Marsfest 2014 Program Schedule

Friday, March 28, 2014

Time Event
7:00pm - 7:15pm Welcome from Kathy Billings, Superintendent of Death Valley National Park. Welcome from NASA Ames & SETI Institute.
7:15pm – 8:30pm

Keynote Address
Planetary Missions and the search for life in Dry Environments on Earth and Mars

Mars Curiosity Rover rover has been operating on Mars for almost 2 Earth years. I will present our current status on the search for organics in the soil and the prospects for determining the habitability of the site. If we find organics on Mars, the next challenge will be to determine if they are of biological or non-biological origin. There are other worlds in the Solar System that are also of keen interest in the search for life: my favorite is Enceladus, a small moon of Saturn.

Chris McKay Planetary Scientist with the Space Science Division of NASA Ames. Chris is a research scientist with the NASA Ames Research Center. His current research focuses on the evolution of the Solar System and the origin of life. He is also actively involved in planning for future Mars missions, including human exploration. Chris been involved in research in Mars-like environments on Earth, traveling to the Antarctic Dry Valleys, Siberia, the Canadian Arctic, and the Atacama, Namib, & Sahara deserts to study life in these Mars-like environments. He was a co-investigator on the Huygens probe to Saturn’s moon Titan in 2005, the Mars Phoenix lander mission in 2008, and the current Mars Science Laboratory mission (2012).


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Walks (Meeting at location's parking lot): Please carpool, if possible!
8:30 am - 9:30 am

Mesquite Sand Dunes - Aaron Zent (NASA Ames Research Center), Mesquite Sand Dunes: Analogs to the Gale Crater Curiosity Site

The Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, landed in Gale Crater in late 2012, and began exploring an environment that has been shaped by constant wind and very occasional water. Likewise areas of the Mesquite Dunes show evidence of occasional deposition by flash flood deposits from Grotto Canyon. We will explore some of the similar deposits, as well as distinct differences, resulting from the interaction of wind and water in Gale Crater and the Mesquite Dunes.

Aaron Zent got his Ph. D. in Geology from the University of Hawaii in 1988, and has been at NASA Ames ever since. He has been involved with several Mars missions, most recently the 2008 Phoenix lander. His research focuses on the physical and chemical interactions between planetary atmospheres and their surfaces.

10:30 am - 12:00 Noon

Badwater - Susanne Douglas (Planetary Science Institute, PSI): The Life and Times of Badwater Microbes

Many areas of Death Valley have groundwater springs which rise at the edges of the salt pan. The resulting salts which form are called evaporites and these evaporites are inhabited by a variety of different microbial communities. Within these evaporites, the communities find protection from harsh light and fluctuating water levels and, in turn, affect the mineralogy of the salts they inhabit. These endoevaporitic microbial communities are analogs for possible life forms in the evaporites of Mars, and are being studied in order to define what needs life has in an evaporate environment. We will be touring a number of pools at Badwater. These pools are within hundreds of meters of each other yet have differing chemical compositions. We will see different types of microbial communities in these pools and the minerals they produce. If you have a magnifying glass, you may wish to bring it.

Susanne Douglas (Planetary Science Institute, PSI) has a Ph.D. in Geomicrobiology from the University of Guelph in Canada. Her work since then has focused on determining the interrelationships between minerals, microorganisms, and geochemistry in the Earth's extreme environments. She has studied saline alkaline lakes in northern Canada, closed marine basins in the Bahamas, evaporative hot spring pools in Iceland and California, and endolithic microbial communities in various deserts including the Antarctic Dry Valleys. Her main research area at present is Death Valley National Park, where she holds an active research permit and conducts investigations of microbe-mineral interrelationships.

(Furnace Creek Visitor Center Auditorium)
1:35 pm - 2:10 pm

Working the Mojave with an Eye toward Mars: Use of Analog Sites in and Near Death Valley

By now it is abundantly clear that Mars at one point was very Earth-like, with rain, rivers and lakes. As the planet evolved, it changed into the dry environment we see today. In Death Valley and the Mojave, we see that a similar chain of events has occurred: A wet environment that became dry over time. In this presentation, Dr. Luther Beegle of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will discuss similarities between Mars and sites within Death Valley and the Mojave, and the importance of utilizing analogs for both science and technology activities.

Luther Beegle (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL) is a research scientist and the deputy section manager of the Planetary Science section at JPL. Dr. Beegle is science team member of the Mars Science Laboratory where he is a Surface Sampling System (SSS) Scientist. As a member of the SSS team, he works with the entire science team to identify suitable high-value targets that can be acquired, processed, and delivered to the scientific instruments. He has developed instruments to detect and characterize organic molecules, one of which has been proposed to the next Mars mission that is scheduled to launch in 2020. This instrument is designed to characterize samples for caching and eventual return to Earth as part of a future Mars sample return.

2:15 pm - 2:50 pm

Exploring Other-Worldly Sites, Here on Earth

Death Valley hosts some of the most extreme environments on Earth. Find out why scientists are so interested in studying these environments, and what these extreme places can teach us about other planets – and our own. Public/family audience level.

