On August 6, 2012, the NASA Curiosity rover landed on Mars at the base of Mount Sharp, a mountain the size of Kilimanjaro (roughly 19,000 feet) in the middle of Gale Crater. Nina Lanza, space scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, remembers the day well. As part of the team that built ChemCam, one of the ten instruments on the rover, she spent three months at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, living on “Mars time” to follow Curiosity’s first “steps.”
ChemCam stands for “chemistry camera” and comprises a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) instrument and a Remote Micro Imager (RMI). It was built at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in collaboration with the French space agency CNES. Nina Lanza and postdoctoral fellow Patrick Gasda are two of the Los Alamos scientists who work on the instrument.
“We get to shoot a laser on Mars for a living,” Lanza says, grinning.
And the laser on ChemCam is extremely powerful. When focused on a target, it vaporizes a small amount of material by heating Martian rocks to a temperature that’s roughly equivalent to that of the surface of the sun. “When we fire at a nearby target,” Gasda explains, “the elements get excited and, as they come down from that excited state, they emit light.”
By looking at the light emitted by the target, scientists can analyze the composition of rocks and soils on Mars. Previous Mars missions have found ice in the near-surface at high latitudes, begging the question: was there ever water on other parts of Mars at some point? And if there was—does that mean there could have been life, too?
With the very first laser shots from ChemCam, the answer was a definitive yes. “ChemCam discovered that all Martian dust is hydrated,” Lanza explains. “Given how dusty Mars is, this means that water is everywhere on the planet. We also found evidence that water was flowing in Mars’s past.”
“Gale Crater was filled with water,” Gasda adds. “From the sequence of sedimentary rocks we know of flowing streams in the crater that converged to a large body of still water that likely lasted for millions of years.”
“Curiosity gave us a picture of Gale Crater as an extremely habitable system,” Lanza continues. “We know that on Earth systems like this, with long-lasting neutral pH waters, would definitely support life.”
But how do you go about finding evidence for life? You search for clues, in other words, unique markers that identify biological activity.
“A potential marker could be manganese minerals,” Lanza says. In 2016 Curiosity found rocks rich in manganese-oxides at a location called Kimberley. “Manganese deposits in the terrestrial geological record mark the shift to higher concentrations of atmospheric oxygen due to the emergence of photosynthesis. This means that there could have been more oxygen in the Martian atmosphere in the past.”
Water. Oxygen. What about other building blocks of life? How do we look for those?
“Some nucleic and amino acids have been found in space,” Gasda tells me. “However, sugars like ribose—the R in RNA, one of the first building blocks of life—are too unstable to be found in space. In order to have life, you need molecules that stabilize these sugars in water. Borates are particularly promising molecules for stabilizing sugars.”
Boron is highly soluble in water. In 2013 researchers from the University of Hawaii found boron in a meteorite from Mars. That’s when Gasda became interested in this quest. “Once we knew that Gale Crater had once hosted a large body of water, it was natural to search for borates in those sediments.”
ChemCam did indeed find boron on Mars in 2016. Together with the manganese oxides, this is still not sufficient evidence for life on Mars, but it shows that some of the raw ingredients were present. The scientists are primed to keep looking. Curiosity has been on Mars almost five years (or 1660 sols), and its data is helping researchers fine-tune the instruments for the next Mars rover, provisionally named Mars 2020, to be launched in July 2020.
“We need to look for biosignatures,” Lanza says. “And we may not find them. But if we don’t, to me, the most striking question would be: what if there were indeed all the ingredients for life on Mars, yet life never happened? What made Earth so unique that life could happen here but nowhere else?”
Gasda nods. “And if we are indeed unique, shouldn’t this make us feel more special, and make us more cautious about the way we treat our planet and our biodiversity?”
I mention the current political climate, with the planned budget cuts to scientific research, and the appalling denial of any intervention to curb global warming.
“These cuts to basic research are disheartening,” Lanza says. “People often think of NASA research as esoteric and out of touch. And yet almost everyone has GPS technology on their smart phones today, something we owe to space research. Take the electron as another example. I’m sure people in the nineteenth century found J. J. Thomson’s research on the electron to be highly academic, with few practical applications. Yet without his discovery we wouldn’t have electricity, and our lives today would be fundamentally different.”
“The best measure for progress,” Lanza concludes, “is when you can’t imagine the knowledge you are going to gain. Let the science surprise you.”
Nina Lanza is a staff scientist, and Patrick Gasda is a postdoctoral research fellow, both in the Space and Remote Sensing group at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and on the science team for the Curiosity Mars rover mission. The opinions expressed here are their own and not their employer’s. Both will be speaking at the March for Science in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on April 22nd.