Words by Adrian Vargas and Anthony Gonzales
It’s interesting to remember when NASA first found evidence that water could exist on Mars. That idea of water being there was something out of science fiction, and public fascination with Mars and the space program in general was at its peak. So when word got out that actual running water was discovered on Mars, the lack of a positive public response was surprising. These days, people don’t seem to understand why we have a space program to begin with; they seem to have forgotten all the good that has stemmed from it.
Fascination with space seems to have died, and the new wave of thought asks questions like “Why should we care,” and “Why are we funding something that has no relevance to our modern day issues?” The idea of the space program, and the benefits it can bring, is being questioned at a time when it should be celebrated.
After the discovery, scientific figurehead Bill Nye, famous for his “Bill Nye the Science Guy” children’s series, was featured on The Nightly Show along with two comedians. The purpose was to talk about Mars and how extraordinary this discovery really is, but came across as a bashing of the space program and its discoveries with Nye being the first line of defense.
To the comedians, Donald Trump winning the election and the situation with ISIS was where the attention of the people should be focused on. What they seem not to realize is how these type of discoveries have led to some of our most loved possessions and machines.
They say we should focus on ISIS, and NASA has already been helping within that field. Prosthetics have been an immense help to soldiers who have lost limbs fighting, and which company designs these prosthetics? NASA and its space program. “Adaptations of NASA’s temper foam technology have brought about custom-moldable materials offering the natural look and feel of flesh, as well as preventing friction between the skin and the prosthesis, and heat/moisture buildup.” (Spinoff, 2005).
Alright, but what benefit does Mars research have? That same material used for the prosthetics is the material used inside space shuttles, the same space shuttles that have led rovers to Mars. In order for these shuttles to make it to the red planet, new materials were needed to make the journey. Without the fascination with Mars, this and other valuable materials would not have been discovered.
NASA is also responsible for groundbreaking medical research. Seeing as how it’s breast cancer awareness month, let’s talk about how NASA aided in developing an efficient way of analyzing cancerous tissue.
The Hubble Space Telescope has the ability to view our universe, which includes planets like Mars. Key aspects of the telescope include immensely high resolutions, dynamic ranges, and low light sensitivity. All of those aspects aid the telescope in viewing objects beyond our galaxy, but they also aid in viewing something much closer to home: suspicious breast tissue. The same key technological aspects used in the telescope are used in something called Stereotactic Breast Biopsy Technology.
Developed in conjunction with NASA, the goal of this technology was to better see the abnormalities that could indicate cancer in a woman’s breast. Normally, a biopsy would leave scarring around the area, but with this new NASA technology, it no longer leaves a scar nor any other permanent marks. Pain from the old procedure is no longer an issue, and neither is extensive radiation exposure.
Distinguished FSU professor Dr. Jeff Chanton is quite on board with the discovery and can see a multitude of viable outcomes from it. Chanton teaches Chemical Oceanography and his research focuses on the production, emission, and cycling of critical chemical compounds such as methane and carbon dioxide as well as the analysis of stable isotopes. Our own Anthony Gonzales was able to get a few words with him.
Burning Tree Magazine: What would you say Mars means to you and how does the confirmation of liquid water on Mars affect that?
Dr. Jeff Chanton: To me, I’ve always thought that humans should be exploring outer space and I grew up in a time when we were. We were going to the Moon and we were running missions to different planets and we’re still doing that in an automated sense but Mars is a part of our universe and learning anything about other planets is a really interesting thing that I think anybody would be interested in [laughs] I guess that sounds pretty dumb. But is there life somewhere else in the universe, or even in our solar system? The best chance we have of finding it is on Mars, and finding water on Mars gives some hope that there is. It would probably be microbial. Even on Earth, all life was microbial for the first 85% of Earth history.
BTM: I understand you research groundwater discharge. Based on your familiarity with the subject, what does the evidence of sedimentary deposits mean for the history of Mars and the possibility of life on Mars?
JC: There’s a lot of evidence on Mars for running water. Water flow moves a lot of the sand and the mud and so you can see a lot of sedimentary shapes on Mars indicating that it did have oceans at one point in its history and those oceans have since been lost. The present evidence on Mars is indicating groundwater seepage which you can see all around the Earth if you’re attuned to it. This evidence means there is some kind of water cycle on Mars. Temperatures are so low that it would have to be very salty water or briny water but there are life forms on Earth that live in briny water which are named Halophiles, or salt lovers. Part of the research I’ve worked on over the years is to look at the biology and chemistry of these Halophytes that live in places like Baja, Mexico where they manufacture salt. They bring in seawater and they let it evaporate and you get these dense algal mats that form which could be analogous to the situation on Mars.
BTM: I also understand you have conducted quite a bit of research on methane gas emission and detection. In 2003, a large amount of methane was found on Mars. Recently, we’ve had more evidence crop up supporting the idea of large amounts of methane on Mars. What geochemical processes can we attribute this methane to, and could this be further evidence of life on the planet?
JC: Methane has been viewed as an indicator of life on other planets because the methane in our atmosphere is out of equilibrium with the atmosphere and if you weren’t continually adding methane to the atmosphere by some process then there wouldn’t be any. The methane that is in our atmosphere was almost overwhelmingly formed from life processes and microbial processes. So one of the most exciting thing about our research on Mars was to find methane in the atmosphere because it may be an indicator of life. However the last mission we sent to Mars, the Curiosity, hardly detected any methane on the planet and so either its detection equipment isn’t working to the same extent the others were like in the case of a malfunction or the other devices were just wrong but there is some discrepancy in our observations of methane on Mars. At this point, our most recent observation indicates less methane than earlier ones.
BTM: On a final note, what would your opinion be about moving forward in terms of the exploration of Mars and general space exploration?
JC: I think the main thing is you have to support this in the government, you have to support this NASA agency, and there are struggles with congress to maintain or even increase funding for relevant programs. It’s like in that movie Interstellar where we stopped going to space so we could concentrate on feeding people, right? But that didn’t work out because in the long run they were unable to feed people and so the space program gives us advances in technology that are so useful and applicable in everyday life that it becomes a huge boon to our economy, standard of living, and everything else really. It’s an investment that pays itself off in the long run. Challenging ourselves gives us a payoff in a very real sense here on Earth, we could bring home a lot of that stuff and there certainly remains a lot of challenges. Plus it’s that whole thing about the human spirit, going somewhere no one has yet just because we can.
As has been proven time and time again,, the notion that the space program will allow for more closer-to-home discoveries is not such a crazy thought. The need for a finer definition picture for the Hubble Telescope aided in the advancement of breast cancer prevention and awareness just as the need for a sturdier shuttle aided wounded veterans around the globe. The drive to discover new information about our galaxy has led to these inventions along with dozens of others.
The space program is more than just discovering what is in our universe. It is how our universe could help us discover new advancements for the betterment of us all.