UC Davis MARS Symposium Wrap Up #globalfood #UCDavisMARS

Yesterday I went to a symposium at UC Davis that was the launching of a new partnership between UC Davis and the Mars Corporation. I note – I have been collaborating with some people at Mars on multiple microbiome related projects and generally have had great interactions with the people there. I am not directly involved in the planning for this new partnership between UC Davis and Mars and thus I was interested in hearing more about it at the symposium.

The symposium was at the Mondavi Center on UC Davis campus and I zipped in on my bike through the cold (for Davis) air and got there just before they opened the doors to the main theater. I saw a few folks I knew milling around in the lobby and said hello and then went inside with some people from my lab for the “show”.

 I will try to write more about this later but just one note – I found some of the big picture discussions about the importance of the nexus between food, agriculture and health to be pretty inspiring. For now – I hope the Storify I made and embedded below will give some idea as to the goings on of the symposium.

NASA personnel ignore planetary protection guidelines and risk putting microbes on Mars

Many years ago I served on a NASA sponsored committee for a series of meetings about the handling of samples collected from Mars.  One of the key points of discussion at those meetings was “planetary protection”.  The involved protecting Earth from possibly strange life forms that in theory could exist on Mars.  And it also involved protecting Mars from microbes and other life forms that could come from space ships/landers.  I even posted all the materials from these meetings a few weeks ago: Notes and materials from MARS Sample Handling Workshops 2000 ….

It is thus with great distress that I read an LA Times article that reveals that some of the people involved in launching Curiosity decided to ignore some of the planetary protection guidelines and made some hands on modifications that may have contaminated some of the drill bits on Curiosity with microbes from people.  See: If the Mars rover finds water, it could be H2 … uh oh! – latimes.com.

The LA Times reports that some NASA personnel opened a box of drill bits that had been sterilized and – in clean but not sterile conditions – installed one of these drill bits in a drill on Curiosity prior to launch.  Apparently they were worried that a rough landing could prevent the bits from being installable in the drill which would make the drill not be of any use.  And they appear to have now risked the sterility of the entire operation by doing this.  Well crap.  That just plain sucks.  So much effort by “planetary protection officers” and others.  That effort might all go down the drain because of this.  I get that some times things seem urgent and that sure – if the drill was useless people would be pretty upset too.  But this seems to me to be a serious error in judgement.

In a small way I helped develop the guidelines that were put in place to protect Mars from human induced contamination.  And now that seems to have been a wasted effort as the guidelines were ignored.  Not good.

Note – for those interested I have posted links below to the documents from my days at the NASA Mars Sample Handling Workshops.  Most/all are public domain materials but not all are easy to find so I thought I would post them here.  Note – I have done no clean up of scans – will do so at some point. Enjoy

UPDATE 9/13 – some more stories on this
UPDATE 2: 9/13 – UC Davis Prof. Dawn Sumner (who is involved with the Curiosity mission) disputes notion that opening the drill bit box is an issue

Notes and materials from MARS Sample Handling Workshops 2000-2001 #Curiosity

I had the pleasure of serving as a panel member for some NASA sponsored “Mars Sample Handling Workshops” in 2000-2001 and thereabouts.  I have all these materials still from those meetings and in light of the Mars Curiosity Rover landing and other recent activities I thought it would be good to share them.  Most/all are public domain materials but not all are easy to find so I thought I would post them here.  Note – I have done no clean up of scans – will do so at some point. Enjoy.



Mars Curiosity discussion on Colbert

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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#UCDavis Prof. Dawn Sumner video interview on being involved in Mars Curiosity Rover landing

I am getting really excited about the upcoming Curiosity landing on Mars. So cool that Dawn Sumner – Geology Prof. from UC Davis is going to be involved …

Also check out:

William Shatner, Mars, Curiosity, Rover … fun fun fun

William Shatner narrates video detailing how Curiosity will land on Mars next week http://cdn-akm.vmixcore.com/vmixcore/js?auto_play=0&cc_default_off=1&player_name=uvp&width=512&height=332&player_id=1aa0b90d7d31305a75d7fa03bc403f5a&t=V0xL7FpdMBTgI9wbokivyCDQbYr3dNMyMc Hat tip to Dawn Sumner, UC Davis Geology professor working on Curiosity mission, for pointing me to this. Don’t like that? Well, here is a narration by Wil Wheaton http://cdn-akm.vmixcore.com/vmixcore/js?auto_play=0&cc_default_off=1&player_name=uvp&width=512&height=332&player_id=1aa0b90d7d31305a75d7fa03bc403f5a&t=V0J_fCVbhIlC6m5frWM2NxUQEaE4C8GCK_

Search for life on Mars

Well the Phoenix lander has, well, landed on Mars. And it is, well, on a mission. To search for evidence of life (OK, that is not the only part of the mission, but it is the coolest part).

