By Dr. Adrian Brown
Planetary physicist at the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, SETI Institute, and Gail Jacobs
When most people look at photos of the Martian landscape, they see the kind of dry topography that, while attractive, shows only that at first glance Mars resembles many of the desert areas of Earth. By analyzing spectroscopic data gathered by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, however, SETI Institute planetary scientist Dr. Adrian Brown sees clues to where liquid water might once have puddled and pooled on the Red Planet, and possibly spawned life. Adrian is interested in finding subtle hints that large bodies of water might once have flooded the northern regions of this now-dry world, hints that the Orbiter’s infrared spectrometer could provide. In addition to his search for water, Adrian hunts for clues to volcanic activity in these same northern realms, because the energy provided by such eruptions could fuel microscopic life.
Adrian, pertaining to your scientific work, what motivates you?
I’m motivated by the fact that when it comes to Mars, there are always new challenges to tackle and solve every day. It’s exciting knowing that each day may bring a new piece of the jigsaw puzzle. It’s as if I have 50 pieces of the puzzle but there are 1,000 pieces out there, and they’re not all in the same box. If I can find another 100, I can figure out this little corner of the puzzle. It’s exciting to read the latest Mars Orbiter findings or to search for the most important books or papers to read and work out how to do it in an efficient way that will take me one step closer to finding another relevant piece of the puzzle.
I might come across some information that doesn’t even seem like a piece of the puzzle. Then it will dawn on me that the puzzle parts can interrelate with another piece that I hadn’t considered, and that’s very cool. I’m continually learning about new physics, mathematics, and computer programs, and different ways to put them together to try and answer a scientific question that I thought of some time previously. I’m always motivated by finding new pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and then watching the overall picture grow over time.
Give us an overview of your research projects.
Most of my research revolves around Mars. One area I focus on is the polar regions of Mars. In spite of their extreme cold, most of the action on Mars occurs in those bitterly cold regions today. Ice is continually condensing and subliming throughout the year, so there are a lot of dynamic processes that cause Mars’ atmosphere to inflate and deflate like a little ball. It’s as if we can see it breathing every seasonal period. It gets so cold on Mars that the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere actually freezes out onto the surface. It would be like the nitrogen freezing out in our atmosphere. Can you imagine what sort of havoc that would create here on Earth? That’s one reason I’m interested in studying these dynamics, which are actually quite different at the Martian North and South Poles.
— Image courtesy of NASA/JPL
I’m also very interested in the most ancient rocks on Mars. This area of research allows me to learn more about the many stages of development Mars has gone through. We can locate these rocks by using imaging, or infrared, spectroscopy to detect minerals on the surface. I use an instrument called the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter that looks at the way light from the sun is reflected off rocks on the surface and bounces back to the satellite. We look for areas where light is absorbed in the electromagnetic spectrum. By looking for particular telltale absorptions, we can tell what minerals are on the surface. Using this technique, we can identify clays on the surface of Mars, which usually occur in the most ancient areas of the planet.
I’ve recently been interested in a place called Nili Fossae — a region where we find carbonate minerals in the rocks. Carbonate is fairly common on Earth but is very rare on Mars. In these most ancient parts of Mars, we have found that running liquid water altered the original mineral structures in some of the basaltic, olivine-bearing rocks into carbonate-bearing rocks. We know this because once the rocks have changed into carbonate, their structure doesn’t change again. This allows us to identify where olivine has changed into carbonate, and that’s an indication of the action of heat and water in Mars’ past. And very excitingly, that same heat and water might not just have altered minerals — in the very early stages of Mars’ development, they may have also provided energy for life on Mars. — Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
What is the coolest thing about your research?
I’m driven by the fact that Mars is tangible. Since 1997, we’ve had at least one satellite orbiting Mars continuously. There is a deluge of information coming back from the planet. We’re getting new pictures of unprecedented accuracy. We’re learning incredible new things about Mars all the time. For example, at the moment there is a lot of excitement because there might be methane in Mars’ atmosphere. That hasn’t actually been proven to my satisfaction, but it is an exciting and tantalizing possibility that could prove to be a potential link to life and geological activity on Mars today. While our ignorance with regards to Mars is still overwhelming, it’s so exciting to research a subject with such a wealth of new information.
