Viking Landers: Proof of Life

Image from NASA: A technician checking the sample arm of the Viking lander before launch

Image from NASA: A technician checking the sample arm of the Viking lander before launch

Twenty-five years ago I was a junior in High School and I spent a good chunk of that year reading absolutely everything I could about Mars. I was doing research for a NASA High School design competition, something that put me on a path to my current career. Part of the research was reading up on the very successful NASA Viking missions. The 1st Viking mission launched just a few months before I was born, Aug of 1975, and the 2nd lander about a year later in July of 76'. The Viking missions were noteworthy for two main reasons (3 of you count the proximity to my date of birth). One, the first Viking lander was the first time the U.S. had successfully landed a spacecraft on the surface of Mars. The 2nd reason was that the Viking landers were designed to find living microbes on the surface of Mars. Their experiments found that evidence, but it was quickly explained away as being the result of a chemical reaction rather than a biological one. It was almost like we knew the answer to our question (there is NOT currently life on Mars), we designed an experiment to test that hypothesis and then when we got evidence that there was current life on Mars we figured out another way to explain it away. I'm not going to get into the details, but the take away from all of this is this...designing a single remote experiment to prove or disprove the existence of life on another planet is exceedingly difficult. After reading all of the research at the time I was convinced that Viking had found proof of existing life on Mars, but I knew that we wouldn't be able to definitively prove that until we got boots on Martian soil.

Fast forward 25 years and we have a recent article from (I highly recommend reading this) that talks about a renewed interest in the results from this 40 year-old mission. There is still, even after 40 years, scientists working on the results from the Viking missions. For most people, NASA missions are over after the excitement of the landing or orbiting event is over and we get the first images back. But these missions are all about the science and science is a marathon, not a sprint. We are still analyzing sample brought back from the Moon during the Apollo missions. We also just launched a mission to asteroid Bennu called OSIRIS-REx that will be be bringing back pristine samples of the asteroid and we are expecting to be doing science and making discoveries about those samples for many decades after we get those samples back here on Earth. Little did I know, 25 years ago doing research for my High School Mars project, that I would eventually be involved with a sample return mission that will result in findings just as exciting as Viking. I also have the privilege of working on the next major Mars rover mission, Mars 2020, which will collect samples from the surface of Mars and cache them on the planet for a follow-on mission to eventually bring them back to Earth. Maybe, just maybe before I retire we will finally be able to settle whether Viking really detected life on the surface of Mars. But I think it will take a human mission to settle that one.

Advanced Screening of The Martian

This afternoon I was fortunate enough to obtain a ticket to a NASA employee advanced screening of The Martian in the IMAX Theater at the KSC Visitor's Center. Not only did we get to see the movie before it officially comes out in theaters, but we also got to hear from a panel of experts about the reality of the technologies shown in the movie. The panel consisted of both NASA people and actors from the movie:

  • Jim Green (Director of NASA's Planetary Sciences Division)
  • Nicole Stott (NASA Astronaut)
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor (plays Vincent Kapoor, the Head of the NASA Mars Program in the movie)
  • Bob Cabana (NASA Astronaut and current Center Director of Kennedy Space Center)
  • Mackenzie Davis (plays Mindy Park in the movie)
  • Dave Lavery (the real Head of the NASA Mars Program)
  • We also had special quest in the audience with us, Buzz Aldrin

Having the Q&A panel before the screening of the movie set the stage so well for what we were about to see. Much of the movie demonstrates technologies that are required for a human mission to Mars and this panel pointed out that virtually everything in the movie is a REAL technology already in development by NASA. While The Martian may be science fiction, the world in which it takes place is in our very near future.

I also have a personal connection with this movie and some of the NASA events that have been announced this week. In the summer of 2010 I was working for Jim Green, the Director of NASA's Planetary Sciences Division at NASA HQ in Washington D.C. as part of a temporary rotational assignment. I was sitting in his office one afternoon helping to plan out a monthly review meeting for the division when a group of people rather hastily came into his office. They wanted to show him something amazing...photographic evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars! I can't begin to explain how exciting it was to be a part of that initial briefing about the first images from the Mars orbiting MRO spacecraft that showed what appeared to be evidence of recently flowing water on Mars. I had to stay quite about this information and after many months and then years passed I started to wonder if they would ever be able to confirm what those orbital images suggested. Then earlier this week the official announcement came out. You see, it takes time to confirm what is going on when you are 30 million miles away from the planetary surface you are trying so desperately to learn about. Real science from that distance takes time. This is also evident from the fact that it will be another year or more before we get all the data back from the very brief encounter that New Horizons had with Pluto earlier this summer. If we had people on the surface of Mars, what took us 5 years to confirm could have been accomplished in just a few minutes or a few hours. But as you will see when you watch The Martian, human space exploration is extremely complicated.

We live in an extremely exciting time. No, we aren't racing to the Moon like we were in the Apollo days but we are making very meaningful advances in both out scientific knowledge of our universe and in the technologies needed to explorer it further. I never could have imagined growing up as a kid that fell in love with astronomy and anything related to space that one day I would be working for NASA and sitting in the Director's office when the first evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars came in. The next big announcement I am waiting for is for us to find life in our Solar System, and I think we will find life right here in our little celestial neighborhood in my lifetime.

