Mission to Mars





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To many, Mars is just a barren, distant planet whose surface consists of endless stretches of desert and mountain terrain. A team of UC Berkeley students, faculty and volunteers, however, have set out to prove that the seemingly hostile Red Planet may very likely be teeming with life.

Since 1997, UC Berkeley undergraduate students have been offered the opportunity to participate in the Mars 2012 Project. The class, also listed as Earth and Planetary Sciences 98/198, has focused entirely on the study of Mars and recently turned its attention to studying the possibility of life on the Red Planet.

The search for life on Mars is the first of its kind to involve entirely undergraduate students. The effort is also the first university team to look for life on the planet that has garnered much attention, especially in light of this year's discovery of liquid water activity on the planet.

"Yes, we are the first ones to do it," said David Gan, a retired UC Berkeley public health microbiologist who aids students in developing and conducting experiments in the class.

Students this semester have been busy conducting experiments concerning water on the Martian surface.

"We want to see if water can stay liquid on Mars, and if so, for how long," said Lawrence Kuznetz, who worked at NASA for 20 years. "Once we answer that question, then we want to see if anything can live in the water under the harsh Martian conditions."

This spring, students, with the help of Gan, built their own equipment to conduct experiments and found that by simulating Martian pressure and temperature, water could exist under Martian conditions.

For the experiments, the team used simple everyday equipment such as a bell jar, vacuum pump, dry ice, thermometers and an ice cube in a glass funnel to perform their tests.

Gan conducted more than 100 experiments in his kitchen and at McCone Hall with students and found that liquid water is feasible at pressures similar to Martian conditions. Their findings were written in a paper and presented in the spring at the Houston Texas Lunar and Planetary Institute's Human Exploration of Space-University Partners.

"It was a very exciting finding for us," Gan said. "Even more so because Richard Quinn and Robert Haberle at Ames did the same experiment with their very sophisticated equipment and confirmed our results."

In light of the recent findings, students are now testing how stable liquid water can be under intense Martian pressure. Through experiments suggested to them by scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, students said they hope to discover how much water loss will occur at different vacuum pressures.

"The recent Mars Orbiter Camera has found possibly recent liquid water activity on the Martian surface," Gan said. "If that is the case, we may expect to find some kind of life forms, probably bacteria in water just below the surface or in the permafrost water layer which may lie beneath the permafrost."

The team is preparing to use newly discovered strains of bacteria to determine if life can exist under extreme conditions on Mars.

The bacteria to be used are called extremophiles because of their ability to survive extreme and harsh conditions similar to those found on the Martian terrain.

"Extremophiles are bacteria which can live, grow and reproduce at extreme environments like hot springs, in vacuum, high salt content and cold conditions," Gan said. "You may have read that they have revived some bacterial spores trapped in amber 250 million years old."

One extremophile example they plan to use is the bacteria Bacillus infernus, which is found three kilometers deep inside volcanic rocks. The team also plans to use another species of bacteria that was recently discovered deep inside a crater.

Although the class has recently been focused with searching for life on Mars, students are also involved in a number of other projects that could potentially help astronauts travel to Mars.

Projects include the study of gravity effect on bone mass loss and an effort to design an efficient spacesuit adequate for travel to Mars. After working for two years, the team has successfully come closer to designing a spacesuit that could be used by astronauts to explore the planet.

"Every year the class has different projects," Kuznetz said. "The projects go in many different directions, dependent on what is the hot topic and what are the students' interests. The water project this year started a couple years ago as merely a possibility study, and now it has evolved into something that can be tested and proven."

The class itself is an "ongoing process" according to Kuznetz. He added that the students do different things every semester, but that is not to say that the class do not make some type of progression.

"Each class builds on the last," Kuznetz said. "Different projects could take a couple of semesters or last as long as eight or nine years."

Kuznetz has noticed that those students getting involved for the first time with the project are in awe at the opportunity being given to them.

"In the beginning, the students do not even believe that they are involved in this project," Kuznetz said. "We run the projects like they were at work at NASA. They are all part of a team and they know they have to figure out how best to do things and how to meet deadlines."

The class brings in an interdisciplinary attitude since it can bring in so many different fields of study and majors. The interesting thing, according to Kuznetz, is that every student finds a piece of the project to work on and contribute to since there is something for everyone.

"This is a project and we are just a bunch of people," said Kuznetz. "There are a lot of different talents that need to be brought to the team."

The students involved are also given more opportunities than just studying Mars, according to Kuznetz. The undergraduate students have a number of things to participate in, such as conferences, presentations and the possibility of getting their name published on a technical paper or in a scientific journal.

"The idea that something with your name on it will be read throughout the world creates a feeling that you had a real extraordinary opportunity," said Kuznetz.

The students also interact with many other people throughout the scientific community such as scientists at NASA and researchers from other large universities. Through this class and working on these projects, the students are subjected to more than just what goes on inside the classroom or the lab.

"I first got into the project because I have always been interested in space travel," said David Chu, a third year electrical engineering and computer science major currently in his second semester with the Mars 2012 Project. "I really enjoy working on these projects since they give me a chance to work on new technologies and immerse myself into a subject that I love. I hope to publish a few papers based on these projects and maybe use them to secure a job in the aerospace industry or get into graduate school."

The Mars by 2012 course is being offered again next semester and Kuznetz said he encourages all interested students to sign up.

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