The time for Mars is now! Mars exploration can be likened to the old Wild West of today. We’re the early settlers, wondering what is beyond the next mountain range. We’ve crossed the Appalachians and are heading into the plains of the expansive Midwest. We’re in our infancy of understanding Mars, and that’s pretty cool — there are so many surprises waiting for us to uncover!
As with the early pioneers heading West across America, do you envision humans settling on Mars?
As humans, we’re going to go to Mars — that is if we don’t destroy ourselves beforehand. We’re finding out as much as we can about our nearest habitable neighbor in order to lay the groundwork for the eventual colonization of Mars. There is nothing scientifically stopping us. Lots of challenges remain and not everyone may live on Mars, but one possible scenario is that Mars could turn into a region like the sparsely populated Antarctica. It’s not very comfortable there, but they have some interesting activities and research you can’t do anywhere else.
In the far-distant future, anywhere from 200 to 1,000 years from today, Mars could be much more Earth-like than today. With the intervention of humankind, Mars could be turned into another Earth, or at least similar enough to Earth that we could breathe the atmosphere and live pretty much as we do today on Earth. That’s certainly physically possible. So Mars holds a lot of promise for humanity. If our bodies remain in their present form, Mars is the best place for humans to create a new Earth — and hopefully we will act with more awareness of our actions than we do now.
Would you like to walk on the Martian landscape if you had the opportunity?
Absolutely! I think humans can play a role in the exploration of Mars. Some people say robots can do it all for us. I don’t think our Rovers are going to provide us with all the answers unless we get extremely lucky and land in an area that is or was burdened with biology. That hasn’t happened as of today and it may not happen within the next 15 years.
This 15-year period will provide the private company SpaceX with enough time to develop their rockets for human travel. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, would like to send humans to Mars. If they continue on their successful trajectory, humans could be exploring Mars within 15-20 years on the SpaceX rockets. We’ll see — a lot of things have to go right for that to happen, but the strong possibility exists that we’ll see private commercial flights to Mars within our lifetimes.
As a scientist, does it worry you that Mars could become a vacation destination before scientists have the opportunity to land on Mars and fully explore the planet for evidence of life?
The scientists of our generation, and particularly the next two generations, have a window of time when they will have to answer the question of life on Mars before humankind arrives in strength. Within that period, I don’t think we can change our ways and develop an ability to live side-by-side with a possibly extant Martian biosphere. I also don’t think Mars will be saved for science. Humankind will likely want to utilize Mars as a second Earth. It’s important for scientists of this generation to push for the answer of whether Mars has — or had — a biosphere. Once we’re armed with that information, or at least we’ve tried as much as possible to find life on Mars using robotics, then perhaps the colonization of the Red Planet will begin. This is going to be a very interesting period and I hope to stay involved in it. It’s a fascinating stage in our development as a species.
Is there one fact about your research that surprises most people?
I am surprised by new findings all the time! The possibility of sending humans to Mars and then terraforming Mars, or changing it so it becomes more like Earth, is something that may not cross a lot of people’s minds. Also, some people are surprised that the Polar Regions are so active. There are geysers that shoot up to 20 meters and create big dust fields around them on the ice. It’s a very cool environment. Of course, you wouldn’t want to step on the surface because your boots would probably stick to the ice. Our Phoenix lander was crushed by the CO2 ice; so if we can’t get a robot to operate there, we are going to have a lot of challenges. The polar regions of Mars will long be an exploration frontier for humans. Image at left: Mars’ north polar ice cap, Olympus Mons and three accompanying volcanoes, clouds over those volcanoes and the
west edge of Valles Marineris — Image courtesy of NASA/MSSS
What do you currently consider your biggest challenge?
