Tag Archives: extraterrestrial life

The Future of Space

The search for life in the Universe has taken a leap forward with the National Aeronautics Space Administration’s announcement of the presence of water in liquid form on the surface of Mars. NASA’s discovery came as a scientific breakthrough in both the search for life beyond Earth, and the anticipation that humans may one day be able to travel to Mars.

CSUN is helping NASA search for signs of life on other planets through the research being done by Biology Professor Dr. Rachel Mackelprang. Mackelprang and her primary collaborators at the U.S. Geological Survey  have just been awarded a 1.3 million dollar grant from NASA to investigate the possible connections between life surviving in Earth’s frozen soil, and life surviving on Mars and on other frozen planets.

“Mars has permafrost, the ground has been permanently frozen for a very long time, and so we study how microbial life survives over geologic time in Earth’s permafrost,” Mackelprang said. “The hope is that [this will] give us some clues as to how life might survive in similar environments on Mars and other extraterrestrial bodies.”

Mackelprang and her group study samples taken from Alaska, where temperatures are extremely cold and there is very little water or oxygen. The harsh conditions found in these environments on Earth are similar to those found on our neighboring Red Planet.

“[From my perspective] as a biologist, it should provide some extremely interesting information about the origins of life,” Mackelprang said, “how it evolves, what types of things are common between [Earth life] and life else where, [and] what types are different.”

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in Pasadena, California. JPL’s primary function is the construction and operation of planetary robotic spacecraft.

“The lab I work in specifically deals with gripping technologies,” said Vladimir Arutyunov, a mechanical engineering intern at JPL and a CSUN engineering student. “There are all sorts of places on Mars and on other bodies that [we would] like to explore, but one of the main problems is mobility. [The lab I work in focuses on] gripping onto rock surfaces for planetary exploration [and] asteroid exploration.”

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program studies Mars potential capability as a habitat for past or present life. Through spacecraft and rover missions, scientists can gain a better understanding of the biological conditions on Mars, and how it has evolved.

“A way to think of it that helps me, is [that] the rover is our presence [on Mars] right now,” said Arutyunov. “[It’s] kind of our flagship Mars mission, and they’re gaining a lot of data for us that will help us for these human missions.”

The Mars 2020 mission will be based on the design of the successful Curiosity rover. Additionally, JPL’s 2016 InSight mission plans to place a lander on Mars, designed to drill below the surface of the Red Planet to examine its deeper interior.

According to JPL, these future missions will assess the natural resources and hazards of Mars. Investigating these key questions about the habitability of Mars may help prepare for future human expeditions to the Red Planet.

The Pew Research Center reported almost two-thirds of Americans expect astronauts to land on Mars some time in the future, and more than half expect ordinary people to be able to travel in space by the middle of this century.

More than 45,000 space fans showed up for JPL’s annual open house in October, and director Ridley Scott’s latest sci-fi film “The Martian,” starring Matt Damon, attracted 18 million movie-goers on opening day.

“Last year I was on a zero gravity test flight and that was my first taste of what that might be like,” said Arutyunov, “and [ever since then] I have definitely been fascinated and [fantasized] about going to space.”

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