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.
But without a big moon to stabilize it, Mars tumbles around like a spinning top. Over periods of millions of years, it's North Pole can actually aim at the sun. It's South Pole takes turns doing the very same thing.
When that happens, all the water and carbon-dioxide ice at the poles melts and sublimates. The carbon dioxide temporarily creates a thick atmosphere for the planet. And that's what permits liquid water to periodically exist on the Martian Surface.
That's why scientists think life once existed on Mars. Because it was once warm and wet. On average, it's climate wasn't that different from Alaska's.
The Mars Rover is specifically designed to look for signs of ancient life. It can "sniff" Martian rocks for evidence of traces of organic molecules. These are the molecules that make-up life on Earth.
But it could be months before the search for extant on the Red Planet begins in earnest.
Curiosity landed near a 15-thousand-foot-tall mountain on Mars called "sharp's Peak". It's a mountain that scientists think may have substantial amounts of ice beneath its surface. The Rover will spend the next few months heading toward that mountain, conducting scientific studies along the way. It couldn't touch down right at the base of the Sharp, because its steep slopes presented a landing hazard.
But the suspicion that Sharp could be an ice-filled mountain is accompanied by another interesting fact.
The Rover landed near the Martian Equator. And just last year, NASA satellites, orbiting around Mars, made a stunning discovery in the region.
They found what appears to be liquid water melting from ice-covered hills at the planet's equatorial region.
This is stunning because -- as we mentioned -- Mars currently has a very thin atmosphere. Up until 2011, scientists thought that liquid water was not possible on the Martian surface today. But the new pictures are changing minds.
They seem so show streams of water flowing from the equatorial hills as the sun warms them -- much as happens in Antarctica here on Earth. It's now thought that if the Martian soil (or regolith, as it is more properly called) is highly salty, then briny liquid water could, indeed, exist for brief periods of time on the surface -- even under present-day Martian conditions.
On Earth, wherever there is liquid water, there is life. Even in Antarctica, organisms like U.A.A.'s "hymenobacter", lay dormant in the subsurface ice, then become alive and active if even a thin layer of liquid water briefly forms on them.
No one is claiming there is present-day life on Mars. But no one is certain that there isn't life there, either. One of the biological experiments on America's "Viking Lander" -- called the "Labelled Release Experiment" gave off ambiguous signals 36 years ago. Signals that at first seemed consistent with microorganisms in the Martian Soil, but were later dismissed as some unusual "super-oxide" chemical property of the regolith.
But to this day, no one really knows for sure why the Labelled Release experiment spiked with large amounts of gas when Martian Soil was fed a nutrient mix in its test-chamber.
If there is existing microbial life at the Curiosity Landing Site, the Rover is not designed to directly detect it. After the Viking experience, it was felt that a more promising approach would be to look for signs of organics in the soil. Organics could signal the existence of extinct or perhaps dormant microorganisms.
The Mars Science Laboratory, better known as "Curiosity", is the most sophisticated spacecraft to land on the Red Planet since Viking. And it does Viking one better. It has wheels.
As "Curiosity" roves the surface of Mars over the next two years, no one will be looking more closely at it than University Of Alaska Chief Biologist Fred Rainey.
It was his graduate students who discovered the new species of microorganism on the Matanuska Glacier this summer. "Hymenobacter" was dormant in the glacial snow, but it grew into a pink mass when warmed inside a UAA laboratory and fed nutrients.
When it was deliberately dosed with massive amounts of Gamma Rays -- and Ultraviolet Radiation -- the organism proved it could repair its own D.N.A and survive.
Those are the kinds of adaptations that would prove very useful to survival on Mars.
Because NASA isn't sure what a microorganism on another planet would look like -- if it found it -- it wants to study Mars "analogues" here on Earth. Both Antarctica and Alaska are considered good places to look for clues as to what Martian life might look like if it's ever found.
And tonight no one can exclude the possibility that if Martian life ever did exist, that it might have looked like a newly discovered pink bacterium sitting in culture jars inside a U.A.A. Laboratory.
In the course of the 2-year Curiosity Mission, we may find out if such a blueprint for life ever existed on Mars.