Robots On Mars Search And Catalog Red Planet Science Friday travels to the home base of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander in Tuscon, Ariz., to discuss the continuing exploration of Mars. Scientists explain how various robots, both on the surface and in orbit, are mapping and cataloging the Red Planet.

Robots On Mars Search And Catalog Red Planet

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is Talk of The Nation: Science Friday, I'm Ira Flatow. This hour we'll be talking about our planetary neighbor, that rusty red planet the Romans named after their god of war, Mars, and we are in a unique place to talk about Mars. We're at the Science Operation Center of the Lunar and Planetary Lab at the University of Arizona in Tucson. And just a few yards from me sits a mock up of the Phoenix Lander which is sitting on Mars. The Phoenix Lander is still filling its ovens with soil on the northern plains bit its days are getting shorter as winter rolls in with mysterious clouds and icy diamond dust. And at more southern latitudes, the rover Opportunity just keeps going. It just rolled out of a crater peaking over the top of sandy Victoria crater.

So, what's next? Could it be time for another Martian road trip, perhaps a really long one? Today we're going to take a look at the big picture of Mars. What we've learned so far? What scientist still want to learn and how they're going to do that? And it is the 50th anniversary of NASA this year after all. Happy birthday NASA.

Joining me here in Tucson to talk about that - the red planet are my guests, Peter Smith, principal investigator of NASA's Phoenix Mars mission and senior research scientist right here at the lunar and planetary lab at University of Arizona. Welcome back to science Friday.

Dr. PETER SMITH (Principal Investigator, NASA Phoenix Mars Mission): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Good to see you in person for a change.

Dr. SMITH: And to see you.

FLATOW: Thank you. Alfred McEwen, is the principal investigator of the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, the High Rise for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and a professor of Planetary Sciences at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at University of Arizona. Welcome back to the show Dr. McEwen, good to see you.

Dr. ALFRED MCEWEN (Principal Investigator, High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment): Good to see you.

FLATOW: William Hartmann is the senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, and he's also a space artist and author of the book "A Traveller's Guide to Mars." Welcome to the program.

Dr. WILLIAM HARTMANN (Senior Scientist, Planetary Science Institute): Thanks. Good to be here.

FLATOW: Dr. Hartmann. On the phone is Steven Squyres is principal investigator for NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Mission and professor of astronomy at Cornell University in Ithica. He's joining us from a studio there. Welcome back to Science Friday Dr. Squyres.

Dr. STEVEN SQUYRES (Principal Investigator, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Mission): Hey, Ira.

FLATOW: Hey, good to talk to you. Let me begin here with you Dr. Smith, where do we stand? What's new with Lander - I hear they'll talk about this dust devils? Are they going to be blow the Lander around or what's the story?

Dr. SMITH: The nice thing about dust devils is they actually going to clean the dust off your solar panels, so this could be friendly dust devils.

FLATOW: I never thought of it that way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah, they've - because dust have been blown up a lot of the Mars rovers and things luckily.

Dr. SMITH: Well, solar power is on our mind this days because we're getting towards fall in the northern plains of Mars and our solar power center, the sun, is dropping lower and lower, day by day and our days are getting very precious and what we want to do in the remaining days is get a sample of that ice that we've been staring at for the last three month into TEGA( oven. I want a really rich icy sample.

FLATOW: How do you that?

Dr. SMITH: We have a power tool on the end of our arm called a rasp(ph), but it's like a circular file, instead of a drill it sends a little chips right into the back of our scoop and then we can deliver to the entry port of our TEGA instrument.

FLATOW: And what's the schedule for getting that out? Is there tomorrow, today, or...

Dr. SMITH: The schedule is do it as soon as you possibly can while the sun is shining.

FLATOW: Uh huh.

Dr. SMITH: So, we've pushed everything else aside to make this a high priority, and we're working it as we speak.

FLATOW: Steve, let's talk about the Opportunity Rover out there in Victoria Crater. Any trouble getting out of that hole?

Dr. SQUYRES: No, we got out pleasingly well, Ira. We had surveyed the route on our way in. We were pretty confident we would get out fine and we cruised right out, there were no problems.

FLATOW: Went back in your own footprints, so to speak?

Dr. SQUYRES: Exactly.

FLATOW: And so where are too now? I mean you've been going so long, have you exhausted all the usual places?

Dr. SQUYRES: Well, we've exhausted the easy places, so it's time to do something hard. What we have chosen for opportunity is something that's bold and difficult and maybe impossible, but we're convinced this is the right thing to try anyway. Victoria Crater which we've been exploring is a great big thing. It's a half a mile in diameter, it's - that the largest picture we've ever explored, but to the southeast of this crater the distance of 12 kilometers, more than seven miles lies a much, much larger crater. If Victoria were the size of a bottle cap, this thing would be larger than a big dinner plate, it's 20 kilometers in diameter and it's very, very distant, very difficult to get to. We're going to head off towards it.

FLATOW: And how...

Dr. SQUYRES: And we're going to do our best to reach there.

FLATOW: How long would that journey take?

