ANCHORAGE, Alaska—On Sunday, space enthusiasts gathered at the University of Alaska Anchorage planetarium to view NASA's latest project - the Mars "Curiosity" rover landing on the Red Planet.
The rover immediately sent back 3 fuzzy pictures and the first two shots showed the Rover photographing its own shadow. In the third, the Rover photographed one of its own wheels. More detailed pictures are expected soon.
The pictures from the Martian Surface sent-up a huge round of applause from flight engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboaratory in Pasedena. Mars "curiosity" is the biggest, heaviest most complex spacecraft ever sent to the surface of another planet.
It also marks the 7th time that America has successfully landed a spacecraft on the Red Planet. No other nation has succeeded in doing so -- unless you count a 1971 attempt by the Russians. Back then, they did managet to land on Mars, but only sent back data for a mere 15 seconds.
Among those thrilled by NASA's successful landing on Sunday was an audience of 180 people who gathered in 2 rooms at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. The 2 groups consisted of scientists -- who took seats in the University's Planetarium. Then there was the general public, which was invited to a larger room one floor below the planetarium. Both got to watch "live" as flight engineers monitored data from the spacecraft during its risky 7 minute-descent through Mars' Atmosphere.
The landing is considered of special importance here in Alaska. The state, according to scientists at UAA and UAF, comprises a near perfect cold weather laboratory in which to study microorganisms hardy enough to live on the surface of Mars. In fact, Alaskan studies may be the key to helping scientists hone-in on precisely what to look for in a Martian Microorganism.
Dr. Fred Rainey -- a UAA biologist who specializes in cold-weather microorganisms -- says his students have already found red-colored bacteria on Alaskan glaciers. These bacteria are now known to survive in areas of high Ultraviolet Radiation, like that found on Mars, and in extremely cold weather.
Mars may be too cold to have any current life. But at one time -- in its distant past -- its average temperatures were warm enough to roughly match the climate that now exists in Alaska. Millions of years ago, the Red Planet also had a thicker atmosphere.
The theory is that Mars once had running water -- as a result of that thicker, warmer atmosphere. On earth, wherever there's liquid water there is life. "Extremophiles", as they've been dubbed, have even been found in radiatio- rich water from nuclear reactors!
There is widespread belief among scientists that Mars may have once harbored bacterial or viral life. The reason is simple. Mars is half the diameter of earth. Thus, in the ancient Solar System -- when all the planets were hot balls of rock experiencing violent meteor impacts -- Mars would have cooled down from the bombardment long before it's larger cousin, Earth. Mars therefore may have harbored life before our overheated planet could sustain it.
Some scientists think that Mars may have even been the source of life here on Earth! They hypothesize that a meteor impact on Mars could have launched rock debris into space. Microorganisms may have survived inside that ejected rock and may have impacted here on earth billions of years ago. Studies show that microorganisms -- deep inside rock -- can even survive the heat of entry into Earth's atmosphere. And it's an established fact that a small percentage of meteorites that land on earth are known came from the Moon and from Mars.
The "Curiosity" Rover may help resolve some of these concerning life on Mars. While the rover can't look for life directly, it can examine clay deposits at its chosen landing site -- Gale Crater. Clay deposits are of interest to biologists because they form only in the presence of water.
The landing site was chosen specifically because it lies at the foot of a giant mountain, 15,000 feet tall -- which is more than 3 times higher than the peaks that lie just outside of Anchorage. Scientists know that the base of that Martian Mountain contains material 2 billion-years-old -- a time when Mars was warmer and wetter and might have harbored microbial life. Those ancient deposits are clay.
Again, what's significant about clay is that it generally forms in a warm, wet environment. Previous Mars Missions have found evidence of extant liquid water on Mars. The evidence comes in the form of chemicals called Sulfates found by previous landers. Sulfates are also formed as a result of large amounts of pooling liquid water. But sulfates generally form under acidic conditions. Though life can survive in highly acidic water here on Earth, it is not as widespread as life that forms in more "Ph-Neutral" water. Clays are of great interest because they are a sign that the water formed under less acidic, more neutral conditions. That's a formation process more congenial to live.
However, answers about possible extant life on Mars won't come anytime soon. That's because even though Curiosity landed near the center of its planned touchdown ellipse -- it's still miles from the clay deposits it eventually intends to examine. It will take months for the slow-moving rover to reach them.
But in the meantime, this landing is considered a very big deal. America has repeated a feat no other nation has ever fully succeeded at. It's landed not just one, but -- as of this moment -- its seven unmanned spacecraft on the surface of Mars.
And the "Curiostity" Rover, if it remains healthy, could be exploring the Red Planet for years to come.