Mars Comes to DePauw


Director of the NASA Astrobiology LEAD Team, Lisa Pratt Johnson, spoke to a packed audience in Watson Forum on Tuesday about the possibility of life on Mars and current explorations of the planet by NASA's space rover, Curiosity.
Pratt, who is also a spokesperson for the Curiosity Project and works in the Department of Geological Sciences at Indiana University, was brought to campus by the Media Fellows and Science Research Fellows programs.
Her lecture titled, "The Scientific Imperative for Seeking Evidence of Life on Mars," first addressed the audience about the importance of continuing to examine life on Earth. Pratt pointed out that there is not a widely accepted working definition of what classifies life on Earth.
"It's a bit of a shock [for some people] to find out how little we know about the origin of life on Earth and that makes it doubly difficult to think how we would appropriately look for life on another planet," Pratt said.
Nevertheless, NASA is still working on finding traces of life on Mars with Curiosity, the space rover that is currently exploring Mars. Pratt explained that Curiosity is investigating the climate and geology of Mars as well as whether or not the environmental conditions could sustain life. She presented a slide show of images showing photographs of Mar's terrain, highlighting discoveries by Curiosity and other past space rovers.
Pratt said she believes it will take a "long period of robotic exploration" before NASA can safely land a human on Mars. And while Pratt does not see this achievement happening in her lifetime, she said she would not be surprised if it happens in a student's lifetime.
Based on the evidence that Curiosity has already collected, professor of physics and astronomy Mary Kertzman says she believes a sign of life will appear much sooner.
Kertzman said that she thinks scientists will find evidence of life on Mars in the next 10 to 20 years. "I don't know if it's going to be current life or fossil life, but I'm going to be surprised if that's not the conclusion down the road."
Sophomore Ashley Poole is not convinced she will see it in her lifetime.
"I think it will be more likely that we will see living organisms through robotics on Mars before actual humans can make it to Mars," Poole said. "But I do think at some point in time humans will make it to Mars. I just don't think we'll see it."
During a question and answer portion at the end of Pratt's lecture, the concept of giving humans a "one way ticket" to Mars through a future Mars One project was discussed. Despite logistical and ethical aspects of the project that still need to be established, Pratt said she was very enthusiastic about the idea.
Senior Andrew Nash also pointed to ethics as a potentially inhibiting factor in successfully sending humans to Mars.
"I think if they want to go, ethically, they should be able to go," Nash said.
Ethics aside, senior David Morgan is a fan of the Mars One concept and said he would not mind checking the planet out for himself.
"Why not? My name would go down in history as being the first person to be on Mars. All day, every day," Morgan said.