Dr. SQUYRES: You know, I don't know Ira. I think it could take a couple of years. This thing is very, very far away. We've put a total of 12 kilometers on our vehicle since we landed four and a half years ago, and this is another 12 kilometers away. We think we can drive a lot faster in the future that we have in the past, and so we're going to try it. And the good news is that even if we don't get there for a variety of other reasons this is kind of the right direction to go anyway, but we're going to try.

FLATOW: A couple of years? Wow. That's a long time.

Dr. SQUYRES: Yeah.

FLATOW: So, you're just rolling the dice on this one?

Dr. SQUYRES: We're rolling the dice in a sense. We don't know if we're going to make it to this crater or not, but we think it's the right direction to go anyway. As we head towards the south, we're going to be moving into different kinds of rocks we've seen previously, and then the other thing is we're - one of the things we're looking for this days is rocks that have been thrown out of really large craters. Because what those do is they sample great depths below the planet surface and these loose rocks that have been thrown out of large craters you're going to expect to see more of them as you move towards large craters, and there are a number of great big craters to the south of us. So, south is the right direction to go anyway. So, even if we don't make it we're convince this is the right direction, but it's a huge feature, it's like I said 20 kilometers in diameter, it's hundreds of meters deep, it's going to be far and away the most spectacular thing we've ever seen if we can get there. So, we're going to give it a shot.

FLATOW: We'll keep up with you. Alfred, is high rise involved in finding the way for the rovers?

Dr. MCEWEN: Yes, we have a new image targeted for October 10th, and I hope there be a second image for stereo that's in between Victoria Crater and this new crater that they're headed for, and we'll probably take several others to map that whole crater out in advance and that will help Steve and his team plan how to drive and what to do once they get there, hopefully.

FLATOW: How big an object can you see from up there?

Dr. MCEWEN: The...

FLATOW: I mean can you see a little rock on the road for him?

Dr. MCEWEN: The pixel scale is about 25 centimeters to 30 centimeters, it's about a foot, and so you need several pixels to really see an object so it's a little better than meter scale, you could - maybe half a meter you can detect it or something there. So we can do a good job of detecting things that are hazardous, as far as the detecting the kinds of rocks they want to examine in detail probably not.

FLATOW: Why were you looking at Iceland?

Dr. MCEWEN: Iceland, OK? A few years back I spent some time in Iceland, but that's OK.

FLATOW: Did you expect me to ask you that?

Dr. MCEWEN: No, I didn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: We're pretty sneaky about that.

Dr. MCEWEN: Iceland is a wonderful analog for processes on Mars, and they are all currently active in Iceland that has active volcanism, active flooding, active glaciers, active wind erosion, and dunes. So, all the processes that we think have acted mostly in the past on Mars are right there happening right now in Iceland. That's a great way to learn about these things.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking about Mars this hour. Let me go to William Hartmann. Could - could magma under the surface of Mars be creating underground aquifers?

Dr. HARTMANN: Well, yeah, which is one of the really interesting possible goals of exploration. What I think we have thought we'd known for some years is that, of course, at the polar cap there's ice is frozen water sitting up on the surface. Peter's group is scratching the surface near the polar cap, there the ice is just centimeters below the surface but there's a long history of work even before that. That when you look at craters of different sizes on different parts of Mars, the deep ones, if you have a deep enough crater it's throwing out a muddy slurry instead of just dry dust. So the argument has been since the 80s that you're tapping into ice with those deeper craters.

And the interesting thing, this was Steve Squyres did some work on this and a Russian named Ruslan Kuzmin, that as you go toward the equator, it has to be deeper and deeper craters to hit the ice. So it looks like even at the low latitudes, maybe 400 yards down, something like that, you've got an ice there. The interesting thing then is to think about that's the top of the ice there 400 yards down ,and maybe a 100 yards down at higher latitudes. Where is the bottom of that layer? And on Mars, just as on the Earth, if you go down, down, down it gets warmer. So, some place down there at the bottom it could be warm enough to melt ice.

FLATOW: So you are telling like it was sort of like sitting on a glacier that's covered with soil.

Dr. HARTMANN: It's ice mixed with soil. It's icy so it's like northern Canada and it's these permafrost layers, and so it means that if there is magma moving around on Mars today which is a good possibility, we see young volcanic features, there is a possibility of that there are places on Mars where that bottom of the ice there is melted and then you have as you say, possibly an aquifer of liquid water circulating around. Now all of this is unknown but you know, it's an interesting idea that that could be there.

FLATOW: Would it extend around the whole planet or in (unintelligible)?

Dr. HARTMANN: Probably not, probably in isolated areas particularly, if there are certain areas with hot magma moving around. The magma could even move into an area and start melting the ice locally in that region.

FLATOW: Are there any tectonics on Mars that moved this stuff around.

Dr. HARTMANN: Not to the extent on Earth, we are all familiar with continental drift and big plates moving around on the Earth. It looks like there's been very little of that on Mars. There's a couple of mountain areas that some people think are squeezed up by some move- tectonic movements. There is certainly a lot of fracturing and there is certainly giant volcanoes, as most everybody has heard.

FLATOW: How could you find the magma? How would you know if it was there?

Dr. HARTMANN: Possibility infrared thermal sensing from orbit, you could be looking for hot spots. I mean, you could imagine detecting something like Yellowstone Park if there were active, you know, little hot spots.