Of course, I have read the book The Martian and even posted a review right here on my blog. I highly recommend the book, whether you choose to read it before or after you see the movie.

MAVEN Arrives at Mars

This coming Sunday night (September 21st 2014) just before 10pm eastern time the MAVEN spacecraft will perform a 33-minute maneuver and drop into orbit around Mars. MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Mission) was launched from Kennedy Space Center on November 18, 2013. MAVEN holds a special place in my heart for a couple of reasons. For starters, MAVEN was my 1st launch to work as an Integration Engineer with NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP). I've been with LSP since 2001, but for most of that time I had been working as a Flight Design Engineer (designing trajectories for rockets). Before I came to Florida I was working at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) designing maneuvers for spacecraft (maneuvers much like the maneuver MAVEN is doing tomorrow night). When I was assigned the MAVEN mission it was only about a year before launch and normally as an Integration Engineer we start working the mission 2-3 years before launch. However, I had a small advantage...I already knew most of the people on the MAVEN Project team. A few years ago I did a 3-month rotational assignment at NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C. and was assigned to the Planetary Sciences Division (which, you guessed it, is in charge of planetary science missions). Much of the work I did that summer in D.C. was for the MAVEN mission. So when I was assigned as the Integration Engineer for MAVEN I was pretty excited to get to work with the MAVEN team again. Being an Integration Engineer is a very unique job. We are essentially the NASA engineer that is responsible for making sure the spacecraft is integrated onto the rocket properly. A lot of activities are done at the launch site to ensure both the spacecraft and the launch vehicle are ready to launch. Some of those activities are done separately and some of them are done together. It the the activities that are done together (the integrated activities) that I am focused on.

So enough about my connect with the mission, what is going on tomorrow night? NASA Goddard has a short article that explains what is going on and in that article they have the info graphic below:

2014-09-20 - mavenorbitinsertionfactsheet-1.png

Essentially, the MAVEN spacecraft must slow down in order to stay in the vicinity (i.e. in orbit) around Mars. Some spacecraft will use the Martian atmosphere to slow down, but MAVEN is using traditional rocket engines to slow down. More than half of all the propellant that MAVEN has will be used for this single maneuver. After the burn is complete MAVEN will be orbiting Mars. It will take some time for the team to slowly configure the spacecraft for taking the scientific measurements (i.e. turning on and configuring instruments) as well as tweaking the orbit a bit. In fact, MAVEN is doing something very unique for part of the time while it is in orbit around Mars. For portions of its mission it will lower its orbit and "dip" into the atmosphere to take measurements...taste the atmosphere if you will!

Rather than go into a ton of details about the mission I figured I would try and answer a few questions people might have about the maneuver tomorrow night and the mission in general:

Why does MAVEN have to slow down to orbit Mars? I thought you had to go really fast to go to another planet?

When MAVEN launched from Kennedy Space Center, the rocket put MAVEN on what is called an "escape trajectory" from Earth. This means that MAVEN was moving fast enough to escape the pull of Earth's gravity and go somewhere else in our solar system (in this case to Mars). But just like when it took energy to escape the orbit of one planet it takes energy to enter the orbit of another. If MAVEN did nothing then it would simply just keep flying right on by Mars. Right now MAVEN is moving fast enough that the only object in the solar system that has any real significant effect on it is the Sun. MAVEN must slow down enough so that the gravity of Mars becomes the dominating factor in MAVEN's motion (i.e. it will be orbiting Mars).

Why doesn't MAVEN just land on Mars?

MAVEN was sent to Mars to study the Martian atmosphere. NASA is very interested in not only the current conditions on Mars but also the very distant past. Long ago Mars used to have an atmosphere much like ours here on Earth. Today it is much "thinner". So where did the atmosphere go? Mars also used to have quite a bit of water on its surface. Where did the water go? MAVEN wants to learn as much as it can about the atmosphere of Mars so scientists can use that data to figure out what happened to the atmosphere, the water and learn more about what Mars was like in the distant past. It's easier to learn about the Mars atmosphere from orbit than it is on the surface. If you land on Mars and want to take atmospheric samples you have to move. From orbit you can take samples from all over the planet.

How to watch

NASA live coverage of the Mars orbit insertion maneuver will be covered on NASA TV here from 9:30 pm eastern until 10:45 pm eastern. The coverage will be held in Littleton, Colorado which is "mission control" for the MAVEN spacecraft. They will have live camera views of mission control as well as interviews with NASA people on hand for the event. The Mars orbit insertion burn is set to begin at around 9:50 pm and will be complete 33-minutes later. There are several twitter accounts you can follow as well (@NASA, @MAVEN2Mars and @NASASocial). If you want to engage with NASA and others on twitter use the hashtag #MAVEN and if you have questions for the people being interviewed ask them on Twitter with the hashtag #askNASA.

You can guarantee I will be glued to the TV and on twitter, so join me. Good luck MAVEN!!!

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.