C-SPAN in the Classroom Podcast: Exploring Mars

By | December 3, 2022

To infinity and beyond! That phrase has been used throughout history to reflect the concept of no boundaries, no limits, that can apply to many areas in our lives. Tune in this week as the team talks with NASA Planetary Scientist Dr. Jennifer Stern about the exploration of Mars, its impact, and the future of space exploration.

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Sounds to pressure water now flowing Under the ml And here we go and hydrogen burnoff Igniters initiate seven six five four Stage engine start three two one Booster's indignation And liftoff of Artemis one we rise Together back to the moon and Beyond Hi I'm Zach and I'm joined by my Colleagues Craig and Pam in the opening Clip we heard one of NASA's latest Ventures into space the launch of Artemis 1 an uncrewed test flight AS was Stated by the announcer during the Launch quote We rise together back to The moon and Beyond the ongoing Artemis Program seeks to re-establish a human Presence on the moon for the first time Since 1972 and eventually for the first Time on Mars The Soviet Union made multiple attempts In the 1960s to reach the red planet and NASA soon followed with its Mariner 3 Spacecraft but according to space.com None of these early attempts even got Close to the planet Since that time the United States has Successfully landed six Rover vehicles On Mars including the first in 1997 Sojourner and the two most recent Explorations curiosity in 2012 and Perseverance in 2021 as the organization Seeks to safely land humans on Mars for The first time NASA Goddard space flight

Centers Dr Paul Mahaffey discusses the Objective of the Curiosity Rover which Is still in operation after more than 11 Years of service let's listen but let me Just set a little bit of the context it Was kind of uh August 2012 more than Five years ago we came barreling into Mars and there was that exciting seven Minutes of Terror and we landed safely On the surface thanks to the great Engineering Team at JPL that got us there but the Objective of the mission really was to Explore a habitable environment on Mars And right off the bat we just found Incredible things we we found Clays that Were formed by water The rover Curiosity is just extremely Capable habitable environments for Humans and the presence of Life on Mars Are no longer dreams their reality After the break we'll hear from Dr Jennifer Stern planetary scientist at The NASA Goddard space flight center Dr Stern served on NASA's science team For the Curiosity Rover and is also a Team member of the sample analysis at Mars or Sam instrument Suite one of the 10 instruments on curiosity which uses Mass and Laser spectrometry to measure The chemical composition of the Atmosphere and surface of Mars so stick Around for what promises to be a Discussion that will be out of this

World we'll be right back and then head To infinity and beyond joining us today Is Dr Jennifer Stern planetary scientist At the NASA Goddard space flight center In nearby Greenbelt Maryland Uh Jennifer ellisons could you please Expand on your background and you roll It NASA Sure like you said My specialty is the geochemistry of Mars And other planetary bodies Um the group I work with develops Instruments called Mass spectrometers uh What they do is they measure molecules The mass of molecules in order to Identify them and we use these Mass Spectrometers to study the composition Of the atmosphere of other planets and Then also the the rocks or regoliths of Other planets in addition to that I I Support all of that work that our group Does by laboratory work Developing instrumentation and analyzing Samples that are in some way like Mars Or another planet and sometimes I Actually get to go to those places in The field that are Mars like in some way Like Hawaii or parts of Greenland and I Get to study those environments and Collect those samples to bring them back To the lab wow that sounds like a very Engaging exciting uh job and so I know It's difficult in a nutshell but in Thinking about the different

Technologies and instruments that have Historically made the travel Mission to Mars could you talk about curiosity and How you were involved in it and what you Learned as a result of it sure Um so I've been involved in some way With curiosity missions since 2008 which Is when I joined the team at Goddard That was building this instrument this Mass Spec called sample analysis at Mars And we we call it Sam for short so this Is an instrument in the belly of the Rover and it measures uh it will heat up Rocks and look at what gases come off And analyze them with mass spectrometer And then identify them so we can tell You know CO2 different organic molecules Different All sorts of things we can tell whether They're Organics in the rocks and Whether the Rocks contain sulfur all Those sorts of things um we also can Measure the atmosphere in the same way And so uh that building and developing And testing all of that takes a long Time and when I joined my group it was Sort of at the tail end of that part of The the mission development Um and then We we launched I went down to the launch I got to see the launch of curiosity Which was super exciting and then when It landed Um at like 1am