FLATOW: Nice glacier in a nice little spritz of hot water coming out would be nice to see.

Dr. HARTMANN: I haven't seen it yet but you know, as Alfred said, Iceland has a lot of similar analogs and many people have heard about this narrow gullies that are a few yards wide, maybe a hundred yards long, going straight down hillsides where it looks like water might have flowed down those hillsides. We see things just like that in Iceland. And so there is a lot of effort to go to places like Iceland and try to understand what's happening there. And usually those places are dry volcanic areas in high northern and southern latitudes on Earth.

FLATOW: We are going to take a break and come back and talk lots more about Mars with Peter Smith, Alfred McEwen, William Hartmann, Steve Squyres. And I'll take your calls here in the audience please step up to the mike here in Tucson and ask a question and all you at home, 1-800-989-8255. We'll be right back after this break, stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I am Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You are listening to Talk Of The Nation Science Friday. I am Ira Flatow. We're broadcasting from Tucson at the Science Operation Center of the Lunar and Planetary Lab at the University of Arizona here. Our number 1-800-989-8255. My guests are Peter Smith, Alfred McEwen, William Hartmann and Steven Squyres. Before we go to the audience for questions - Peter, I want you to explain a little mystery that I was reading about, maybe it's been cleared up. That was the idea or the problem that there was not condensation on the soil that was expected to be seen, right? Usually when it gets colder and on Earth, water condenses on the soil, you did not see that?

Dr. SMITH: Well, that's correct. Although we have seen frost on the soil. So on the very top layer you can actually freeze the water out of the atmosphere late at night at the coldest portion of the day, and we do see that the air is very dry because the air is thin on Mars. It's a hundredth the surface pressure as the Earth and it's cold, so it doesn't hold much water. Perhaps a ten thousandth of what we have even in Tucson. So it's very dry to begin with. So the soils seem to be even dryer than you might expect. And we have a very sensitive instrument that looks at conductivity in the soil. And of course, water is conductive, then we should see some electrical conductivity even at slight amounts of water. So it's a bit of a surprise to find the soil so dry right above an ice layer and on top an atmosphere with water vapor in it.

FLATOW: Can you go down a little deeper and see if it's down further or is their plans to do that or ..

Dr. SMITH: That's exactly what we're going to do.

FLATOW: Gee, wiz. I thought you'd volunteer that information.

(Sound bite of laughing)

FLATOW: So you will just stick it well deeper in the soil.

Dr. SMITH: We'll just clear off a few centimeters and stick it in again, and try and see if it gets wetter.

FLATOW: OK. Let's go to the audience. Question here, yes, sir.

Unidentified Man #1: Terrestrial volcanoes create some rather unique land forms when magma interacts with ground water. Have you found anything like that in your imagery from Mars?

FLATOW: Alfred?

Dr. MCEWEN: Yes, but we're still waiting to find something that's most definitive of the types of things we see in Iceland, and my brain is on Iceland here, but we do see other things that are indicative of volcano-water interaction including these cones, the little phreatic cones that form when they're not from a deep volcanic vent but the lava flow itself has enough heat that interacts with ground water or ice that melts. It makes these little cones called rootless cones. We do see those in Iceland. We do see those very clearly in places. So there's been and - something else that we see that's very interesting, well, I am not going to talk about it because we don't understand it yet, but...

FLATOW: Oh, come on, you can't...

(Soundbite of laughing)

FLATOW: You just heard three million people just heard that. You can't say...

Dr. MCEWEN: OK. We found columnar jointing which...

FLATOW: There you go.

Dr. MCEWEN: Lava like devil's post pile and one theory is that you really need lots of water dumped on cooling lava to make that but we're realizing is that we really don't understand columnar jointing on Earth yet.

FLATOW: We don't know what you are talking about here on Earth. What is columnar jointing? What is that?

Dr. MCEWEN: OK. That's where - you know like devil's post pile where you have these columns - hexagonal columns - they're very scenic. Tourist stops go to those. We actually see that on Mars in a crater, it's vertical jointing, and we are looking straight down from above, but it's a crater rim and the rim bends up the rocks so that we can see it.

Dr. HARTMANN: Very nice of the crater to do that.

FLATOW: Is this like that monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey?"

Dr. MCEWEN: Yeah, maybe a whole bunch of them right next to each other. Yeah.

FLATOW: It's getting more interesting isn't it? Did you want to say something, William?

Dr. HARTMANN: A thing that should be out on the table to is that we actually have rocks from Mars from about five to nine different places on Mars. The total number of rocks something like 30 rocks. Some of the youngest of those are, well, there's one group that's a 170 million years old. That's young to a geologist. And a lot of those rocks show evidence of moisture coming into the cracks and leaving the calcium carbonate, that's the best of (unintelligible) kinds of deposits. So it looks like there has been moisture interacting with rocks down through the history of Mars. So that's another clue that, you know, maybe water moving around.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. 1-800-989-8255. Greg in Fort Lauderdale. Hi, Greg.

GREG (Caller): Ira, how are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi, how are you? Go ahead.

