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Liftoff!

Liftoff!As NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander hurtles toward the "Red Planet," Tufts' Sam Kounaves and his research team await the chance to answer the big question: Is there life on Mars?

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [08.13.07] For Tufts' Sam Kounaves, the work he and his team of researchers have done for NASA's latest mission to Mars is not just a scientific exercise. It's exploration and an inquiry into the nature of existence.

"If there are 100 million suns in our galaxy, and, say, half of them have planets like we do, and there are another 100 million galaxies in the universe, it's impossible for me to believe we're the only ones," the Tufts chemistry professor told The Boston Globe. "We're not an accident," said Kounaves, noting he believes that life is an emergent property of the universe.

Early on Aug. 4, Kounaves moved a bit closer to confirming that belief when the Phoenix Mars Lander launched. On board, equipment developed by Kounaves and his research team-most of them Tufts' students-will gather data about the Martian soil so researchers can determine if Mars has the potential to currently, or in the past, support life.

"Mars is the only game in town," Kounaves told the Globe. "It is the only place in our solar system that is anywhere near Earth in terms of conditions [conducive to life]... And they're horrible."

A rocky planet with a thin atmosphere and a chilly climate, Mars is smaller than Earth but has similar seasonal and rotational cycles, with an average temperature of minus 81 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The equipment developed by the Tufts team consists of a small soil receptacle containing four analytical cells, "each containing 26 sensors that will measure the inorganic components of the soil, such as pH level and the levels of sodium and potassium," according to a May 2007 Tufts Journal article.

The robotic scoop will retrieve a soil sample that will then be reconstituted with water. This will enable researchers to determine the soil's viability for supporting life.

Despite the planet's ice caps and evidence of the one-time existence of water, Kounaves says that does not guarantee that Mars has ever harbored living organisms.

"We have no solid evidence there is life on Mars," Kounaves told the Globe. He further explained to Tufts E-News, "If we found some sort of fossil evidence, that would certainly answer the question of past life there, but I don't think that's very probable. Even if we just find organic compounds, that means life is feasible."

Kounaves added to the Globe that researchers will also seek to determine "if the soil is compatible for life as we know it." He noted, "It could be like Clorox bleach."

In December, according the Globe, Kounaves and some members of his team will travel to Antarctica and use the same equipment to examine the soil of the Dry Valleys of that continent, one of the most extreme regions on Earth. That information will then be compared to data sent back to NASA by the Lander.

"The [history] of what happened to Mars is recorded in the soil," Kounaves explained to the Globe. "Why is it so cold? What happened there [might] give us an idea of how fast things could [go wrong here] on Earth."

When will these questions begin to be answered? The Lander is scheduled to arrive on the "Red Planet" on May 25, 2008 and data gathering and interpretation will begin a about week later. Fortunately for non-experts, the Tufts chemist is skilled at explaining such findings to the general public. "Unlike many players in the scientific clubhouse," the Globe noted, "Kounaves actually converses in English."

 

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