Water on Mars: NASA scientist offers a practical look

Oct 10, 2015, 07:15 IST | Hemal Ashar

Indian-origin scientist Dr Amitabha Ghosh, who is part of the NASA Mars Exploration Rover Mission and is currently in Mumbai, discusses our perennial fascination for the possibility of life on another planet

Real estate prices on planet Mars won’t match those on earth, given the vast expanse of empty space on the Red Planet. For those contemplating a move there and building a Ma(rs)nsion, all Utopian aspirations will have to wait.

Also read: NASA find evidence of flowing water on Mars, life next?

This image released by NASA on February 7, 2013, taken by Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) onboard NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, shows a self-portrait of NASA’s Mars rover. PIC/AFP PHOTO/HANDOUT

“Currently, even though the recent find of ‘liquid’ water on Mars is creating a frisson of excitement among laypersons who equate water with life, we are very far away from life as we know it here, on Mars,” laughed Dr Amitabha Ghosh, Indian-origin scientist, and Chair, Science Operations Working Group, Mission Operations, NASA Mars Exploration Rover Mission, who is in the city for a couple of days.

Dr Amitabha Ghosh
GOOD G(H)OSH: Dr Amitabha Ghosh makes a point at Mumbai press club yesterday. Pic/Tushar Satam

The affable scientist is in the city and discussed our perennial fascination for the possibility of life on another planet.

Ghosh, in a formal black suit on a mercilessly hot October afternoon in Mumbai (did he wish he was on another planet?) started off with a short, animated film about the Rover on Mars. The film was an introduction to a free wheeling talk where, he said addressing the audience, “You could ask me what you wish about Mars, political equations between India-US referring to space.”

Ghosh’s comfort stemmed from the fact that he was on familiar territory. Ghosh was at the Press Club where he gave the talk, for the fifth time in 10 years, “I come here because you all are so welcoming,” he said as the film showed a Rover landing on Mars. Then, it showed the Rover coming out of the launch vehicle, opening up fully, “A Rover is carried folded in a launch vehicle, it is then opened up once the launch vehicle reaches Mars. If it does not open, then your mission has failed, because obviously, you cannot go to Mars to fix things,” said Ghosh to chuckles. The Rover is seen running over the reddish surface which is dotted with rocks.

Also read: Google celebrates evidence of water on Mars with a Google doodle

The film closed whetting our appetites to the fact of life on another planet, and though dry and scientific, people are dreamers. Though no claims were made, it was evident that we stand on the cusp of very exciting times, scientifically.

Highlights from the talk:
>> The Rovers in space move on six wheels, so, “if one or two wheels stop functioning they can still work,” explained Ghosh.

>> There are orbiters that support Rovers in their mission. While the Rovers are on the ground, the orbiters fly above the sites supporting in exploration.

>> Mars, Dr Ghosh said, “is kind of far away from Earth. It is at a distance of at least 20,000 trips between here (Mumbai) and New York.”

>> He sought to convey his excitement at space exploration by saying, “Look at how far we have come. In the 1800s, we did not have cars. Today, we have a car (Rover) on another planet. This is really, quite an adventure.”

>> The Martian winter peaks in January 2016. Mars is twice the distance from the Sun compared to Earth. The winter will be brutal. The Rover will be parked (no parking crunch on Mars) in something called the Marathon Valley for maximum sunlight around then. As it depends on solar energy, it will not be as active then.

>> The recent finding of water on Mars, “is a fascinating discovery” said Dr Ghosh, adding that the fact that it was “liquid water” is significant. In 2008, the Phoenix Lander had discovered water as ice. “The recent find shows that there is a high concentration of salts in the water which makes the freezing point low. There is a hypothesis that the water is coming from under the ground, this is very exciting.” Ghosh emphasized that the find caused adrenalin to surge simply because, “the presence of water means it can bring down the cost of a human mission to Mars.”

>> It is mission 2020 that scientists are awaiting eagerly too. In that mission Dr Ghosh says, “there will be an effort made to make oxygen on Mars, through Martian air. That will further up the possibility of human missions to Mars by reducing costs.” What Dr Ghosh meant was that the presence of water and oxygen on Mars would mean that humans would not have to carry water or oxygen with them on a Mars mission, which reduces costs and improves logistics greatly. It makes it that much more feasible, by cutting out transportation costs of water and oxygen.

>> Before 2020 though there is a 2016 mission, called the Insight Mission to Mars, which would explore the interiors of Mars.

>> Dr Ghosh smiled as he said that common people, “have an implicit belief that water means life. That is not necessarily true. Life needs water but the converse may not be true. Also, who is to say that if there is life on Mars, it is the same as we see on Earth? It may not be the same.”

>> There are currently several Rovers and orbiters including India’s Mangalayan on Mars.

>> Dr Ghosh peppered his talk with the phrase, “extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence” to questions about claims of having seen life on Mars, missions promising to take people to Mars as space explorers… all through he smiled because as a man of Science, he knew he had to play party pooper to all conjectures and theories about life in space. And yet, as a person not a scientist, he knew that life is nothing without dreams or hope…

>> On a political tack, Dr Ghosh said that PM Narendra Modi’s recent trip to the USA saw ISRO and NASA signing a declaration for a Mars Working Group. He added, “There is already co-operation for space communication.

>> He was asked a question about the current political climate in India where rationalists have been killed. Where many are feeling that democracy is being stifled. Dr Ghosh was a little hesitant saying that he did not answer political questions but did agree that, “You need a place where you can think and live freely. India is a very complicated country and as average people, we too, are intolerant at times. The overall landscape though is positive, I would say it is 80 per cent positive.”

>> This alumnus of IIT-Kharagpur said that he rued the fact that, “a lot of young Indians are now pursuing MBA degrees and not enough engineering talent is coming out of the country.”

>> When asked why the USA is still in the forefront on science exploration Dr Ghosh said, “Today, it is a global world. Having said that, I will add that any country develops when it becomes a global destination for talent.”
It was a stimulating two hours which wound up with a round of chai and more charcha, where the scientist was inundated with space exploration questions. Curiousity about what is dubbed as the 'final frontier' (space) remains unappeased. Even the label ‘frontier' Dr Ghosh explained may be premature because a ‘frontier' only opens up when, “there is a commercial reason for it. Like air travel did, after it became financially viable for people to take flights. After it became a mass mode. Today, even the richest philanthropists will struggle to fund a mission to Mars.”

Yet, whether it is air travel or space, you don’t need billions for common people’s imagination to take wing, or shoot off into space like a rocket launcher.

That is the thing about daydreams, they come free. Raise a glass to the scientists who make them possible. And make that glass a Mar(s)tini. Shaken, not stirred.

Hey, that's water on Mars
New findings from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provide the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars.
>> MRO has been examining Mars since 2006 with its six science instruments.
>> "Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water,’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we've long suspected," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "This is a significant development, as it
appears to confirm that water albeit briny is flowing today on the surface of Mars."
>> The spectrometer observations show signatures of hydrated salts at multiple RSL locations, but only when the dark features were relatively wide. When the researchers looked at the same locations and RSL weren’t as extensive, they detected no hydrated salt. 

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