Um on East Coast time I was actually at Nasa Goddard doing some Outreach about About the landing Um and then after that for 90 days I Wasn't there the whole 90 days but the Whole team the whole mission team was at Jeff propulsion lab living on Mars times And basically kicking the tires of the Instruments and the Rover itself doing Some of the very first measurements and So I would go out there for two or three Weeks at a time and work with that team Living on Mars time Um Then over the course of the mission Which now we've been We've been operational for over 10 years Which is awesome we have measured our Instrument the sample analysis that Mars Instrument has measured probably over 20 Samples 20 solid samples and much more Atmosphere and we've learned a whole lot Just from those samples and also from All of the other information the the Rest of the instruments on the Rover Tell us Um I it would take all day to talk tell You everything but I'll pick three high Points that I think are the most Interesting we learned that there's Actually organic carbon in the rocks and This organic carbon is this is you know Carbon that is bonded carbon-carbon Carbon hydrogen bonds

Um Organics can be made in many different Ways the the planet itself Mars can make Um potentially make organic molecules Abiotically uh just through the Chemistry that happens in the Rocks Themselves in the mantle Mars can also Get Organics from interplanetary dust Particles and meteorites and everything Falling into Mars just like stuff falls Into Earth stuff falls into Mars too and Those those things bring organic Molecules of course Organics are of such Interest because some specific Organics Are associated with life we certainly Haven't seen the specific very specific Organics that would indicate life but we Have seen we've been able to quantify The carbon in the rocks and also figure Out what kinds of carbon what kind of Molecules we've seen the second thing That I'll highlight is the detection of Fixed nitrogen on Mars and that was work I was closely involved in and the reason This is important is because nitrogen in In our atmosphere for example it Requires it requires breaking that the Bond between the two nitrogen molecules To to use it biologically and so on Earth most of that is done by biology on Mars that is done abiotically in the Atmosphere but the fact that that's Happening the fact that that yeah that You have fixed nitrogen uh means that

It's chemically available was life more Life to be there for context the six Nitrogen is nitrate and that is a form Of nitrogen that you find in fertilizer Because it is so biologically and Chemically available Um and then the last one would be Methane so there's this big Uh controversy over whether there was Methane on Mars from the orbital Detections and the telescopic detections But Um we've been able to on the surface Actually measure the low amounts of Methane that are coming and going in the Atmosphere we don't know why uh or What's causing that methane is really Interesting because at least on earth Like 90 to 95 of methane is from life From breaking down of Organics and from Life Um in in this case there are geological And Atmospheric processes that can make It but it's really interesting that we See it and that we also see it very in a In a seasonal way that we think it Actually Cycles So those are sort of my top three Um but we've learned so much over the Last 10 years and and we're we're still Learning it sounds like you have a Fantastic job and I have to say I'm I'm A bit envious of just how much Information you've been able to gather

Uh just in those short 10 years but There's something you said just a little Bit ago that piqued my interest that you Said that Mars is like parts of Hawaii And Greenland and now you've just said That there's similar matter that we have In our fertilizer here that is present On Mars so considering that in Considering the 20 you know solid Samples that you mentioned that Curiosity has gotten uh can you just Briefly compare Earth and Mars sure sure Um well that that similarity the Specifically I'll first I'll address the Hawaii and Greenland so Mars is Basically all basalt basaltic rock and That is the same kind of rock that is is What is erupting in Hawaii Um and makes up the Hawaiian the Hawaiian Um the Hawaiian islands and so Um the geology is very similar on Mars To different places on Earth Um sort of bigger picture Mars is half The size of Earth and this is important To consider because because of this it Cools faster than Earth Earth after Planetary accretion so after the big Bang when all of the the stuff was kind Of coming together to form the planet Um Earth cooled more slowly and in fact We still on earth have this liquid Um nickel iron outer core of inside the Earth and that's what gives us our

