Geo016 - Exploration of Mars

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Geo016 / Exploration of Mars / (M) 3:00-5:20 / Lincoln Field 105 / Prof. James Head

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Stephanie LaRose (04/14/04)

Today we were lucky enough to have a telecom with Dr. James Garvin, the NASA Program Scientist for Mars and the Moon. He is a graduate from Brown as well. He took over an hour out of his vacation time to set up a power point presentation and talk to us and answer our questions about exploration.

One thing that many people do not think about in the process of exploration is contamination. We wouldn't want to inadvertently start life on another planet. There is also the problem of contamination of bringing back samples to Earth. This is a reason it would be better to have humans on Mars to study samples there instead of worrying about getting them back to Earth intact.

Follow the water seems to be the method of exploration of Mars right now. Scientists are looking for when it was there, how much there was, and where it was and where it went. One has to look at the geology of Mars to answer these questions. Evidence for water has been found in what look like river deltas. We have documented climate change and polar icy soils.

One would not generally think of the problem dust is for explorations of Mars, but it is a problem. Dust storms can be long and disastrous. There are also toxic molecules and elements that could be deadly to humans on the surface. The atmosphere contains methane, another molecule that does not bode well for humans. So therefore, current exploration of Mars is limited to reconnaissance for now, to eventually evolve to robotically bringing back samples to Earth, to finally going to Mars with humans in charge. It is good that we have orbiters and rovers aimed at Mars at this point, because it would be frustrating to see something from an orbiter that scientists want to check out and to not be able to. Rovers can do these things, but they are limited.

I was impressed by the fact that NASA already has plans up until 2009. These are combinations of orbiters and rovers to look at the polar ice and to look for biological building blocks. The next decades, however, are uncertain. President Bush has set out an initiative to get humans to Mars, but reallocation of NASA's budget is cutting many other important missions, including the international space station.

I do not think we should fully commit to going to just Mars. The universe is vast and we need to take smaller steps to get to another planet. We should keep the international space station as an ongoing project. It will give us a place to launch ourselves to other planets, and give us time to better understand space flight and share knowledge among the world so that we can go as a group; together and united. But of course there is the easier way to get humans to Mars by making it a competition, as it was to get to the Moon. Competition definitely helps things, but it can also hurt. Once the competition was gone, we stopped going to the Moon or trying to get anywhere else. We need to re-evaluate our reasons for exploring space.

But at some point I agree humans should make it to Mars. It is important to explore Mars because it is a close enough planet that may help us to better understand the history of the universe and our own planet. NASA in general has advanced our technology in ways that otherwise may never had happened, had there not been a drive to get into space. Discoveries from other worlds and space may also help us to find more resources to be at our disposal for fighting disease and other things. Our planet has a finite amount of resources that we are quickly stripping away.

I very much enjoyed hearing from Dr. Garvin. As Professor Head said, I definitely feel better to know that Dr. Garvin is the one representing space exploration for us. He will get us where we want to be, the safest and best way possible.
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