GREG: Good, I'd like to ask your panel a question, it's kind of bugged me for a long time. Other than trying to see how far down the ice goes, why would you go in and around craters. Its craters come from outside of the planet and you would assume that there will be older rocks that the smaller instrument could gather would in and around the crater, it wouldn't be native rock.

FLATOW: Steve Squyres, can you take a shot at that?

Dr. SQUYRES: Yeah, actually craters are just about the best place for us to go. It's very rare when you are near a crater to actually find traces of the object that struck Mars and made the hole in the first place. The hole is much, much bigger than the object itself. What you're seeing is primarily Martian rock ...

FLATOW: Oh, I think we lost - Steve, are you there? Oh, we lost, well, we...

Dr. HARTMANN: Martian rock and it makes a cross section. (laughing). Picking up the rest of the sentence. The cross section right through the layered rocks. So if you get down into the greater and look at the wall of crater it's wonderful. It's kind of like the nearest you'd go to the Grand Canyon, go down and look at those different layers. We'll you can do that in each crater. So each crater becomes a nice little cookie cutter hole that will give us a sample of the upper few hundred yards, depth.

FLATOW: Let's go to a question here in audience, yes.

Unidentified Audience Member: I have a two-part question. The first part is for Dr. Smith, is there any possibility of resurrecting the Phoenix mission come next summer when the Arctic falls out and secondly, what science can be done on inactive Landers or landing sites after their primary missions are finished.

Dr. SMITH: Well, the resurrection question is interesting one. Remember as the winter approaches the Phoenix landing site, we actually get so cold that we freeze the carbon dioxide out of the air down to a layer maybe a couple of feet think. And our solar panels are going to really stressed trying to hold up that carbon dioxide ice.

FLATOW: Wait, wait, wait, there'd be a layer on the panels a couple of feet deep.

Dr. SMITH: On the ground and perhaps on the panels.

FLATOW: It's like the snow on your cars or something like that.

Dr. SMITH: It's exactly. We did not design a solar panel that will stand that sort of abuse. So, we do not expect, at the freezing cold temperatures and the amount of CO2 ice that will be deposited. that we can survive that sort of treatment. And so it would be an act of - it would be a miracle if we survived through the winter. Let's put it that way.

FLATOW: Steve Squyres, are you there, are you back?

Dr. SQUYRES: I think I am.

FLATOW: Well tell us about it. That's interesting because you never expected your rovers to last that long as they have and they have.

Dr. SQUYRES: No we didn't. We designed them to last at least 90 days. I thought maybe we'd get twice that. In fact, we've been going for more than four and a half years now. The nice thing about having a rover is that you can keep moving to new places. What we have found is that our landing sites are incredibly diverse, incredibly complicated places and as long as - each time we do a long drive - it's almost like going to a new landing site sometimes. So we feel that as long as we've got our wheels turning, and the rover is moving, and the scenery is changing, we're going to be able to keep doing very, very good science as we move along over the Martian surface.

FLATOW: So you never have to worry about that frozen CO2 on your ...

Dr. SQUYRES: No, we don't have that problem because we are close to the equator. We have in fact, just survived our third winter on the surface of Mars with these vehicles.

Dr. SMITH: I can address the second part of the question. We can keep observing the Phoenix landing site after the end of the mission to observed frost coming in and going. We've already - it's one of the best observed sites for understanding seasonal processes, it's like a calibration area. At this point, we have the (unintelligible) information. Some future years, we'll keep observing that site to see how the seasonal processing occur.

FLATOW: So the critical point is the functioning of the solar panels then. Will they survive the winter?

Dr. SMITH: They won't.


FLATOW: They won't.

Dr. SQUYRES: They will not.

FLATOW: No one is taking odds here. No side bets going on. Yes, let's go to the audience here.

Unidentified Woman: Hi, with all the research that has come out of Spirit and Opportunity and now everything coming from the Phoenix Lander, are there any pet projects someone would like to coordinate that research and put it all together or some good stuff?

Dr. SMITH: Well, that's a great idea. I think we need a Martian institute to take the data from the rovers, from the Landers, from the Orbiters. There is so much data coming down now, and Alfred can speak to how much, but it's a tremendous amount more than has ever been gathered in probably the history of solar system exploration. We need people to analyze this data so I think you're absolutely right. Finding a way to coordinate analysis of these huge data sets is very important.

FLATOW: And because the days are growing short, you mentioned before, I want to get into that a little bit, that you want to start shaving the ice, would that be the right way to say it? Right below you there? And getting pieces off. How soon can we see that happen?

Dr. SMITH: Well, we attempted it yesterday and unfortunately, it wasn't successful. So we'll be trying again probably early next week.

FLATOW: And what are the obstacles to making it successful?

Dr. SMITH: Well, we picked the sample up off the ground. We got the chips up, into the scoop, put the scoop over the entry port to the (unintelligible) instrument.

FLATOW: The oven?

Dr. SMITH: Dump this - yeah, the ovens. Dump the scoop, it hit the screen, and then it stayed on the screen and didn't go through. Even though the screen is much larger than the size of the individual particles, apparently it's gotten sticky at that point, and tend to frost up and stick together.

FLATOW: Is it sort of refreezing when you put it back on there, like you know, putting your tongue on the pole outside?