Andrea Jones (NASA Goddard Flight Center, GSFC) is an Education and Public Outreach (EPO) Specialist for the SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) instrument on the Curiosity Rover. She earned her undergraduate degree in Geology from the College of William & Mary in 2005, and a Masters degree in Geosciences, with a focus in planetary geology, from the University of Arizona in 2009.


2:50 pm - 3:15 pm BREAK
3:15 pm - 3:50 pm

In the Ghetto: Rock Colonization Strategies for Survival in Extreme and Prolonged Dryness

Liquid water is the single most important requisite for life. Mars has been a desert planet for most of its history, and therefore a thorough assessment of Mars’ habitability requires that we understand how microorganisms adapt to extremely dry conditions. To address this key issue we turn to the Atacama Desert in Chile, the oldest and driest desert on Earth. Here, the most successful survival strategy is the colonization of the interior of salt rocks that are part of ancient salt-encrusted playas (aka salars). Microorganisms living inside the salt (aka endoliths) take advantage of the physical properties of the salt substrate to obtain liquid water. This occurs when the relative humidity in the atmosphere rises above 70%, and the salt becomes wet by way of deliquescence. The interior of such salt rocks is likely the last available habitat for life on Earth under extreme dryness. Ancient salars on Mars could therefore represent the last possible habitats for life on the planet, and the most likely locations to find well-preserved biomarkers. Family oriented.

Alfonso Davila (SETI Institute/NASA Ames Research Center) is a research scientist at the SETI Institute and the NASA Ames Research Center in California since 2009, with substantial experience in Earth and Planetary sciences. As an undergraduate in Spain, he studied marine sciences and was trained in marine biology, chemistry, geology, and physics, with a later focus in marine geology and physics for his Masters degree (1996-2001). He obtained a PhD in Germany studying bio-geophysics and the interactions between the Earth's magnetic field and biological systems (2001-2005). His Post-Doc at NASA Ames in California, brought him to work on the habitability of Mars through the study of Mars Analog Environments on Earth (2006-2009). This greatly broadened his experience in field geology and biology. Alfonso has been a guest speaker in international conferences and a guest lecturer in universities and research institutes in the US, Canada, South America, and Europe, and has published more than 50 scientific papers and book chapters in these fields.
 Alfonso's research interests are broad, spanning from planetary habitability, geology, and geochemistry to the origin and evolution of life on Earth. He is particularly interested in the geologic, geochemical, and climatic evolution of Mars, and how this evolution affected the habitability of the planet from its origins and up to the present. He is also interested in comparing the evolution of Mars and Earth through field research in Mars Analog Environments such as the Antarctic Dry Valleys, the High Arctic, or the Atacama Desert, combined with laboratory work, numerical modeling, and the analysis of remote sensing data. He is currently working on several international science and engineering projects in the field of planetary sciences.

3:50 pm - 4:00 pm BREAK
4:00 pm - 5:00 pm

Curiosity Hour update: A brief overview of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover and Q&A

Description: Find out about the Curiosity rover: What is it designed to do? Where did it go? What is it trying to find? And what has it found so far? Family oriented.

Andrea Jones, (NASA Goddard Flight Center, GSFC), Luther Beegle (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL), moderated by Rosalba Bonaccorsi (SETI Institute/NASA Ames)


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Walks (Meeting at Ubehebe Crater parking lot): Please carpool, if possible!
10:00 am - 11:30 am

Brunch at the crater

Making Mars Work for Ubehebe

The Ubehebe Volcanic Field includes a dozen craters formed during hydro-magmatic explosions during the last few thousand years. The craters can serve as analogs for upcoming astrobiology-driven missions at several martian sites, including Gale Crater, where the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover landed in August 2012. The terrain of the Ubehebe Volcanic Field presents a variety of geologic environments, from volcanic ashes to coarse-grained river deposits, and clay-bearing lake deposits (sandstone and claystone) similar to those being investigated by Curiosity at Gale Crater. With precipitation patterns in Death Valley similar to a “warmer and wetter” early Mars, and a similar variety of minerals present, the Ubehebe Volcanic Field offers an ideal test site for formulating hypotheses about the potential of minerals, rocks, and sediment to support microbial life in dry, hot deserts on Earth and, possibly, on Mars.

Rosalba Bonaccorsi (SETI Institute/NASA Ames) is an interdisciplinary scientist working at NASA Ames Research Center. In 2001 she obtained her Ph.D. in Geological, Marine, and Environmental Sciences from the University of Trieste (Italy). Since 2005, she has expanded her interest to the habitability of mineralogical Mars analogs, and very dry desert regions worldwide, including the Mojave, Antarctica, Atacama (Chile), and Australia, often as a NASA Spaceward Bound team member. Rosalba joined the SETI Institute in 2008, and is keen to achieve a wide picture of where life and its signatures are most successfully distributed, concentrated, preserved, and detected. Since 2008, Rosalba has been working in Death Valley on the Ubehebe Volcanic Field. In collaboration with NASA scientists, she is applying results from this research to Mars Science Laboratory mission objectives. Formerly a teacher, she has been involved with Education and Public Outreach with non-profit organizations since 1989.