Scientists Make Case for New Mars Rover, Europa Mission in House Session

WASHINGTON (CN) – A scientist working on the Mars Rover 2020 project told a congressional committee on Tuesday that if successful, samples returned to Earth from the distant planet could change everything about how human beings understand the origin of life.

“With the samples we could bring back from Mars, this will be a revolution that goes way beyond planetary science, but will extend to us asking questions about what life as we know it really looks like and further: how does one look for life as we don’t know it?” said Dr. Kenneth Farley, a professor of geochemistry at the California Institute of Technology.

Farley was joined by four other planetary experts, each of whom testified to the House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee about the status of their respective exploratory flagship missions, the Mars Rover 2020 and the Europa Clipper.

According to Farley, the samples obtained by the Mars 2020 rover, could potentially answer questions about how to find and identify extraterrestrial life forms in just 10 or 20 years.

The Mars rover will carry seven instruments to conduct geological research – and at least 20 cameras — as it searches for signs of “ancient life,” he said.

The Europa Clipper, a dual orbiter and lander, is set for launch in 2022. The craft’s mission is to study the habitability of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

“Europa likely has an ocean under its surface. It could be one of the best places in the solar system to search for life beyond earth. Further detailed investigation of Europa is one of the top priorities of the mission… particularly, exploring the active plume of water vapor that it emits into the atmosphere,” said Dr. Robert Pappalardo, a project scientist for the clipper mission and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

Pappalardo hopes that with enough funding in the Europa project, scientists will be able to conduct 40 to 50 fly-bys during which they’ll not only gain a better visual perspective of the moon, but also will be able to conduct a compositional analysis of its surface with direct samples.

They also hope to collect radar, gravity, magnetic and plasma measurements with tools capable of penetrating its icy exterior.

Only now in the secondary phase of its mission, NASA will have until October 2018 to make a final commitment to the clipper’s anticipated 2022 launch.

Dr. Linda Elkins-Tanton, the director and foundation professor at the school of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, offered lawmakers a peek into arguably even wilder frontiers.

Elkins-Tanton and other scientists working on NASA’s Discovery Mission, Psyche, believe they have glimpsed a unique, fully metal asteroid that could be the remnant of an exposed planetary core.

“We’ve never seen Psyche visually as anything more than a dot of light. But radar returns see that it interacts with a material in a way that only occurs with metal. We can see its reflective spectrum is consistent with metal,” she said. “There are smaller metal asteroids, like Cleopatra, but all are much smaller and are like shrapnel from planetary collisions.”

Those smaller asteroids are usually hidden in the inner solar system or trapped in clouds of ice and gases, Elkins-Tanton explained.

But Pysche — named for a Greek mythical figure and originally discovered in 1852 by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gaspari — leaves scientists scratching their heads.

“We’re pretty sure it used to be a planet. But true to my training, everywhere I have been, I’ve asked scientists, what else could it be if not the core of a planet? It could be a material where all of its oxygen was stripped off by the very close heat of a young sun. That could exist too. But we’ve never seen it. So even if it’s not a core, it’s exciting either way,” she said.

Psyche’s mission launch is also scheduled for 2022, with a planned time of arrival at the rock itself in 2026, four years earlier than scientists originally predicted.

Tuesday’s testimony left most members of the committee in awe, with several members frequently commenting on the sheer profundity of NASA’s many pending space missions.

But astrobiologist and professor Dr. William McKinnon brought representatives back down to Earth as he stressed the importance of federal funding and other support for exploratory space programs.

Mars Rover 2020, the Europa Clipper and the Psyche mission are all products laid out in the Planetary Science Decadal Survey, McKinnon explained.

The survey helps the government, scientists and researchers around the U.S. choose where the fate of space exploration goes.

“It’s based, first and foremost, on science, then on how much science per dollar will be realized, then its a  pursuit of programmatic balancing among targets and mission types, be they small medium or large. A balanced mix of discovery and missions enables both a steady stream of new discoveries and the capability to address larger challenges out there and here on Earth,” he said.

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