(Soundbite of laughing)

FLATOW: Is that part of the project?

Dr. SMITH: I hadn't thought of it that way.

(Soundbite of laughing)

FLATOW: I mean, seriously, is it - you say the holes are big enough for it to fall through.

Dr. SMITH: Yes.

FLATOW: But it's not going through. It's sort of sticking to the screen instead.

Dr. HARTMANN: This is a devilish material that we're dealing with. It's - it doesn't have the properties of any of the simulants that we were told might be expected in this portion of Mars. And we've tried all kinds of materials in our laboratory. They never did what Mars soil does.


Dr. SMITH: So we're a bit mystified with how to work with this soil, and get it into our instrument ports.

FLATOW: Does that mean you've used up an oven that's clogged with this now, and you can't use it again.

Dr. SMITH: Well, the problem is, in order to deliver an icy soil sample to it again, we've still got this material there. And now it's dried out.


Dr. SMITH: So we are likely not to get the ice in this oven.

FLATOW: And so there's no way to sort of shake it off or…

Dr. SMITH: No.

FLATOW: No. Now you wish you had done that, built that little vibrating thing, you could've shaken it off.

Dr. SMITH: A lot of things we wish, but...

FLATOW: But you - so, you'll try it again?

Dr. SMITH: Absolutely.

FLATOW: You'll try it again with a different - with another oven And...

Dr. SMITH: Well, we're still trying to learn a better way to do this and...

FLATOW: I have a few snow cone people who might be able to help you shave it, teach you how to shave it off a little better.

(Soundbite of laughing)

FLATOW: But sometimes it's a real problem trying to figure out the best way to get the ice. It's an interesting problem.

Dr. SMITH: Martian materials have been a very difficult set of challenges for us, let's say.

FLATOW: Because you didn't know what to expect, you thought you knew but this is what the whole frontier is about.

Dr. SMITH: No, we read the travel brochure, but it didn't say anything about this.

(Soundbite of laughter) ..TEXT: Dr. SMITH: Didn't get down into the details, you know, that help us design our instruments properly.

FLATOW: Very interesting. All right, a question here, sir.

Unidentified Man #2: Well. Given the problems that you're having with the lander, if you had the possibility of sending a human there who could, you know, easily interact and solve these problems in real time, if you had a choice would you send 50 other landers or would you actually rather send a human to Mars?

Dr. SMITH: Well, my entire career has been sending robotic missions, so I would prefer 50 robotic missions. Because the human is going to have his own problems, and may not be in a good state to actually help us with our instrument problems.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. How much have we learned about Mars' polar climate from Phoenix?

Dr. SMITH: We've been studying the weather day by day. We have 24-hour weather report for each 24 hour and 40 minutes, I should say, for each (unintelligible) of the mission, and I think we've collected one of the really fabulous weather data sets about the onset of winter in the polar plains.

FLATOW: Mm-hm.

Dr. SMITH: Including what we see in Tucson often as what we call virga, where ice comes down below the clouds, but evaporates before it hits the surface. And a lot of new interesting weather patterns are starting to happen as we move towards winter.

FLATOW: Wow. Talking about Mars this hour in Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow in Tucson with Peter Smith of the Phoenix Mars Mission. Alfred McEwen, who's also of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, William Hartmann of the Planetary Institute, and Steven Squyres of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission.

Steve, when is the rover going to decide to go on that journey? When will you kick the tires and get it going?

Dr. SQUYRES: I think it's probably going to be within the next week, Ira. We've pretty much finished up our work at Victoria Crater, and we're going to hit the gas, probably middle of the next week.


Dr. SQUYRES: Yeah. FLATOW: And how far per day can it make its way?

Dr. SQUYRES: We think that we can average a hundred meters each day that we drive. And, I - you know, I should point out what you asked Alfred earlier, was high rise involved in planning this drive, and his response was actually way too modest. The reality is that high rise is what's enabling this drive.

We wouldn't dare try this if we didn't have the high-rise data. But what high rise does is it provides us with a spectacular roadmap that tells us how to get from here to where we're going. So we think that with the high-rise data as a guide, we can probably do better than a hundred meters, a hundred yards in a day.

FLATOW: Wow. Do you have to - have you found a different way to steer it, or make - or automate it, or...

Dr. SQUYRES: Well, there - a couple things that we certainly - certainly we have - the rover has gotten smarter. What we've done, even as the vehicle has aged mechanically, it's gotten smarter in its software. We've uploaded new software to it that enables it to better find its way through obstacles and around obstacles.

We also - we're smarter ourselves, we've got years of driving experience under our belts now. We know how to deal with all sorts of difficult circumstances. And we think the combination of us being smarter, the rover being smarter, and having - especially having those high-rise images, we think we can cover - we think we can do 100 meters a day.

FLATOW: Mm. Wow. Jennifer in Hocking Hills, Ohio. Hi Jennifer.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hello. I love this program, I look forward to it every month, or every week, but I - you have an X-1 channel, I love looking at Mars, but I also love looking at the moon. And I wonder if your excellent panel knew about a lunar crash, which (unintelligible) 6:07 debris of present-day water in the South Pole.

