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In order to detect signs of past or present life on Mars — if it is in fact true that we’re related — then a promising strategy would be to search for DNA or RNA, and specifically for particular sequences of these molecules that are nearly universal in all forms of terrestrial life. That’s the strategy being pursued by MIT research scientist Christopher Carr and postdoctoral associate Clarissa Lui, working with Maria Zuber, head of MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), and Gary Ruvkun, a molecular biologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, who came up with the instrument concept and put together the initial team. Lui presented a summary of their proposed instrument, called the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genomes (SETG), at the IEEE Aerospace Conference this month in Big Sky, Mont.

The idea is based on several facts that have now been well established. First, in the early days of the solar system, the climates on Mars and the Earth were much more similar than they are now, so life that took hold on one planet could presumably have survived on the other. Second, an estimated one billion tons of rock have traveled from Mars to Earth, blasted loose by asteroid impacts and then traveling through interplanetary space before striking Earth’s surface. Third, microbes have been shown to be capable of surviving the initial shock of such an impact, and there is some evidence they could also survive the thousands of years of transit through space before arriving at another planet.

Alan Boyle writes: Chinese space officials have come up with a plan that would send an orbiter toward Mars on a Chinese rocket as early as 2013, the Xinhua news agency reports. Such a mission would use technologies that were developed for the Chang’e 1 lunar orbiter and its recently launched follow-up mission, Chang’e 2.

The orbiter mission also would follow up on China’s joint effort with Russia to send probes toward Mars and one of its moons, Phobos. Launch of the Phobos-Grunt mission is scheduled for a year from now. China’s Yinghuo 1 (“Firefly”) orbiter would hitch a ride on a Russian-built spacecraft that’s designed to put a lander on Phobos and return a soil sample to Earth.

All this activity signals that Beijing will be taking its status as a space power seriously in the years ahead. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has just returned from a controversial visit to China, and today he said in a written statement that the visit “increased mutual understanding on the issue of human spaceflight and space exploration, which can form the basis for further dialogue and cooperation in a manner that is consistent with the national interests of both of our countries.”