Magnetic field Mars because it's half The size of Earth cooled faster and Doesn't have that liquid molten Center Anymore We're not sure if it ever did but it Certainly we don't think it does now Um and so the reason this is important Is because our magnetic field is what Protects our atmosphere from being Chipped away at by solar wind which is Basically radiation that comes off the Sun and eats away at our atmosphere Um we're protected because we have a Magnetic field but because Mars cooled So quickly and no longer has a magnetic Field It also has lost much of its atmosphere So the belief is that long ago there was An atmosphere on Mars and when there was An atmosphere that supported liquid Water on the surface but then over time Some the exact timing is people aren't Sure about it but sort of way back you Know like three three and a half billion Years ago The atmosphere of Mars was lost to space And that is and then with it the ability To have liquid water are on the surface And thus the ability to have a habitable Environment so Mars atmosphere is like Seven to ten millibar and our atmosphere Is a thousand millibar so Um So yeah I guess that's 100.

Um so the other thing about Mars Atmosphere is that it's made completely Of CO2 what what air is there is CO2 Which is uh not breathable and Earth on Earth we have mostly nitrogen with about 20 oxygen Um the other Sort of big picture thing is that Mars Is very cold it's I think the average is Sort of minus 80 Fahrenheit and on Earth Um of course we have fluctuations but We're much in general I think the Average temperature is much warmer Around I think plus 50 or something like That Um and that's because we we're closer to The Sun Closer to the Sun than Mars We do have a greenhouse effect which Keeps us warm now you know of course we Don't want to get too warm and that's That's a huge problem globally but if we Had no greenhouse effect then we would Be a lot colder so Jen you'll have to Forgive my very basic understanding of This and my knowledge of this is Probably akin to some of the middle School students who are listening in but My understanding is that Percy the the 2020 Mars perseverance Rover Um is the next generation of curiosity And if that's correct can you talk about Goals for the uh for the Rover and Anything you've been excited about

Um with with the rollout of that Perseverance is very similar in some Ways to curiosity it's got the same Chassis it's built on that that same Architecture Um the instrument payload is different And a big part of that instrument Payload is devoted to collecting cores Which will uh be cached and saved for a Later sample return Mission which will Come pick up the samples and bring them Back to Earth where they can be analyzed By a state-of-the-art techniques that we Simply can't send to Mars so that's Super exciting and they've collected I Think 15 cores out of something like 38 Um the the goals of perseverance are Also very similar in some ways to Curiosity they're the characterize the Climate and geology of Mars to look for Habitable environments on Mars it past Habitable environment and to prepare for Human exploration because one of the Instruments that perseverance carries is Better at actually detecting life Signatures life detection is one also One of the goals of perseverance that if There is life in that part of Mars where They are that that perseverance should Be able to detect it with with the Instrument uh specific instrument it has On board called Sherlock The two Rovers make still make similar Measurements and so we're very excited

On the Curiosity team when we hear about For example Detections of Organics and rocks by by Perseverance at desireeaux so even if we Don't we can't compare some of the data One to one Um we're learning about similar Environments jezero and Gail where Curiosity is at Gail freighter and Percy Is that Jethro crater and both of these Are very habitable environments and once Held liquid water and Deltas so studying Two different environments like that With two different Rovers you can definitely relate Information back and forth and learn From each other so considering the data That you talked about that has been Collected the samples that have been Collected and whether or not there has Been life on Wars or is Life on Mars but Just in thinking about our Natural Curiosity and that of young people who Will be listening Is it possible to speak about whether we Will ever be able to colonize uh that Planet so um NASA has no plans for Permanent settlements on Mars the amount Of resources required to do that are Just enormous The air is unbreathable and while we do Think that there are subsurfaced uh sort Of permafrost ice deposits there's no Way to know if that's safe water to

