Geophysicist and professor Wendy Calvin is the Chair of the Geological Sciences Department at the University of Nevada, Reno, but some of her time is dedicated to working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration where she’s been scoping out Mars to find signs of life. The Nevada Sagebrush sat down with Calvin to talk about planetary science, and what the future of Martian research looks like.
Nevada Sagebrush: This year is your 12th year with NASA and the 12th-year anniversary for Opportunity’s journey on Mars. Why is that so significant?
Wendy Calvin: Well, when the mission was designed as a solar-powered mission, the mission lifetime and achievement goals, so how we’d have 100 percent mission success and everyone would go home happy was if we got to 600 meters on one of the two rovers and if we lasted about 90 Mars days.
We have lasted I don’t know how many factors past our mission design lifetime goal, not to mention two or three orders of magnitude past the mission drive distance goal, so that in itself is significant. I think we knew that they would last longer than the engineering predictions, but we didn’t know how much longer.
NS: What’s kept the mission going for so long if the rovers weren’t expected to last for years like they have?
WC: Ultimately, the reason why they were expected to be shorter lived is they’re solar-powered and the solar panels would get coated in dust and that dust would prevent them from generating energy and then we’d just reach a low-energy state and that would be the end of it. What we’ve found has happened over time is that if we park on a little bit of a slope a little windstorm comes through and the dust slides off and boom, we have cleaner solar panels than the day we landed.
NS: Is NASA saving a significant amount of time and money from Opportunity’s extended voyage?
WC: So, it keeps us going. The mission itself costs probably about a billion dollars, so that’s not a mission you’re gonna get every time there’s a Mars launch opportunity. Keeping this mission going and keeping us roving with this particular spacecraft also helps decide what the next rovers are going to be and refines what we know and what we’re gonna do with the next launch opportunity.
NS: Why is your research important for NASA and what have you taken from the university and applied there?
WC: What I do is really non-traditional geophysics. I do remote-sensing science, so I look at the composition and how to determine the composition and surface of a planet at a distance. So from space or from standoff at a rover and that sort of thing.
That’s a specialization in tools I’ve been using before I came to UNR, but I think one of the things that being at UNR has helped me to do is understand the Earth processes, so places on Earth that are analogs for environments we have found on Mars, and take the Earth experience and translate that into what we’re actually seeing on Mars.
Some of these skill sets I brought with me, and then some of the things that I’ve learned since coming to UNR I’ve translated into understanding the Martian environments that we’re looking at.
NS: Are you ever able to apply what you’ve learned through your work with NASA in the classrooms here in the Geological Sciences Department?
WC: I do occasionally give seminars. I’m hoping to actually teach a course in planetary geology a year from now. But, I think I bring that kind of picture of Earth as a planet. Earth as a planet as part of this solar system is kind of what I teach in physics and geodynamics. It certainly colors my perspective in my freshman geophysics class as well.
NS: What makes Mars the ideal “workspace” for someone in your field?
WC: It’s close, right? So, we have many opportunities. I can work with moons on Jupiter and I have in the past, but it takes 10 years to get there and 10 years to build the mission, so you’re gonna get one mission to Jupiter in your professional lifetime whereas Mars gives the opportunity to do multiple missions.
I think that in terms of a planet that’s close to Earth, Mars is more of a sister planet than some of the outer solar system worlds. So, they’re interesting, they’re fascinating and they have a lot of chemistry, but they’re not so similar to Earth.
NS: What’s the purpose behind mapping Mars’ surface and what progress is NASA making as we speak? What’s the newest primary mission?
WC: The whole Mars program has a big arc in terms of really trying to understand if life really got started on that planet. “Follow the water” was a theme for Mars exploration for many years. Now with orbited assets and spacecraft on the ground we’ve actually found a number of environments in which water and rock have interacted for a long period of time.
The next step is to translate that water-to-rock interaction into something that might’ve been a habitable zone, so “Was the planet habitable and where was it?” and those are kind of the next steps in exploration.
