Arts and Entertainment

Looking for life on Mars

Mars, a global view, courtesy of the Hubble Telescope. - Courtesy photo/NASA
Mars, a global view, courtesy of the Hubble Telescope.
— image credit: Courtesy photo/NASA

What's Up takes a long look at Earth's nearest neighbor with OC professor David Fong, through the eyes of robots now living there.

Human beings have long had their eye on the Red Planet in the night sky.

Named after the Roman god of war, Mars has long been an astronomical fascination, with its reddish color, close proximity and similar geography to Earth and the often sought-after possibility as a second home for humans.

The debate over whether or not there is, or has ever been, life on Mars has been highly disputed since the first NASA fly-bys of the planet in the late 1960s followed by the Viking missions in the 70s.

But in the past seven months, NASA scientists have garnered more information about Earth's nearest neighbor than in all the past seven decades combined.

“There’s been on-going research on Mars ever since the 1970s Viking missions,” said Dr. David Fong, professor of astronomy at Olympic College and volunteer expert with the Battle Point Astronomical Society on Bainbridge.

With renewed interest, Fong led a lecture on The Red Planet for BPAA last week.

“I think the public interest started when the very first two rovers were sent — that was the Sojourner and Pathfinder missions. I think that just captured the public interest because we had little robots on Mars.”

Most recently, during this past year, both public and scientific interest in the planet spiked with the discovery of what appeared to be frozen water buried beneath the martian surface, near its northern pole and the subsequent findings of another little robot — the Phoenix lander.

Launched in early August, 2007, Phoenix landed on Mars in late May 2008, further north than any previous mission, to inspect what appeared, from satellite pictures, to be frozen water. Upon arrival Phoenix dug, scooped, baked and even tasted the martian soil, confirming also that there was indeed frozen water just beneath the soil.

Fong noted that NASA will be analyzing the data for years to come, but the initial findings were striking.

“It’s the first lander to actually touched water on Mars,” Fong said with exuberance. “We’ve detected water from the orbiters for a long, long time. We knew that there was water there, but we’ve never actually touched it, we’ve never actually really determined beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was there.”

But Phoenix dug into the ice, sampled a piece, and baked it in its built-in oven upon which the substance evaporated at 100-degrees, just like water.

Hundreds of miles away, near the planet’s equator, two rovers — Spirit and Opportunity — have been exploring for the past five years in another area believed to have once harbored water. Those rovers have also sent back convincing (though not quite as concrete as the Phoenix) evidence of h2o.

One of the rovers sent back images of rocks that appear to have been eroded, or altered by waterflow. The other detected minerals in the sedimentary rock that could only be formed in the presence of water. All of which has scientists in a frenzy, including Fong.

Which makes it interesting to note, that up until a couple years ago, upon taking up the post at the OC astronomy department, Fong was working as a radio astronomer in Hawaii, focused on how stars die rather than on living planetary bodies.

“I didn’t really have the time to investigate or really go into understanding Mars or the planets very much,” Fong said. “Now it’s my job.”

And now he is enraptured by it. You can tell by the fervor in his voice when he talks about the exciting new discoveries. You can tell by the red sparkle in his eye as he ponders the astronomical fascination that is The Red Planet.

NEXT UP: BPAA Education Director Steven Ruhl will be taking guests on a ride through the birthplace of stars in the Orion Nebulae at the next planetarium show and star party at 5 p.m. Dec. 20 at the Ritchie Observatory in Battle Point Park on Bainbridge Island. Free to the public. Info: www.bpastro.org or call (206) 842-9152.

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