Geologist, astronaut explore the possibilities of humans on Mars

Grace Dickens

To understand Mars, we must first understand the most Mars-like place on Earth: Antarctica. Its harsh environment and only recently settled landscape make it invaluable in predicting expeditions to Mars.

Joe Levy, a geologist and planetary scientist, and astronaut Jeanette Epps joined professor Jay Banner at the Austin Independent School District Performing Arts Center on Friday to explore the possibility of traveling to Mars in the latest “Hot Science, Cool Talks” held by the Environmental Science Institute at UT.

According to Levy, who traveled to Antarctica for his post-doctoral research, Antarctica is a place for eating, sleeping and science. From biologists to astronomers to climate scientists, Antarctica has something special to offer for every scientific discipline.

“The real reason we go to Mars, scientifically, is to understand how planets evolve and shape life,” Levy said. “Earth is an eternally changing planet, where crust is constantly being recycled. We want to understand how climates evolve, and we can’t rely on Earth. The record is lost. That’s why we go to Mars; Mars has a whole history written right on the surface.”

Aside from science, Levy said there are three other factors associated with Mars exploration: consumables, hardware and political will. Reconciling the technical needs of a Mars landing with the human needs of survival presents a struggle of logistics; for every kilogram of fuel, a kilogram of food or water is lost, and vice versa.

“The ultimate consumable is H2O,” Levy said. “The problem with water is that it’s heavy. Future Martians are going to have to live off the land in the same way Antarctica explorers do. But it turns out Mars has a lot of water, you just need to know where to look for it. In the rocks, a lot of them have minerals with water stuck to them. So what do you do to get water on Mars? You drink the rocks.”

Scientists have caught Mars at a very boring point in its history, Levy said. Between two million and half a million years ago, there was an ice age on Mars, with huge piles of ice available. According to Levy, some of that ice is still there today —  it’s just under the surface in an ice sandwich of dirt. Here lies hydrated minerals, or minerals with water stuck to them, in which astronauts can boil water off the rocks. But being an unproven technology, however, it’s a hard sell.

There are various hardware issues associated with a Mars expedition as well, including the proper landing gear, location, and technique. Earth aligns with Mars about every two years, allowing a launch requiring the minimum amount of fuel necessary to reach Mars. There are the possibilities of traveling faster, slower, or optimum speed. There is also the hazard of stopping too abruptly, which can cause dangerous accidents.

“The problem is that getting to Mars is really, really, really hard,” Levy said. “Human explorers are going to have to deal with a Mars exploration history that is fraught with failure. Only about one in three missions to Mars make it into Martian orbit or fly by successfully.”

Epps, however, provided insight into the more psychological demands on astronauts in the future Mars explorations. She and her fellow astronauts had to live underwater for nine days in one of the many trials they were put through to test their teamwork and adaptability.

“The way we made our experience work was making jokes and making light of the situation,” Epps said. “I would hope that the next generation of space explorers are flexible and adaptable in that way, because I think that there is no social or political issue we couldn’t overcome.”

Epps also said she encourages anyone interested in Mars to keep learning and growing, and hopefully become a part of the growing mission to explore Mars. Levy said citizens could get involved by electing officials with goals of exploration in mind in order to continue the push for the Mars mission in the future.

“We need everyone to contribute,” Levy said. “The process of exploring Mars has begun. There are meetings to select landing sites, but it’s a long, long way to Mars. The Mars generation is in this room, and I am so looking forward to helping support you and helping you get your boots on the red planet.”

Students involved in a variety of programs at UT were also able to attend the event as volunteers, such as neuroscience freshman Daniel Ramirez, a member of the STEM Ambassadors program.

“I thought it was amazing. We’re pushing forward more knowledge and information to younger generations to let them know that the things they thought were science fiction are actually possible,” Ramirez said. “Knowing that with time, science and collaboration, anything is possible, is awesome, and it makes me want to know more and more.”