Signs of Life: An Informal Education Film Project on the Search for Life on Mars

PI: Ronald Tobias, Media and Theater Arts, Montana State University
Student:  Mark Andrews

    Mars. Surface, dry as a bone. Average temperature, -60�C.  Atmosphere, 100 times thinner than Earth's.  UV radiation, intense.  Mars today is not a friendly place for life as we know it.  However, there is growing evidence that during the first billion or so years of Mars' existence, it was much like Earth:  the atmosphere was dense and warm; liquid water flowed and collected in lakes and maybe even oceans;  volcanoes spewed greenhouse gases that kept Mars warm and wet.
    If this picture of early Mars as Earth-like is true, scientists believe that Mars could have teemed with simple forms of life.  After all, it didn't take very long for life to arise on Earth under similar circumstances.
    If we look in the right place, we might be able to find fossils of ancient microorganisms.
    This is the challenge accepted by scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA.  They are seeking to answer the questions:  Where should a Mars lander set down to seek out the elusive fossil record?  What should we look for?  Would we be able to recognize life if we see it?
    You would think that detecting life, if it is there, would be easy.  After all, we have a pretty good understanding of biochemistry here on Earth.  We can detect a single bacterium cell in a liter of water.  But the case of the Allan Hills meteorite showed that we have a lot to learn.  The potato-sized ALH84001 Martian meteorite contains microscopic bacteria-like tubes and organic compounds that some researchers say are fossilized life.  But even now, after years of extensive research, the jury is still out as to whether the structures are life or not.
    To head off another endless debate like the one surrounding ALH84001, JPL geobiologists Gene McDonald, Pan Conrad and their teams are attempting to develop a reliable set of "biosignatures" - definitive criteria for stating that a rock contains living or fossilized life - before rocks are returned from Mars, or even without returning them.
    This film will focus on several scientists from NASA/JPL and their work in the lab and at field sites in Death Valley and Mono Lake, CA.  We will follow these scientists to these other-worldly environments, witness the process of sample collection and instrument testing.  We will join our scientists back in the lab at JPL  where they will visualize and analyze the sample.  The audience will experience science in action.

Contact Information

Mail: Ronald Tobias
Media and Theater Arts
Montana State University
Bozeman, MT 59717
Phone: (406) 994-6227

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Updated June 19, 2006