Drink Um there's other things such as food Etc It takes nine and a half months to get To Mars and that's just for what we've Sent Um it's it's very difficult to land on Mars there are a lot of things that make It very impractical There are a lot of things that make it Very impractical to think about a Permanent settlement on Mars and also um I don't think it would be very desirable Um near-term NASA's focus is sending Astronauts back to the moon and building The infrastructure at the moon In order to Stage long-term missions for Mars because we you know we still are Planning to send people to Mars just not For long-term settlements and so at the Moon we'll be able to learn how to live Away from Earth the Moon is about three Days away by spacecraft from Earth Whereas Mars is you know months away Um at the Moon we also will be having we Have a plans for a lunar Gateway which Is an outpost that will be orbiting the Moon so astronauts will go there and Also to the lunar surface And I think the idea is to have a more Permanent or extended presence on the Moon With no no real plans For such a thing on Mars again because The amount of fuel it takes to get all

Of the stuff that you need to live on Mars to Mars before you could ever be Self-sufficient it's just it's Astronomical Um and it's not really practical well I'm thinking about the practicality of Short and long-term goals what would be Your message to students both those who Might be interested in being those one Of the first to colonize the moon or Those that might not be interested in Science and space So for anybody Interested in in anything I mean for Science folks interested in science get You know get those basic math and Science courses out of the way even if You don't like them or you don't feel Like you're good at them and I mean There are certainly analogs in other Fields as well they're sort of the basic Foundational courses that aren't always The most fun or interesting but that Give you the foundation for what you Want to do later My path to where I am now start started When I was young and loved being outside Skiing and hiking and and in the Mountains wondering how mountains formed And why like the Rockies were so much Bigger than the Appalachian Mountains Um and so So that that is what drove me is Interest in the natural world and Curiosity about the natural world so

Tuning into your curiosity about whether It's the human's body face the Earth or Anything just focusing in on that Curiosity Um and following that I think is really Important and sometimes you have to go Through the less fun stuff to get there To put in the work but eventually you Know stay interested in in what you're Passionate about and you will get there Um also what you're curious about is Going to change over time and that's Okay in fact that's what makes life Interesting Um and this applies to any field uh just That I think being being in Middle school high school and even College you're you're still building That foundation and not necessarily able To get to some of the the fun stuff Um but you will you will get there and Just remembering to keep your excitement And your passion focused on that thing That you're curious about Jen we really Appreciate your time today and as we Begin to wrap up our call are there any Online resources you'd like to share With our listeners to learn more about Your work and the programs at Nasa sure Sure Um you can go to Mars.nasa.gov to learn all about Mars And all of the missions that are active And the ones from the past you can also

Learn a bit about the Mars sample return There And then you can go to nasa.gov and Right on the front page of nasa.gov is There's a lot of information about Artemis and going back to the moon and How that how that going back to the Moon Is a step towards getting to Mars it's Amazing yeah because I was checking that Out and I just went down the rabbit hole Of really cool resources you have even For teachers ready to go ideas and Lessons for just to continue to Peak Children's curiosity so thanks so much For sharing all that As a team of former classroom teachers We value every opportunity to learn and To explore that Curiosity that Dr Stern Talked about and that is certainly true For us here at c-spam we like to say That whether you are a political junkie A history buff or a non-fiction book Lover you're sure to find a topic of Interest to you on our networks and in Our vast Archive of programs in our Video library You never know where you'll find Inspiration to explore something new and Challenge yourself and expand your Horizons and that is how we discover Dr Stern I attended a presentation she was Giving on the topic of Mars and with all The Milestones that have occurred in the Last few years we thought we would focus

This episode on the exploration of space So why Mars as we continue to highlight Some of our coverage of space programs Let's listen to University of Southampton associate professor Jessica Whiteside talk about our fascination With the planet and why it's valuable For us to study it today so can you help People understand why the study of Life On Mars or study of Mars itself is Valuable to humankind This is a fantastic question so ever Since Galileo looked through a telescope And saw Mars it has fascinated the Public it has fascinated people in terms Of if there's life outside of Earth and Within our solar system now it's not Just a philosophical or existential Question are we alone in the atmosphere But there are very important Implications if we do find Life on Mars One of them is that we would then have Follow-up questions in terms of did life Originate first on Earth or on Mars Because if life is the same age on both Planets there are implications that Possibly all life on Earth actually came From Mars that is that earthlings are Actually martians and vice versa it Could mean that if there was Life on Mars 3.7 billion years ago when it was a Blue world with all of that water Then there was life on Earth the same Time that possibly that life on Mars