Ultimately, we’re gonna have to bring samples back from Mars. We’re not looking for little green men; we’re looking for bugs or microbes or even geochemistry that suggest that those parts of self-assembly got started.
NS: In your opinion, why should finding these signs of life on Mars even be important to humans?
WC: I think it’s certainly philosophically … huge to say we’re not the only planet in this solar system to have this kind of chemistry. It says something about the bigger picture — how many solar systems out there might have life in them. I think it’s a done deal; there are so many planets around other stars we can’t possibly be alone in the universe, but to actually know that and have scientific evidence of that would be amazing.
To spend a little bit of our federal budget on figuring out the answer to these questions is a worthwhile endeavor. NASA gets about $17 billion of a $17 trillion budget, so it’s a fraction of a percent. During the Apollo era, NASA was getting several percent of the federal budget, so it’s not a ton of money.
People say the cost of a mission sounds expensive, a billion dollars, but it was a candy bar for everybody in the U.S. for three or four years. So, would you spend a candy bar a year in order to answer some big questions and have rovers on Mars? Most people say yes.
NS: What about actually living on the planet? Could Mars’ terrain actually become habitable for humans some day?
WC: Have you seen “The Martian?” I read the book because I knew everyone would ask me about it. The biggest barriers to actually having astronauts live and work on the surface are the temperature and that the atmosphere is very, very thin. [Mars’] atmosphere is the equivalent of being at about 100,000 feet on Earth, so it’s really low pressure and it’s mostly carbon dioxide.
Those are big issues, so you can’t have somebody just walking around without a spacesuit or living and working without some kind of enclosed environment. We’re still just trying to figure out how to do that even on the space station, and what are the sort of impacts of long-term space travel, low gravity, that kind of stuff on the human body.
So those are kind of bigger issues for having people live and work there. It is part of a long-term goal for NASA to ultimately do that, but I think we’ll take baby steps. You know, we’ll go and put astronauts in orbit around an asteroid or maybe send them to orbit Mars and come back or that kind of thing before we actually see them work on the surface.
NS: You’ve been with NASA for a little over 12 years now. What are some of your own greatest triumphs?
WC: I’ve been able to directly participate in a number of scientific discoveries, in terms of the nature of the Martian polar caps and also a funky ice that’s on Pluto, so that was actually really cool.
NS: What about some challenges?
WC: Challenges, I think, come when there are failures. In planetary science, you have to have kind of a long view. It takes a while to get missions approved. It takes a while to build and then launch and get there, so you’re kind of always thinking not about tomorrow or next month, but next year or two years out.
You’ve invested a bunch of stuff and you’re expecting success then something goes wrong, and boom, a spacecraft goes winging by or crashes into the surface of the planet. NASA hasn’t had much of those recently, but those are some of the most discouraging times as to how do you recover from what’s been three to five years of buildup and anticipation and preparation, then one little mistake, and it’s all done.
NS: How do you get past that? What do you have to tell yourselves in order to move on to the next expensive, long-term project?
WC: I guess you just start focusing on the next mission. The nice thing about working on Mars is there’s an opportunity to launch something to the planet every two years and the European Trace Gas Orbiter just launched [two weeks ago], so that’s another asset on our way to Mars.
NS: In your opinion, what does the near future, say the next 10 to 20 years, of space research look like, and what do you think the next 50 to 100 years look like?
WC: So the near future, we have missions mapped out through at least 2022. So we have the Trace Gas Orbiter this year, the Europeans will send the ExoMars rover in 2018, the U.S. will send another rover in 2020 and then we have a new orbiter mission that’s in the planning stages for 2022. NASA states the goal of putting humans on Mars by 2030.
I think that’s probably optimistic, and most people would say that’s probably gonna get pushed out some bit of time because we can’t even figure out how to do in situ resource utilization and that kind of stuff. So the longer term 30-year horizon is where you’re probably gonna start seeing people and in the 2040s, 2050s. So people who are kids today, or when [UNR’s] undergrads are my age, then we might actually be putting people on Mars.
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