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Life at the SETI Institute: Mars Detective -- Investigating the Red Planet for ancient life

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By Dr. Richard Quinn; Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, SETI Institute, and Gail Jacobs

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Is the surface of Mars really sterile, or could there be still-undiscovered traces of life littering this hostile landscape? Chemist Richard Quinn focuses on understanding the reactive processes that take place on the surface of the Red Planet, and how these might give a better idea of the potential for habitable environments.

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Richard, briefly describe your research projects.
I typically have four to five concurrent projects, all with a common theme, but my research focuses on two general areas. One research area is Mars science - specifically, habitability and astrobiology. I'm working on characterizing mechanisms of biomarkers' degradation and preservation, especially organic chemicals, which might give us some insight into the habitability of different environments on Mars. I investigate the properties of soils based on in situ measurements made by landers and then use the results to evaluate the habitability of Mars.

My other area of research involves instrument development. I've recently been working on instrument technology development and science experiments in low-earth orbit. I'm currently performing an experiment with other researchers on the O/OREOS (Organism/Organic Exposure to Orbital Stresses) mission, which is a nanosatellite now in low-earth orbit. The experiment is called the Space Environment Viability of Organics. We're looking at the rate organic molecules, which are the building blocks of life as we know it, are altered in space environments - how they change when exposed to space radiation.

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A computer-generated image of the O/OREOS nanosatellite. NASA's Organism/Organic Exposure to Orbital Stresses, or O/OREOS, nanosatellite is about the size of a loaf of bread, weighs approximately 12 pounds and has two experiments that it will conduct in low Earth orbit, more than 400 miles above Earth. Image Credit: NASA Ames

In late August 2011, you were quoted in a Space.com article, with the intriguing headline, "The Dirt on Mar's Soil: More Suitable for Life than Thought." Tell us more about those findings and what that could mean for future research.
I recently published a journal paper with some co-authors from NASA-Ames, JPL and Tufts University. It provided an analysis based upon some of the results from the Mars Phoenix Mission that landed in the northern Polar Regions in 2008. We measured the property of the soil, known as the redox, or oxidation reduction, potential. Very simply, it's one measure of the reactivity of a soil, and metabolism is coupled to redox processes.

One of the concerns for Mars exploration is that Mars' surface might be very oxidized, or very inhospitable to life. What our measurements have shown is that, in fact, when we added water to Martian soil at the Phoenix site, we found it to be a very moderate soil solution. Previously we had determined the pH was slightly basic, which surprised some who thought Mars soil would be very acidic. Our measurement of redox potential indicates that in its current state, the Phoenix site on Mars is a benign environment. There are other ways in which the environment is very challenging for potential life, but these results gave us one measurement that indicates the environment isn't as harsh as some people thought. We continue to look at those data sets and come up with new scientific insights.

Another interesting headline appeared on August 30: "Epic search for evidence of life on Mars heats up with focus on high-tech instruments." According to Dr. Jeffrey Bada, co-organizer of an American Chemical Society symposium on the Red Planet, in late August, "The bottom line is that if life is out there, the high-tech tools of chemistry will find it sooner or later." Have new tools propelled us into a revolutionary era of space exploration and the possible discovery of life on Mars or elsewhere in the universe?
There are two parts of the problem. One is the tools; the other is the accessibility to the right location. In 2008, the Mars Phoenix mission had an instrument set geared toward accessing habitability, but it was a stationary lander. In November 2011, however, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory will be launching the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which has very good science capability in terms of measurements -- and it can also rove. This mission involves taking the combination of good analytic tools and then getting them to the right spot, which is very exciting.

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Curiosity - The Next Mars Rover. This artist concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. This picture depicts the rover examining a rock on Mars with a set of tools at the end of the rover's arm, which extends about 2 meters (7 feet). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Jeff Bada, who made the comment, is right. We do have the tools. The MSL will likely experience technical challenges when making the measurements so we'll have to wait to see how successful it is, but everybody has high hopes. When doing research, you don't always get the answer you want, but then you do it again with what you've learned from previous attempts and eventually success will come.

What tools are you working on that could take lead to breakthroughs in learning more about a planet's environment and potential for habitability?
I'm interested in chemical sensors. One of the challenges we face when using chemical sensors is that they tend to have a very short shelf life. On Earth, you can use the sensor and then throw it away. When you need another one, you open up a package and if it doesn't work, you just get a new one.

I've been working on methods that will enable chemical sensing in extreme environments where the chemical sensors are made at the point of use. Typically a chemical sensor has a sensing element that degrades with time. When looking at space exploration into the outer Solar System, it can take many years from the time of the instrument launch to the time it is actually used. To address this, I'm looking at micro-fabrication tools that would allow for self-assembly of our chemical sensing elements in situ. Instead of sending the chemical sensor with the sensing element, we would send a device that would fabricate the sensoring element when it gets to its destination.