Came from Earth and the way that would Work is we know from This from our own landscape that there Are several instances when Martian Meteorites have smashed into our planet Leaving Evidence behind leaving those actual Rocks so there could be transport of Life between the two planets it's all Very fascinating there are endless Questions Um in terms of what it means and for Life on Mars life on Earth at the same Time and that interplanetary Confluence fertilization between the two Planets this clip sparked an interest For me to dig a little deeper into the Question of life on Mars and its Relationship to Earth and I think using It with students can ignite an interest For them as well it could serve as a Springboard to a conversation about what Living things need to survive as Students consider their own communities And what elements they need to thrive They could also research images to Compare the landscape of both Earth and Mars as Dr Stern discussed and create a Poster reflecting those similarities and Differences We're investigating the different types Of equipment or instruments that have Been used to collect data from ours Offer students another area of interest

To explore technology there are so many Different directions you can go in to Aspire students who will experience Advancements in space and travel in Their lifetimes And while NASA has served as the Governmental arm of space exploration For the United States for quite some Time since the aftermath of the Soviet Union's launch of the first artificial Earth satellite Sputnik one increased Interest in the private sector has Forever changed the future trajectory of Space science engineering and discovery John logsdon of George Washington University's space policy Institute Discusses the impact of the work of Business Leaders like Elon Musk Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson Musk's ambition and eventually Bezos not So much uh Branson is is to move large numbers of People into space into deep space elon's Stated goal is to establish a Million-person city on Mars and viso's Stated goal is to move heavy industry And into outer space into deep space and Have thousands of people working in Space from establishing cities to Building heavy industry in Space the Next generation of scientists engineers Business Leaders and politicians will Have plenty of questions to consider but How can we best support our youth our

Future Leaders now Well looking through the lens as a Former teachers that we three each are We create free content on our C-SPAN Classroom website for educators to use With their students and those resources That we develop pull from a wide variety Of our television programs offering Differing viewpoints On Any Given topic Frame those Resources with the idea that Students will hear diverse perspectives On the topics and issues that you are Showing to them so they can listen to The information that is being presented In our clips and hopefully arrive at Their own conclusions So we've developed a variety of Resources that focus on everything from Space travel to engineering and the Technologies employed in lifting Rockets From the earth and even bureaucratic Considerations like policies and funding For all of the various space related Programs Exposing your students to these ideas And Concepts may prove to be the spark That helps them to discover their own Interests and we would encourage anyone Interested to explore NASA's Youth and Community activities and opportunities On the web As we wrap up this episode let's listen To planetary Chief scientist Nancy Chabot recall how she too was inspired

During her youth to pursue a career in Space science I think as a kid I was Really just taken by those visions of Different worlds I really loved that There was worlds with two sons or Worlds Made of ice or worlds where people lived In clouds and and all of these sorts of Things and I think that that just uh That made me and then you look around And there's so much about our own solar System that we have yet to discover and Just these fundamental things that we're Doing for the first time and so it's Really sort of a childhood dream come True New York Times science journalist John Noble Wilford once said quote Mars tugs At the human imagination like no other Planet with a force mightier than Gravity it attracts the eye to the Shimmering red presence in the clear Night sky Once again we'd like to thank Dr Jennifer stern of the NASA Goddard space Flight center for being part of the Discussion today and offering her Expertise on Mars and the future of Space exploration to the moon and the Red planet you'll find all the resources We highlighted in this episode and more On our featured resources page at Www.c-span.org classroom and if you'd Ever like to connect with our team to Learn more about what we have to offer

To teachers and students please email us Anytime at educate C-span.org and that's it for the this Week please remember to like and follow Our podcast wherever you listen so you Don't miss our next episode until then Thank you for joining us [Music]