By Kat Riddler, Editor-in-Chief

There may be life on Mars, but humans could have brought it there.

Two professors from the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Missouri—St. Louis led a discussion on “Mars: What’s it really like and is it inhabitable?” in Century Room C on March 3. Dr. Erika Gibb, professor and department chair, and Dr. David Horne, teaching professor, talked with students about the possibility of terraforming the surface and living underground on the Red Planet as part of What’s Current Wednesdays (WCW).

The existence of water on Mars started the discussion about the possibility of inhabiting the planet. Over time, a planet loses atmosphere and gases, lighter ones first. Martian gravity is 3.3 meters per second versus the 9.8 that Earth experiences, resulting in Mars losing more than Earth does. Scientists have tracked the loss of water on Mars and what percentage of water left on Mars would be heavy in hydrogen to not have been lost as quickly.

When thinking about terraforming a planet for humans to inhabit, water is an essential part of the discussion. Mars has less of a magnetic field than Earth, causing more atmosphere to escape. Dr. Horne confirmed that Mars most likely had an ocean at one point in its past that would have been essential to dealing with radiation. “Our oceans help regulate our temperature processes. So it would have been quite a different planet with all this water on there and a much more dynamic atmosphere,” Horne said.

Besides just oceans, there is evidence of volcanoes as well. Dr. Horne said, “At some point it had some geothermal activity going on which may have been replenishing the gases in the atmosphere, keeping the planet churning over, keeping the atmosphere thick, and that may have contributed to the conditions that allowed you to have an ocean on the surface. I say ‘may have’ all the time because none of this is particularly certain as of yet.”

Logan Brown, PhD, physics, asked, “Would there even be hope of sustaining an atmosphere without a stronger magnetic field?” Both Horne and Gibb confirmed that there would be no long term sustainable way to live on the planet without introducing a stronger magnetic field or replenishing the atmosphere. Both suggested that the best place to live would not be on the surface, but underground.

The surface of Mars gets about 20 times Earth’s radiation without the atmosphere and magnetic field protecting the surface like Earth’s does. Drilling under the surface could also protect colonists one day from the fine-dust storms that cover solar panels and cause malfunctions in machinery. However, there is permafrost under the surface, suggesting there might be microbes and life on Mars, which many in the scientific community would not want to contaminate. This could occur by landing and drilling without forethought of preservation of the organisms if they are there. Horne said, “We sent the Viking probes there that weren’t really built in clean environments so the possibility also exists that we introduced life to Mars by sending them there covered in microbes.”

Dr. Horne pointed out that while many missions have landed rovers on the planet, it has mostly been around the equator of Mars. Rovers are landed near the equator so as to have a higher assurance of successfully landing something sent to Mars. Horne said, “I think the Polar Lander was at 61 degrees North— that’s not even polar… It’s easy if you land at the equator because we have a good handle of the thickness of the atmosphere at the equator.”

While missions could potentially land elsewhere, it could be dangerous to land because the atmosphere could be different at the poles and could crash the probe or rover. While it would be better to have more information about the poles on Mars, it could be costly to send something higher up on the planet without fear of destroying it upon landing.

Although most people think the technology and machines taken to outer space have to be cutting edge, it is usually the simple machines that work better because they do not break down as often as the more complex machines. Horne and Gibb discussed engineering and technological advances because of the space race being more “robust” than “clever.” The private and public sectors could benefit from the advancements made on Mars like they did after the space race. Horne said, “The kind of suits, the shielding, maybe some light and radiation shielding, things like that would be very useful in a whole load of civilian applications and domestic applications. I think, there’s always something to be gained by exploring a new environment.”

The next WCW discussion is April 6 in Century Room C at 2 p.m. and will discuss incarceration rates and reform.

Dr. Gibb at What’s Current Wednesday discussing the possibility of human life on Mars Courtesy of Michael Plumb
Dr. Gibb at What’s Current Wednesday discussing the possibility of human life on Mars
Courtesy of Michael Plumb