ANCHORAGE, Alaska—NASA has now assembled the first color, panorama of Gale Crater, seen through the eyes of its newest, most sophisticated Mars Rover, "Curiosity".
The stunning color photo, composed from a large number of individual images (electronically pasted together like a jigsaw puzzle) shows a surprisingly earthlike scene. The Curiosity Landing Site looks very much like the rusted red deserts of Utah.
Now scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena California, are busy performomg a "brain transplant". It's that "transplant" that will allow Curiosity to start driving around on the surface. The plan is to replace the flight software with roving software.
The process is slow, but Curiosity is a new kind of Rover. It didn't ride aboard an accompanying descent platform. It landed right on its own wheels. The choice meant less complicated hardware for the rover, but more complicated software.
Meanwhile, University of Alaska Anchorage scientists are watching the mission with great interest. They're working under a $1 million grant from NASA, studying cold weather microorganisms that might survive on Mars.
Earlier this summer, they actually discovered a new species of cold-weather bacteria -- one that was living on the Matanuska Glacier right here in Alaska. It's of the same genus as a bacterium that lives in Antarctica. And what's interesting about it is that it can survive both extreme cold and extreme radiation. It's the kind of organism that could have survived on Mars -- billions of years ago -- when the planet was warmer and wetter than it is today.
The U.A.A research is part of NASA's effort to answer a question as old as humanity itself:
Are we alone on the universe?
As exciting as all this research is, it's hard to imagine that life exists on Mars right now. Its surface air pressure is less than 1 percent of earth's. To you and I, that's pretty much a vacuum. We'd die in seconds -- or at most, minutes -- if left unprotected on the surface of the Red Planet.
But at one point in the distant past, Mars must have had an atmosphere thick enough to support a vast, liquid ocean on its surface.
According to the PBS Science program "Nova", orbiting spacecraft now discovered so much subsurface ice on Mars that -- if you melted it it all -- the planet would have a worldwide ocean 80 feet thick!
But to have an ocean, you must first have a substantial atmosphere.
Thus the question:
Where did an atmosphere -- thick enough to support an ocean on Mars -- come from?
To answer that question, we have to look at Earth -- and "the Earth-Moon" System.
Unlike Earth, Mars does not have a large moon. And that's important. Research in recent decades has indicated that you and I probably owe our very existence to the Moon.
That's because Earth's moon -- the biggest moon in proportion to its mother planet of any in the solar system -- acts like a 'stabilizer' for the spinning Earth. Lunar gravity keeps Earth pointing 'upright', at a 23.5 degree angle to the sun.
That allows our planet to enjoy a stable climate for long periods of time.