Are We About to Find Life on Mars?

SETI Talks

Tags: SETI Talks, Outreach, SETI Institute, Astrobiology, Planetary Exploration, Extremophiles

Time: Tuesday, Dec 17, 2019 -

Location: SRI International Headquarters, 333 Ravenswood Ave., Menlo Park, CA 94025

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Over the past six months, numerous articles have reported weird anomalies in the atmosphere of Mars, from an outburst of methane in June 2019 to patterns in oxygen concentrations that cannot be explained by any known atmospheric or surface processes on the Red Planet. Perhaps more intriguing is the Viking Lander (Viking LR) experiment. In 1976, each of the two Viking landers performed experiments on Martian soil samples. The samples tested positive for metabolism and researchers recently claimed that like on Earth, this is a sign for the presence of a Martian life. Finally, an Ohio scientist claims to have found photographic proof of "insect and reptile-like" life on Mars. This controversial result has been discussed at length in the media, even though most scientists rejected it.

What does this mean? Are we on the verge of announcing the most profound story since humans first wondered about the existence of life elsewhere? Or are these coincidences that can be explained by geological processes, failed experiments, or pareidolia?

We invited two SETI Institute scientists who are experts on Mars to discuss these exciting and out of this world results. Biologist Kathryn Bywaters who has studied life in some of the most extreme environments on Earth and planetary scientist Pascal Lee who focuses on water on Mars and human exploration of the Red Planet. Both scientists will tell us if indeed we are about to discover life on Mars and the consequences of this significant discovery.

Franck Marchis, Senior Planetary Scientist and Science Outreach Manager at the SETI Institute, will be the moderator.

Pascal Lee

Dr. Pascal Lee is a planetary scientist with the SETI Institute, the Mars Institute, and NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. His research focuses on water on Mars, caves on the Moon, and the origin of Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos. Dr. Lee is also internationally recognized for his work on advancing human exploration of the Moon and Mars. He has led over 30 expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica to study the Moon and Mars by comparison with the Earth and since 1997 has directed the NASA Haughton-Mars Project (HMP), the leading Moon/Mars analog field research project, situated on Devon Island in the High Arctic. As part of the HMP, Dr. Lee led the Northwest Passage Drive Expedition, an epic vehicular journey on sea-ice along the fabled Northwest Passage and the subject of the award-winning documentary film Passage to Mars (2016).

Dr. Lee has also been studying ice-rich lava tubes in Iceland as analogs for potential ice-rich caves on the Moon and Mars. He is pioneering the use of new robotic technologies – in particular, drones and inflatables – to explore planetary surfaces and caves. His first book, "Mission: Mars", won the 2015 Prize for Excellence in children’s science books from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In his free time, Pascal likes to be walked by his dogs, fly, and paint. He is an FAA-certified helicopter commercial pilot and flight instructor, and an artist member of the International Association of Astronomical Artists.

Kathryn Bywaters

Kathryn Bywaters’ work encompasses a wide range of interdisciplinary projects, including the development of life detection instrumentation for future space exploration, investigating the nutrient constraints microbes would have on Mars, and performing experiments in Mars analog environments.

Kathryn has extensive fieldwork experience in some of the most extreme environments on Earth. She spent four months on Devon Island in the Canadian High Arctic looking at the winter to spring transition in the active layer above the permafrost. She recently completed fieldwork in the Yungay region of the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on Earth, to work on increasing the technology readiness level of nanopore technology.

“I love being a part of the SETI Institute community because they understand the importance of, and whole-heartedly support, my research and leadership role in the field of astrobiology and life detection,” said Kathryn.

Kathryn completed her PhD at the University of Nevada at Reno in Environmental Science. She conducted her graduate work at the Desert Research Institute in the field of biofuels investigating lipid production in algae. Kathryn has also published a young adult fiction novel. Educational outreach is important to Kathryn; in particular, inspiring students in the STEM fields.