[meteorite-list] Mars Missions Brought to Life in Classrooms, Not Just on Big Screen

From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Thu Feb 2 13:06:46 2006
Message-ID: <200602021805.k12I53220397_at_zagami.jpl.nasa.gov>

The JASON Project
44983 Knoll Square
Ashburn, VA 20147

Jennifer Walsh, 703-276-2772 x13

For Immediate Release: February 01, 2006

Path to Finding Life on Mars and in Outer Space Begins By Looking at
Earth's Inner Space

Mars Missions Brought to Life in Classrooms, Not Just on Big Screen

Washington, DC -- Clues to finding current or past life on Mars now or at
some point in the past begins with an examination of Earth's most extreme
environments and the adaptable microscopic life that thrives there,
according to a group of researchers launching an international broadcast
science expedition January 30, 2006 with The JASON Project.

By investigating "unlifelike" places on Earth where conditions would kill
most creatures, scientists can determine the kind of energy and nutrients
that may be available to microbial life found under similar conditions
beneath the surface of Mars. Extreme environments on Earth that serve as
Mars analogs -- or models -- include places that reach the outer limits of
hot or cold, are arid or have ultra-high or -low pH.

"One of the biggest questions we face as scientists is: are we alone?
Most people think of finding life on other planets as locating intelligent
life forms elsewhere in our galaxy. But astrobiologists are approaching
this question by looking for simple, microbial life forms in the backyard
of our own Solar System," said Jack Farmer, Ph.D., an astrobiologist at
Arizona State University. "Most intensely, we have been exploring Mars
for evidence of past environments that might harbor fossil signatures
preserved in ancient rocks, or living organisms that might be hiding in
safe places beneath the surface where water could be abundant. The
exploration for a Martian fossil record is being approached in the same
way paleontologists explored for the earliest fossils of life on our own
planet. The biggest challenge has been adapting these methods for robotic
explorers to use."

"Earth is the laboratory for future discoveries on Mars. Without
examining Earth's extreme environments, we wouldn't understand how
processes worked to shape the landscape, chemistry and life at the limits.
Without that understanding, we couldn't draw conclusions about how life
can develop on other planets, " said Jim Garvin, Ph.D., chief scientist
for NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center. "By examining these windows to Mars,
scientists step out of the vicarious and into real features on Earth that
function similarly to those on Mars."

Working with scientists from NASA, Arizona State University and the
University of Hawai'i, the expedition broadcast links recent findings of
the Mars rovers to research conducted at California's Mono Lake, Hawai'i
Volcanoes National Park, Meteor Crater in Arizona and NASA Jet Propulsion
Laboratory to create a comprehensive scientific comparison of Earth and

"Looking for life on Mars is such a big task that we really had to start
by building a knowledge base," said Garvin. "We started exploring Mars
with Viking by asking some tough questions, which led to more complicated
questions and more exploration. We have to think of it like school. We
start in kindergarten learning the alphabet and build from there. In
kindergarten, we don't jump right into calculus."

"Mono Lake provides an excellent example of an extreme environment on
Earth, a living laboratory that scientists can use to develop and test
ideas about how to explore for life elsewhere. Mono Lake is found in the
dry, rain shadow desert located just east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains
in California. Mono is referred to as a terminal lake basin. That means
the water flowing into the lake only leaves by evaporation," said Farmer.
"Since the last ice age, the desert climate has progressively evaporated
Mono Lake, concentrating the salts so that now the lake has a salinity
more than three times that of the Pacific Ocean. In addition, the lake is
highly alkaline, having a pH of between 10 and 11, comparable to a strong
detergent. Such intense evaporation leads to the deposition of salt
deposits called evaporites. Scientists believe that the Mars Exploration
rover, Opportunity, landed on an evaporite deposit, making evaporative
lakes like Mono, an excellent analog for Mars."

"Despite the harsh conditions, Mono Lake is a highly productive biological
environment, basically a microbial "factory" that supports many other
species. For example, Mono Lake is one of the most popular migratory bird
stops in the West, all sustained by microbes. And the way the
microbiology of Mono Lake interacts with salt deposition, it's also a
great place for capturing and preserving fossil signatures of microbial
life," said Farmer.

The research is part of The JASON Project, a middle-grades program that
inspires and excites students about learning by connecting them to real
scientists. Using satellite broadcasts and Internet technology, JASON
scientists are linked to classrooms and educational institutions across
the country for students to interact with JASON researchers in real time
and see how they worked in the field.

"The expedition engages students by having them learn directly from the
scientists," said Caleb M. Schutz, president of The JASON Project. "We're
trying to change the way science is taught by stepping out of the
textbooks and making students a part of the research. We aim to create
moments when the light bulb goes off in a student's head, and he or she is
moved to jump in the game of science. It's important not only for future
generations, but for our entire country as we move into a more scientific
and technological literate society."

"The students that are learning about Mars through this expedition are
understanding the tools and technology to ask the right questions and get
the right answers," said Garvin. "They're the ones who will be traveling
to Mars and making the great discoveries. They'll do the fun stuff."

To follow The JASON Project's exciting research, visit www.jason.org .
The JASON Project is working collaboratively with NASA, National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration, the National Park Service, the National
Geographic Society, EDS, Arizona State University, Jet Propulsion
Laboratory and the University of Hawai`i.

The JASON Project is a subsidiary of the National Geographic Society
dedicated to providing standards-based, multimedia science curricula and
professional development to one million middle-grades students and 20,000
teachers in 41 states and around the world. Combining technology-rich
tools, access to leading scientists and an inquiry-based approach to
learning with standards-based content, JASON inspires students and
teachers to become lifelong learners in science through active
participation in real scientific expeditions around the world.
Received on Thu 02 Feb 2006 01:05:03 PM PST

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