It was a Columbus dispatch, Columbus, Ohio, in 2006, and supposedly, they're still planning out now so how to shoot two missiles into the south pole of the moon in October, which is next month. To see if there's water, there just like you guys are looking for water on, you know, Mars.

FLATOW: Let me ask Alfred McEwen, he's raised his hand on there.

Dr. MCEWEN: OK. Yeah, the European Science Agency had a Mars Missions Mark One, which they attempted to crash into the south polar ice, to look for ice. They actually missed. They actually crashed in away - in a place away from the ice. But then, with the launch, it was to be October, it's now delayed till April of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. It also has another mission. The booster for LRO is a separate space called L-Cross, which will be directed into a polar shadow.

JENNIFER: Yeah, the South Pole.

Dr. MCEWEN: And it properly - yeah, its actually going to be the north pole, because the launch was delayed, and the view from earth, they had to switch to the north pole. But the idea is that...

JENNIFER: Oh. But will it be two missiles?

Dr. MCEWEN: What happens is the crew stage goes in first with a separate spacecraft that observes it, and then that separate spacecraft which is much smaller goes in, which won't create as much of a bang or plume. So, it is two objects that go in, yes.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling. You're a great Mars observer and a moon specialist, thanks for calling. 1-800-989-8255, we're going to have to take a break, and come back and talk lots more about Mars. We'll talk about future of Mars missions, what's in the future for maybe five, 10 years from now.

What other kinds of probe might we send, what's on the drawing boards. Your questions, so stay with us, we'll be right back after this short break. I'm Ira Flatow and this is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday, I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about Mars, from the latest news streaming back from landers, and rovers, and satellites, to the puzzle scientist are still trying to solve. My guests are Peter Smith, principal investigator on the Phoenix Mars Mission.

Alfred McEwen, principal investigator of the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, the high rise of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. William Hartmann, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson. And Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission. Our number 1-800-989-8255.

I want to talk about the future now, the future of exploration. But let's get some perspective. I'd like to ask you, William Hartmann. You go way back in this program...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You were working with Carl Sagan way back during the Mariner Mission. Were you not?

Dr. HARTMANN: Yeah. The first Mariners were flybys in the '60s, and then Mariner 9 went into orbit in '71. And I was this very lucky generation of the first handful of scientist they interested in planets, coming out from the two or three professors of that era, (unintelligible) being my professor.

And so my lucky story was I'm sitting in my office at the University of Arizona, is in that fledgling assistant professor, and my phone rings, and it's Bruce Murry who's supposedly head of jet propulsion lab. We've got this Mariner 9 flying to Mars, you want to be on our imaging team? And, you know, today, you announce a mission from NASA tomorrow. And there's 200 fledgling young Ph.D.'s all competing to try to get on that. And there's never quite enough slots for all the people who would like to be doing this kind of research.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. And were you looking for water in those days too?

Dr. HARTMANN: Well, nobody knew what we're going to see. The two main - the two Mariners that went by in the '60s, happened to photograph the side of Mars that had craters on it. So the paradigm at the end of the '60s was Mars is like the moon with a little bit of air to blow the dust around, and that's the end of the story. We get Mariner 9 there, it goes into orbit. It's the first mapping of the entire planet from orbit, and happened to arrived during a dust storm, so we have to wait for the dust to clear, the dust is settling, the dust is settling.

And finally one day, Carl Sagan comes running downstairs from up in the computer room, where the computer, he could photograph with the Polaroid camera, you know, and bring it downstairs to the team room to show us what the picture was. And here was the top of this giant volcano sticking through the dust haze layer. So, first big discovery, 75,000 foot high volcano on Mars. But as the dust settled, what did you see on this frozen, dusty, dry planet, but dry river beds all over the place.

And so that was the big shock that, you know, there just doesn't seem to be any way around that there was water. Perhaps small amounts a little bit at a time, I mean maybe these were one month floods, we don't know. But there was water running around carving rivers on Mars, they looked just like our grand river out here in Tucson, the San Pedro, which is a dusty, dry riverbed.

FLATOW: Were these the canals, that they were dry years ago?

Dr. HARTMANN: No. The canals are the story that go back to 1890s...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. HARTMANN: Percival Lowell, H. D. Wells.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. HARTMANN: They sought - they thought they saw a straight lines, what they were really seeing, a lot of that came from that streaks, dusty, straight wind streaks, where the wind blows and circulates behind a mountain or a crater as it goes by, and on the (unintelligible) side you get a streak. And those change a little bit from year to year. And that's apparently what they were seeing.

But the - there's a little bit of confusion about that, because the name they picked for these dry riverbeds was channels, and then we had to always explain, well, channels aren't the same thing as these old canals that don't really exist the way Percival Lowell thought they did.

FLATOW: Very interesting. Let's look to the future, Steve Squyres, looking ahead 10, 15 years. What would you like to see the big science goals for Mars. Bring something back.

Dr. SQUYRES: Well, the first - eventually, yes. I mean the first thing that we're going to do is there's a mission called the Mars Science Laboratory that is going to launch in 2009. And that's another rover, and this rover is bigger and more capable. It's got a very powerful scientific payload that can detect trace abundances of organic molecules if they're there. And that mission is going to launch soon, and is going to Mars and pick up where we left off.

