Red Rover

Scientists at ASU are the first to see new discoveries from Mars

The Mars Exploration Rovers represent the most ambitious Mars study undertaken to date, and (surprise!) our very own Arizona State University is more involved in the mission (with four space scientists playing major roles) than any other university in the country. Scott Nowicki, a graduate research associate at the ASU Mars Space Flight Facility, says that ASU isn't just contributing to space exploration; ASU is space exploration.

New Times: When did our local party school become a hotbed of space science?

Scott Nowicki: It's really just the work of a handful of people who've been very lucky and been involved with new technologies and science. At this point, we've exploded to the degree that we're bigger than any other institution for planetary science.

ASU is space exploration. Just ask Scott Nowicki.
Emily Piraino
ASU is space exploration. Just ask Scott Nowicki.

NT: But Cornell is actually the university directing the team of Mars scientists, right?

Nowicki: Right. Well, actually, very little happens at Cornell. But the lead guy for the entire mission is at Cornell. So it's a bunch of people in a lot of different places working on the mission itself. We're different, because we're actually running the instruments, the two orbiters, and our portion of the mission from here.

NT: Why are we so hot on Mars? Why not Uranus?

Nowicki: Mars is interesting because it's so similar to Earth. It's a little smaller, but if there's any other planet we can possibly live on, it's going to be Mars. We're looking at it because it's a place where we can learn a lot about our own planet -- how the climate has changed and how life evolved there, those are the big questions.

NT: NASA is sort of over the moon -- "Been there, done that."

Nowicki: To some degree, we've answered all of the big questions about the moon. We've gotten the samples back, we've come up with a theory about the place -- which may not be entirely correct -- but we've got a pretty good understanding of the moon, and we've moved on to other planets.

NT: So if someone offers to sell me land on the moon or land on Mars, I should go with Mars.

Nowicki: Well, property on Mars will be a whole lot more expensive to get to. Life would be more fun on Mars, but on the moon you could actually accomplish something.

NT: Weightlessness, for example. How do you get information from NASA about what they're finding on Mars?

Nowicki: We are NASA. NASA is an administrative body, and in reality, we drew up a proposal, designed the instruments, actually built them. I tested [the instruments], and we put them on a rocket and sent them to Mars. We get the information back directly from the orbiters. We see it first.

NT: Well, maybe we won't have to worry that NASA is keeping Mars secrets, then. We won't hear, years from now, that this was all a big cover-up and Mars was really a movie set?

Nowicki: Nah. We're the only ones who are looking at the data at this point. It goes to us before it goes to anyone else. The information comes to us, then we provide it to the world.

NT: Let's say you do find that there was once water on Mars. So what?

Nowicki: We're looking for water because water is where we assume life will have to occur. If there was a warm, wet period in Mars' history, where did that water go, what happened to it, what got rid of it?

NT: What happens if you find people up there?

Nowicki: That'd be pretty cool. We'd get all sorts of funding then, and we'd send all sorts of missions to Mars, and I think it would be very entertaining.

NT: Isn't it possible that there are Martians living there, and they're just sort of dodging your cameras? Maybe they don't like having their picture taken.

Nowicki: We've looked at the entire planet with big cameras, and so if there were cities or buildings, we would have seen them. We want to find anything, be it weird chemical processes that could be called life, or something else.

NT: So the discovery of space aphids would be enough for you?

Nowicki: Oh, yeah.

NT: Since the U.S. sent over the first rovers, does that mean that Mars is ours now?

Nowicki: Oh, no. It's anyone's who's got the money to send stuff there. I think there were Russian missions before ours. But we've sent the only rovers that have survived and done anything on the surface.

NT: It's pretty American of us to have left litter behind, though. What will happen to the parachute and backshell that are sitting on Mars? Is that what we do, go around leaving litter on other planets -- planets with no flora or fauna to cover the litter?

Nowicki: We've been doing that ever since we started going to the moon. There are a couple of cars sitting on the moon. There's a landing module up there, golf balls, scientific equipment, broken landers. It's really difficult to get that stuff back to Earth, so we just leave it all up there.

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