Could Humans Live On Mars? Geologists Discuss Mission Landing Sites that Might Have Answers

Release Date: June 18, 1999

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UB workshop to discuss Mars landing sites. (NASA)

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- You think finding a place to park down here is hard. Try finding a place to land on Mars.

That's what a group of leading planetary geologists tried to decide June 22-23 when they met at the University at Buffalo for the Mars Surveyor 2001 Landing Site Workshop.

The workshop was held in conjunction with the 1999 Planetary Geological Mappers meeting, also held at UB.

The Surveyor mission, expected to be launched in the Fall of 2001, will carry experiments designed to demonstrate technologies needed to support eventual human colonization of Mars, according to Tracy Gregg, Ph.D., UB assistant professor of geology and a member of the workshop organizing committee.

"For example, will we be able to extract useful materials, such as construction supplies and metal ores, from Martian rocks?" she asked. "And can we extract oxygen from the soils?"

The mission also will include experiments to help determine the composition of Martian rocks, the results of which will assist scientists in understanding the evolution of Mars, as well as determine if there are useful materials that can be mined to support communities on the planet.

Studded with giant craters and huge volcanoes -- including the largest one in the solar system -- the surface of Mars is a tough place to land anything, especially a remote-controlled vehicle equipped with tens of millions of dollars of equipment and exquisitely sensitive scientific instruments.

Gregg noted that while searching for evidence of life on Mars is always important, the Surveyor, which has a range of about 2 miles or 3 kilometers, can land safely only in certain places.

"Most of the places available for safe landings are not optimum places to search for Martian life," she explained. "Instead, we are trying to maximize the science return; in other words, to find a place that will give us the greatest access to the widest variety of different types of rocks in a small space."

Candidate sites are those near flood plains, which are similar to those sites where previous missions have landed, as well as places that are home to many different types of rocks, such as the point at which a volcanic plain intersects an ancient crater.

At the meeting, Gregg and volcanologist Mark Bulmer of the Smithsonian Institution will give a presentation on how their experience exploring undersea volcanoes using a remote-controlled vehicle may be relevant to missions on Mars.

The 1999 Planetary Geological Mappers meeting included presentations of geological mapping studies and discussion of planetary geological-mapping procedures and issues.

Once the conference presentations were done, scientists continued their work by donning hiking books and embarking on field trips in and around Western New York, courtesy of their UB hosts.

"The reason for the field trips is that there is some controversy over whether or not glaciers may have existed in the past on Mars," Gregg explained. "So we were showing these geologists who specialize in Mars what glaciated terrain and glacial deposits really look like."

The field trips showcased the most fascinating features of Western New York's large-scale glacial geology, including Niagara Falls, the Niagara Gorge, the shorelines of the glacial Great Lakes and other geological features, such as drumlins, eskers, moraines and the Finger Lakes.

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