg and the team need to get Curiosity to is a three and a half mile high mountain called Mount Sharp. The rover might be there by the holidays. In Sharp’s layers pressed together over eons, scientists believe they might be able to determine when in its history Mars was a more living organism friendly kind of planet.
There’s no way of knowing what Martian secrets Curiosity, the Sherlock Holmes of Rovers, might unearth in the next few years. It’s primary mission, determining habitability is now behind it. After it’s secondary objective, Mount Sharp, who knows. “As long as we have a working rover on Mars we should use it,” Lichtenberg says. That seems to make quite good sense to me.
While Curiosity won’t likely unearth that television promo worthy proclamation of life out there, it is helping scientists put the pieces together and perhaps bringing them closer to answering the question…Are we alone?