Do you personally think the potential exists to discover life on Mars?
My work primarily focuses on evidence for ancient life that once existed on the planet. Based upon observational evidence in terms of the history of liquid water on Mars, it appears there were habitable environments in the past. I think the probability of ancient life existing on Mars is very high. Again, the challenge for the scientists is access -- getting a rover to the right location and having the right tools to actually have a confirmation that will hold up to public scrutiny.

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Click on image to see an animation of panorama images of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander's solar panel and the lander's Robotic Arm with a sample in the scoop. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University

What is the coolest thing about your work?
As a scientist, the coolest thing about the work in general is that you have the opportunity to create your own projects. Through the proposal process offered through NASA and other government agencies, you're allowed to develop your science ideas from the ground up and I think that's very exciting.

Why should the general public care about your research?
I think the public, and the nation, should be interested in planetary exploration, which includes learning everything we can about our Solar System and beyond. Historically, that's what progressive nations have done -- we've explored. Since the founding of the country, we've explored our continent, and then we went beyond the continent. That's what makes - and keeps - nations great.

Looking from a basic science perspective of understanding who we are and understanding both the history and the future of life in the universe, space science is an area that I hope fascinates lots of people.

Are you aware of misconceptions the public may have about space science?
I think one misconception that the public may have is that space science costs a lot of money, and they wonder if it's worth it. In fact, the cost of space exploration, particularly a Mars rover or something similar, is extremely modest relative to the financial burdens of the country. People may think space exploration is something we can't afford, but its payoffs are tremendous to the nation in terms of what we learn and in terms of technology spin-off.

Much of what my colleagues and I do is technology development. The technology benefits of NASA programs and space exploration are tremendous. The country would lose a great deal if support for these programs were lost.

What do you currently consider your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge is the difficult current funding environment. But the economic challenges are not only relevant for scientists but for everybody in today's economy.

What motivates you?
I love the work I get to do each day. When I was in college, I really dreaded going to different jobs I had throughout that time. As a scientist, however, I can honestly say I don't think there has ever been a day when I haven't wanted to get to work and see what discoveries await.

What first sparked your interest in science, and specifically chemistry?
I think it was pretty clear from a young age that math and science were subjects for which I had an aptitude, and so it was a no-brainer to pursue science. My family provided us with a strong academic focus and the encouragement to find something we were good at and enjoyed. There was something that appealed to me early on about the interactive physical aspects of creating something with my hands, and I'm fortunate to be able to work in an area that I've been interested in since I was a kid.

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Does your work offer the opportunity to speak with youth or work with them?
Yes, I routinely have students working in my lab. Currently, I have two students just starting who are from the URSA (Undergraduate Research at the SETI Institute in Astrobiology) partnership program the SETI Institute has with San Jose State University. I also have REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) students in the summer. This past summer, I was involved in STEP (Science, Technology and Exploration Program), a summer program for high-school students.

When speaking with students, I give them my perspective as a scientist and describe what science is about, which in fact, turned out to be somewhat, if not quite different, than what I thought it was when I was a kid. I thought science was more precise and always provided the right answer. Now I realize it's more fluid and there's a lot of diversity in opinions on the same subject matters. Picture to right: Richard Quinn with URSA student Hana Hashim.

Have you seen your students have the same type of realization regarding their notions of what a career in science is really like?
For students who come to work in my lab, I think the most surprising thing to them is how difficult experimental science is, how patient you need to be to wait for a result, and how the process frequently requires an extended period of time where you feel like you're not achieving much and then suddenly, the Eureka moment comes and everything falls in place.

Young people tend to expect instant gratification, especially in today's society. I was recently speaking with a student and I explained how long it takes to get an instrument onto a Mars mission, which is usually more than a decade from the start. She couldn't believe it and looked so sad! She asked, "It takes how long?" And then she commented on how Google basically "conquered the world" in a matter of years and yet it takes more than a decade to get something to Mars.

Does your work keep you in the lab?
I have a lab at NASA Ames, and I love working in the lab. But I spend a great deal of time writing papers and proposals. From around 2000 through 2007, I spent almost every summer in the Atacama or elsewhere doing field work, but my time away from the lab now tends to be for gatherings with family and friends.

If you had a one-year sabbatical to learn something entirely new, what would it be?
It would be fascinating to learn more about art conservation from a materials science perspective. Being a chemist, the materials and methods of restoring master works and things like that would be pretty interesting.

What is your philosophy of life?
Just try to be a nice person as best you can.

What's in store for you in the future?
I would like to see another instrument I've worked on make it onto another planetary exploration mission. I was just awarded funding to develop an experiment for the Space Station. Developing new technologies and experiments and seeing them deployed in space is one of my goals.



To learn more about Richard and his fascinating research, listen to his talk on the O/OREOS Nanosat Project, presented on April 24, 2011, as part of the SETI Institute Colloquium series.

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