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Destination: Mars

Destination: MarsPart of a team awarded a $325 million grant from NASA to build a new Mars scout, Tufts professor Samuel Kounaves is setting his sights on the Red Planet in 2007. Medford/Somerville, Mass.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [01.16.04] This month, NASA's landing of the Spirit rover on Mars captured the imagination of millions of onlookers. Now, Tufts chemistry professor Samuel Kounaves is part of a team overseeing the next step of NASA's mars exploration program. In 2007, the scientists plan to launch the Phoenix - the first rover to undertake chemical analysis on the Red Planet since the 1970s Viking crafts.

"We'll look at the solubility, chemistry and pH of the soil and ask whether it has the potential to grow life," Kounaves told The Winchester Star. "We hope it will bring a greater understanding of geochemistry and look for signs of past and present life."

In the next three years, the Tufts associate professor and his team will test equipment designed to search for the presence of water underneath Mars' distinctive red surface. Their instruments - which must be hearty enough to weather the shock of landing and Mars' frigid temperatures -- will dig into the planet's surface to sample the permafrost below.

The Tufts chemistry expert said that although Mars' climate may seem extreme, life can - and does - survive under equally inhospitable conditions here on Earth.

"We have been astonished at where life on Earth has been found, microbes under the ocean and archaic bacteria that have never seen light," Kounaves told the Star. "Even in Antarctica in valleys where it never gets above freezing."

The Tufts professor continued, "There are conditions on Earth that are harsher than that on Mars. Mars and Earth had very similar beginnings as planets. When Mars became cold, life could have evolved underground."

Kounaves is also working on another project due for launch in 2009: a rover with a chemistry lab on top that can sample planetary soil. The Tufts expert said that while these missions may seem far off, there is a lot of research to be done in the meantime.

"We need to have all this information before the astronauts get there," Kounaves told the publication. "There are so many questions, such as ‘Can you grow plants in the Martian soil?' That's what science is all about - understanding nature."

And -- as the Tufts professor pointed out and millions of people following this month's landing of the Spirit have confirmed -- the science of space has a special way of engaging future scholars.

"Space science has a way of exciting students," Kounaves told the Star. "These projects excite the imagination and take us one step past the possible to what is seemingly impossible."


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