Funding my research would definitely be my biggest challenge at the moment. The scientific career I have is very liberating because I get to run my own projects and be my own boss. The ability to make up the projects I want to work on is exceptionally cool and it’s what I’m so excited about. You’re not pursuing anybody else’s dreams; you get to invent the dreams that you will pursue. But it does come at a price, which is having to convince others to give you that funding in order to realize your dreams. The U.S. government supports research through NASA but that funding program is extremely competitive and scientists have to write 6-10 proposals in order to get just one funded.
Why should the general public care about your research?
As Mars becomes more important in the coming decades, I think the general public’s interest will increase. We’re about to see Virgin Galactic launch humans into space. There was a recent successful drop test of Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft, and we’re going to see a lot of activity in space over the next decade that will capture the public’s attention much more. Costs may be prohibitive at first and wealthy people will be the ones to go into space. But prices will eventually come down, and regular people like you and me will be able to afford a pretty amazing getaway in space. The public will gradually expect to travel beyond the edge of space. They’ll want to go to a space station, around or to the Moon, or destinations beyond. Over time, the capabilities of these commercial companies will increase. That will be tricky to do, but I don’t think Richard Branson will stop at the edge of space as his current spacecraft do. Branson or those who follow him will want to travel beyond that, and they’ll have the public watching and eagerly waiting.
People have inquisitive minds and have always been interested in planetary science and the nature of the universe. This curiosity can lead to a strong interest in subjects such as Mars and what’s really going on around us in the universe. We’re learning more about our solar system and beyond all the time. Astronauts will soon be visiting near-Earth asteroids and a next generation of spacecraft will hopefully be replacing the retiring shuttle in the next decade. For those who have an interest in the universe, these quests for knowledge and discovery will always be an important part of their lives.
In addition to your research projects, you organize the SETI Institute’s Colloquium Series, which is taped and available to the public. Tell us about the program and its importance to you and the broader community.
I’m of the opinion there is not enough news or news sources about space and space science at the moment. We might catch a news-byte on the radio or TV about a new near-Earth asteroid that was discovered streaking toward us and missed us by two seconds. But usually that’s it and you can’t hear any more. If I was a member of the non-scientific general public, I’d love to see a “click here for more information” button on my radio or TV so I could learn more. That was one main motivator in creating the SETI Institute Talk series. And our viewers are showing there is a strong public interest in the content of these Talks. We have a growing audience that attends the Talks at our building in Mountain View, California. Even more so, we have a growing audience online. I encourage people to tell their friends to check out the Talks on YouTube. They’re there to stay and people can watch them on their television or computer at their convenience.
I’m also seeing that YouTube is taking over as the new TV. If you buy an Apple TV, for example, a dropdown menu will take you to YouTube where you can watch our talks for free. Viewers will see very engaging videos that give them a high-quality presentation on fascinating topics by experts in their fields, and our production efforts are getting better all the time.
For whom are these talks intended?
Viewers do not need to have a strong scientific background in order to enjoy the talks. I always learn something new at every talk, which is really cool. We intend to deliver content just a bit above the Discovery channel level. The Discovery or History channels occasionally have some good programming but once you’ve seen it, you may have to wait another year for their next good program. Our format offers something new on a weekly basis. While you might not find each instant of every talk amazing, I think you’ll be amazed at least once in every one of these talks.
The next time you’re relaxing at home and find that the latest episode of your favorite TV show is a rerun, I hope you’ll check out our growing list of Talks archived on a vast variety of subjects. I’m sure you’ll find something of interest that’s engaging, entertaining, and you just might hear something new that will amaze you.
If you could take a 6-12 month sabbatical, what would you like to learn or do?
In a typical job, you’re working for somebody else and you’re working on their goals. I think of a sabbatical as something you take when you need a break from your job in order to do what you really want to be working on. That is really different from my job. I don’t have a need for a sabbatical. I’m working on exactly what I want to. I think I have the most fun job in the world!
Learn more about Adrian and his fascinating research in his full interview.
Watch a video of Dr. Adrian Brown giving a one-minute summary of his work. This one-minute excerpt comes from a special colloquium celebrating the 25th anniversary of the SETI Institute.
Read Adrian’s “Future Direction of Martian Exploration” blog.
Learn more about Adrian by visiting his web page.