And whereas our rovers were designed to last only 90 days, and have lasted four and a half years, this thing is designed to last for two earth years. And so goodness knows how long this thing could go on. So that's going to be a very capable mission.

FLATOW: And can...

Dr. SQUYRES: Then after that as you say, the next big thing - what I think many of us have hoped for many years is to actually bring carefully selected rocks back from Mars. Bring them into laboratories on Earth and take them apart.

FLATOW: Peter Smith, What's next for you? What would you like to do besides get that ice back in those hoppers? Where - what would you on the next mission?

Dr. SMITH: Well, if someone were to fund a measurement.

FLATOW: Let me give you the blank check question, I guess.

Dr. SMITH: Oh, the blank check. Yes, that would help.

FLATOW: You have the blank check.

Dr. SMITH: You know, we've scraped the top of this ice-layer, but I'd love to know how deep it goes, where's the bottom? And the - as Beau(ph) pointing out, maybe there even a liquid layer underneath the ice, as the planet starts to warm towards its interior. And I think analyzing layer by layer through this ice is going to tell us a lot about the history of Mars, so I'd love to be able to do that.

FLATOW: And so you'd need a drill?

Dr. SMITH: A drill exactly.

FLATOW: Send the drill and drill rig.

Dr. SMITH: We'll drill here.

FLATOW: Let's drill here.

Dr. SMITH: Exactly.

FLATOW: Sort of a thing like that. OK

Dr. SMITH: Drill baby drill.

FLATOW: Drill baby drill.

Dr. SQUYRES: Drill baby drill.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Drill baby drill on Mars.

Dr. SMITH: I think if we have a place where they can do that.

FLATOW: Then you have a spot right for them.

Dr. SMITH: That's under that - offshore that's where it is.

FLATOW: It's way offshore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It's on a different planet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Uh. Well.

Dr. SMITH: Got you, Ira.

FLATOW: You got us good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I am glad you say it not me, Allen. William Hartmann, so what - you write about a traveler's guide to Mars. There aren't any hotels out there, yet, but maybe if we drill and find some energy in there?

Dr. HARTMANN: Yeah, it was a title thought up by the publisher, but the idea was to talk about the individual places on Mars that we could go. And tell the story of Mars that way. I think, I think a direction toward the future is indicated by a mission that I'm currently involved with, which is the European Mars Express mission which incidentally gives a chance to say, I think one of the great things about planetary exploration is that it's so international, because goodness knows we need to learn - we need to understand socio-political ways that our different countries can work together, and I think planetary science is an example of that.

So anyway, what the Mars Express Mission is sending back, from what I'm hearing in those meetings, is that imagine going back to 70s. The United States Geological Survey is getting these pictures and they're mapping Mars, and they detected sort of three geological units that they thought were different. The oldest one, the middle one and the youngest one. And we didn't really have any way of confirming that there was something unique about each period, but they thought they could see some differences in the rock style and so forth. Here comes Mars Express with the super duper spectrometer looking down from orbit. And what they're reporting is that the oldest unit, the rock types that they see are dominated by clays, and the middle unit, the rock types that they are seeing are dominated by sedimentary rocks. Big excitement, not just all volcanism.

Sulfate sedimentary rocks which ties in Steve Squyres because that's what they are seeing on the ground when that rover is driving around. And then the latest period is dominated by these rusty red minerals that make the red color, so what seems very exciting to me about that is, here's a planet where there really seems to be three different rock types that are kind of dominating different periods rather than it being the same the whole history of the planet which gets it the whole question of, has the climate really radically changed as the environment changed on Mars. And I think those are the kinds of things we're going to be trying to look for. If we can drive rovers around, can we find these different rock types and really understand them on the ground. What causing those differences.

FLATOW: Let me ask all three, will understanding Mars tell us anything about the evolution on Earth, of our planet?

Dr. MCEWEN: Absolutely, and one of the most important time periods for understanding the origin of life. The reason we have a Mars exploration program is to understand the origins of life or whether there's life elsewhere. But on Earth, life probably originated to in a period of heavy bombardment, that was like 3.9 billion years ago and earlier. But we have no rock record, no rocks have survived in that period of evolvement, they've all been recrystal - metamorphosed and re-crystallized. A few zircons have survived.

We know almost nothing about that time period on Earth. A Mars rock of that time period are preserved. And Mars may have been very Earth-like in that time period, it's a planet that was rich in ice. Many impacts to melt the ice create hydrothermal system and so forth. So we have a chance on Mars to really understand this crucial time period when life originated on Earth and what that, what those environments were like.

Dr. SMITH: Geological preserve there being (unintelligible).

Dr. MCEWEN: Yeah.

Dr. SMITH: That's exactly right.

Dr. MCEWEN: That's the ultimate driving question too, because I mean that question of, did life form on Mars, is such a perfect science question because either answer is so profound. You know, if it did, that's the first time that we know in all of human history that we know we're not alone in the universe. That there was actually life someplace else. And everybody used to Sigourney Weaver chasing aliens around and so forth. But the fact is, we don't actually know whether there've ever been any aliens.