And it is time to place bets. Who out there thinks they will find some sort of evidence for life and how strong will that evidence be?

I for one think there will be life on Mars somewhere. And the Polar regions are not such a bad place to look for evidence of past or present life on the planet. Not sure what others out there think overall but here is some stuff from the web to consider:

Oliver Morton, my favorite Martian Blogger (interpret that however you want) says at MainlyMartian:

Having witnessed two Mars lander failures, Mars Polar Lander before this blog was even born and Beagle-2 back when it was young and active (Landing and prelanding in the December 2003 archive, and the whole sad story in the Beagle-2 archive), and having been absent for all the other attempts that have proved successful, it seemed to me only prudent not to cover the landing of Phoenix this weekend

Oliver also points to a “In the field” blog from Eric Hand.

Neil Saunders says:

If there ever was (or is?) microbial life there, Phoenix has a pretty good shot at finding the signs.

Others out there I am sure have more to say. What do you think?
(1) Is there life on Mars now?
(2) Was there ever life on Mars?
(3) Will Phoenix find and positive evidence?

M2O – Life on Mars

Scientists from NASA have reported what appears evidence that not has Mars has water in the past, but that it has flowed on the Martian surface in the last seven years. When comparing photographs of the same site in 1999 and 2005 taken by the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor, the scientists found

appearance of a lightly-shaded patch that has all the hallmarks of being caused by water bubbling up from under the Martian surface and running down the 30 degree slope

While there may be other explanations, the pictures are stunning. If this is water, I think we have to start to come to grips with the high probability that life will be found on Mars. In other words, not only might life have existed there in the past, but I think it is reasonably likely that there is life there now. Now before you get all hoity toity on me – I am not talking about little green men here. But possibly little green microbes. Or little pale microbes that use chemical energy to fix carbon and grow. Such microbes are of course all over earth, in the deep sea, in hot springs, in tidal flats, in animal guts. The real questions (again, if this is really water) the become:

  1. could life have evolved separately on Mars?
  2. could microbial life from Earth have seeded Mars?

I think the answers to both questions, though unclear, could potentially be yes. For question 1, if we look at the origin of life on Earth, most studies now suggest it happened over a relatively short time scale (a few hundred million years) and possibly much faster. It may in fact have been somewhat inevitable – as long as the conditions for chemical evolution were present in the Early earth. This chemical evolution could have then set up the possibility for life to have evolved. Though the exact steps are unclear for the origin of life on Earth, it is not far fetched to imagine that they could have occured on Mars as well.

As for question 2 – I think life easily could have been transported between the two planets. All you really need is for a meteorite or comet collision with Earth to blast some moderately sized pieces of material off of Earth into space. Microbes in such material could have survived for some period of time on such pieces in space (remember, many microbes do not need oxygen, and can survive incredibyl harsh conditions on Earth). Imagine if a big piece of Earth was knocked off the planet – microbes in the center of such a piece would be protected from some of the radiation and other stresses of space. And you just need one of these pieces to end up on Mars for the cross-seeding event to occur. Of sure, there are a series of assumptions here and a multiplication of low probability events. But we can make up for low probability by multiplying by 3.5 or so billion years – the amount of time that life has existed on Earth.

So this raises one final issue for me. The person with the greatest job title in the world – John Rummel, better get moving. He is the “Planetary Protection Officer” for NASA – charged with protecting other planets from Earth and Earth from other planets. One of his main jobs is to think about how to make sure the Martian missions do not bring microbes with them to Mars so that if microbes are found there we can assume they are from Mars not earth. Unfortunately in my google searches about this it seems Dr. Rummel has been promoted within NASA and I cannot figure out who took over his old job. Does that alas mean we are temporarily without a planetary protection officer? I hope not.

Whether it turns out life exists or existed on Mars or not, the finding of apparently flowing water on the surface is wildly exciting and proof to me that Mars missions are critical to our understanding of the world around us.