On the other hand, if you really poke around Mars long enough and you conclude that life just really never formed there, in spite of this planet with water at the beginning and all that rather Earth-like conditions at the beginning, we think. And water - and if life never formed, that's profound also because maybe we are really more alone in the universe than we think. So I think that's the big philosophic underlying question of all this Mars exploration, and we have a chance to do that as these rovers get more sophisticated and we learn more about the history - that chronology of Mars.

FLATOW: We always like to leave people something for Friday night to ponder over. That's a great little question; let me go to the audience here. Yes?

Unidentified Woman #2: First of all, thank you so much for all that you've done, not just the panelists of course, but everyone involved in this mission. At a time when we need imagination so badly and new ideas, you have given us so much to think about, congratulations and thank you from all us everywhere, the listening audience in here. Two questions, one, how do you keep a fresh perspective? You're just talking about, you know, we're looking at did life start there, and how does it apply to us. How do you keep out of being so ethnocentric that you might miss something standing over here that saying, hi look over here, this is really different. How do you keep that first perspective? And secondly, in the time of economic...

FLATOW: Upheaval?

Unidentified Woman #2: To say the least. How do we keep people focused on funding the things that we need to fund? Because our future is certainly not just on this planet, our future is in space. How do we keep of people focused on funding what we need to do for exploration? Thank you so much.

FLATOW: Well the data, the data - go ahead.

Dr. SMITH: The fresh perspective because the data, you know, forces you to say, Oh my gosh what is this? So you don't have too much time just sitting around scratching your head, you know, wondering what's there.

FLATOW: But this comes up a lot in the search for life on Mars, that we're searching for life as we know it because the only thing we know how to search for. But what if there is something totally different?

Dr. MCEWEN: Or ice-like that we can't get through with the hoppers, we don't have any idea what kind of soil that even is, and that's very - no, I'm not saying this to be funny. It's just very interesting stuff you can't even predict.

FLATOW: We're - This is the Talk of Nation Science Friday from NPR News, and I think that's the joy of all that stuff is not knowing. Quick question here, yes.

Unidentified Man #3: When we're talking about life on Mars, when you putting these two missions together. Was there a concern that you would inadvertently bring life to Mars? And if so, what was done to prevent it?

Dr. SMITH: Yes, there is a big concern about that. In fact, we have a planetary protection bureaucracy, if you like, in this country and around the world that tries to make sure that we don't contaminate our neighboring planets.

FLATOW: You call them Men in Black at all?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SMITH: Not to their face.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SMITH: It should be quite offended, but we have special rules that we follow to make sure our space craft is cleaned to the standards that have been agreed upon by international committees that worry about this sort of thing. And then, of course, since we're looking for life, we have built an instrument, here at the University of Arizona, that was done in an extremely clean environment. It was a quite a challenge to put together an instrument under those conditions of cleanliness and still have it function, because you can't put in ordinary greases and things that you would normally use.

So we have a very organic free instrument and the robotic arm that delivers the sound samples was preserved inside of a bio bearer after being sterilized, I think it was 50 hours at 125 C. Well, above boiling to make sure that it did not have any living microbes on it, because it's going to touch the icy soil. And so we have been to going to great lengths, both to make sure we don't contaminate Mars in a place where it might be a habitable environment, and also to make sure we don't make a mistake and think we found life on Mars when we actually brought it with us.

FLATOW: Last question from the audience.

Unidentified Woman #3: As a non science person, this technology is amazing to me and I'm just wondering other that a drill, what technology has been developed since Mars - the Lander was launched. Or what technology was not available to you that you hope you have for the next mission?

Dr. MCEWEN: Well, one thing we've done with this mission is look for just the basic ingredients of habitability and when it comes to living structures, microbes, or whatever they might be on Mars. We have only the ability to say that these are organic materials, carbon chains of materials. We don't know what carbon chain it is. Is it a protein, a DNA? And instruments exist now and the field of microbiology is so vibrant these days, that you can now build instruments that'll actually tell you exactly what these organic materials are and these instruments are small. And I think if we could find a place on Mars, or we knew there were these organic compounds. We would certainly want to send those sorts of instruments to find out if they were DNA structures, proteins, amino acids, all the whole range of things.

FLATOW: Steve Squyres, anything you'd like to add to that?

Dr. SQUYRES: I think the only thing that I would mention about the technology is that you might actually be surprised by how low tech some of these spacecrafts are. I'll give you the example of our rovers. The computer inside our rover was a smoking hot machine in about 1987. Your cell phone is smarter than our rovers are, but what we do is we focus on taking existing proven technologies that we know will work out at the distance of Mars, and try to combine them together in new and innovative ways, and that's what we did on the rovers. And that's what Peter and his team did on Phoenix as well. So we will continue to look for new technologies and then apply them in future missions, but the problem is you can't go out there and fix something when it breaks. So you got to go with something that's pretty well tested.

FLATOW: Thanks Steve. Thank you all. Steve Squyres, principal investigator for NASA Mars exploration rover mission and professor of astronomy at Cornell University. Hartmann, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tuscan. Alfred McEwen principal investigator of the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, also professor of planetary sciences at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tuscan, also, there's Peter Smith, principal investigator of NASA's Phoenix Mars Mission and senior research scientist here. Thank you all for taking time to be with us today.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.