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Mars Team Online QuestChat

Date: December 10, 1998

Featuring: Jack Farmer
Exobiologist
Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ

[ Oran/NASAChatHost - 3 - 14:36:36 ]
Hello to our early arriving Mars Team Online chat participants! Today's Mars Team Online chat with Jack Farmer from Arizona State University will begin at 3:00 p.m., Pacific Standard Time. Be sure you have read Jack'sautobiography at http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/mars/team/farmer.html before joining this chat.

[ Oran/NASAChatHost - 4 - 14:37:00 ]
Once the chat begins, Jack will attempt to answer as many of your questions as he can, but please be patient. We may use "moderation" during the chat if Jack falls behind with our questions. This means that only a few questions will be posted to the chat room at a time. Don't worry if your questions do not appear on your screen immediately during moderation. They will be held in our chat queue and posted as Jack answers those ahead of you.

[ Oran/NASAChatHost - 5 - 14:37:21 ]
As a reminder, remember to enter "Your Handle" in the box provided, before posting questions to the chat room. Once you've done this, please let us know that you have logged on for today's chat.

[ Oran/NASAChatHost - 6 - 14:37:49 ]
At the conclusion of today's chat, we ask that you take a few minutes to let us know what you thought about it. For your convenience, you may use our online feedback forms at http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/qchats/qchat-surveys. We look forward to hearing from you!

[ Stephanie/Edmonton - 7 - 14:47:18 ]
Good afternoon Oran!

[ Oran/NASAChatHost - 8 - 14:47:18 ]
Welcome back, Stephanie! We'll get started in about 10 minutes or so. Glad to hear from you again!

[ Oran/NASAChatHost - 10 - 15:00:30 ]
Hello and welcome to today's Mars team Online chat with Jack Farmer from Arizona State University. We have actually found tiny microfossils in rocks as far back as 3.5 billion years. Jack is trying to learn how these tiny creatures get preserved in rocks and why. His work can help us learn more about the ancient environment of Earth. He has studied bacterial life and their fossils in many extreme environments (places that are either too hot, too cold, or too salty or acidic for larger complex organisms). He has mostly focused on life existing at high temperatures, in areas such as hot springs, in order to better understand how the earliest communities lived. Jack has spent the last five summers in Yellowstone National Park trying to learn more about how the high-temperature communities survive, interact and become fossils.

[ Oran/NASAChatHost - 14 - 15:15:18 ]
RE: [Stephanie/Edmonton] I see. Oran, do you have the previous questions I posted when the chat was cancelled before?
Unfortunately, Stephanie, we had a major power failure in the San Francisco Bay Area a couple of days ago. The power loss also affected our Quest network, in which we lost different components of our chat resources. Unfortunately, the previous chat room with your questions has been unretrievable.

[ JackFarmer/ASU - 15 - 15:16:26 ]
RE: [Michelle] I will not be able to participate in the live chat but I wanted to thank you for doing it. Mars is one of my favorite subjects. What exactly is your involvement in the Mars projects? Have the Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor projects provided any significant data that have altered the direction of your research? What is the status of the MGS mapping activities? Is data from ASUs Thermal Emission Spectrometer of use to you in determining possible locations for fossils and ancient hot springs? Do you expect to find fossils on Mars? Which project will be the first to actually bring back rock samples? What do you expect to find out from Athena and the next orbiter? Will you have sampling equipment on the lander in 2003? Do you expect to get more useful data from the landers or the orbiters? Do you believe that you will find evidence of past life on Mars? Do you think there is any possibility of finding present life on Mars (perhaps evolved in a way that would not occur on Earth)? If one of the landers scooped up something that was a positive indication of past or present life on Mars - what would your first reaction be? Since exobiology is concerned with life originating or existing outside the earth or its atmosphere, I assume that you are primarily concerned with the search for life on Mars. Does your work extend to other planets? Does it involve the search for intelligent life or simply microscopic signs of life? Did you ever meet or work with Carl Sagan? Has his work impacted your research in any way? In the scientific field, who were the major influences in your career? Going back to the Viking Mission, were you involved with NASA at all during that time? Did Viking have any influence on your later work? I hope I get the chance to ask you questions during a live chat at some point. I also hope that ASU continues its K-12 Outreach Project. The biannual teacher workshops are wonderful. My family drove out from California so I could attend one. It was so exciting to be there when the data started coming back from MGS. What a thrill! Thanks again for participating in this Quest chat. Wish I could participate today!
Hi Michele, My mission involvement has mostly been on the science advisory side of the house. I am a member of several advisory groups including the Mars Expeditions Strategy group (MESG), the Mars '01 Science Definition Team and the Solar System Exploration Subcommittee. The Pathfinder mission has posed more questions for me than it answered unfortunately. We still do not know how to interpret the elemental analyses provided by the APXS spectrometer. This has focused me on making sure the community and project leaders understand the need for more data than we obtained during Pathfinmder to get past these important questions of surface composition (especially mineralogy and rock type). The TES mapping data will not be fully attained until the spacecraft enters a mapping orbit in March of '99. However, the TES data so far have identified some very interesting anomalous concentrations of coarse-grained hematite in a particluar region of Mars that is suggestive of aqueous activity. This is an important development but probably just a first step in using mineralogy to target sites for sample return. The orbiter in 2001 will carry another spectrometer that will map at much higher spatial resolution and hopefully enablke us to pinpoint much more accurately where the exciting mineral deposits are located. The Athena rover which will be delivered to Mars in 2003 will be the first time we actually perform a detailed in situ analysis on Mars rocks. This will be a big step forward and hopefully enable us to select the best samples in searching for clues of past life on Mars. The samples collected by Athena will be cached for return to Earth by the 2005 mission (actually reach Earth ~2008). The Atena payload will include a variety of spectral instruments for identifying mineralogy and perhaps even organics in rocks (both laser Raman and IR spectrometers) as well as close-up imaging and a drill for getting inside rocks. I think that if we can locate the right types of rocks, we stand a reasonable chance of finding ancient biosignatures in Martian rocks. But even if life never developed on Mars, we still are likely to learn a lot about the kinds of prebiotic chemistry that lead to life on Earth. The search for extant life will involve a much different approach. To do that we think we will have to drill deeply into the crust (at least to a depth of a few kms) where liquid water may yet exist. If we find evidence of life at the Martian surface today, frankly I will be shocked. Even the most extreme environments on Earth where we find life are tame compared to Mars where liquid water is unstable and radiaition is much higher. My interest in the search for life extends to any place in the Solar System where appropriate environments exist or have existed in the past. The other interest I have at present is Euroopa where cryofossilized life could be preserved in the surface ices of that moon. Although I have a great iunterest in SETI and the search for intelligent life, I don't do that kind of work myself. I guess I'm just an avid fan like everyone else! I know Carl, not well but we did attend some of the same meetings and interact with the same advisory groups from time to time. He remains a personal hero! Carl was the first to suggest looking for cryporeserved life on Mars you know, and that definitely colored my approach in exploring for extant life in the polar regions of Mars today. ASU will undoubtedly continue our K-12 outreach. It is a very rewarding activity we all enjoy! Thanks!

[ JackFarmer/ASU - 18 - 15:21:55 ]
RE: [Stephanie/Edmonton] How does it feel to be working in astrobiology, a field where your subject may not even exist?
Interesting to say the least! I have always appreciated teh definition of Exobiology given by George Gaylord Simpson (a well known evolutionist and paleontologist) earlier this century. George defined Exobiology as that field which has yet to discover what it purports to study! While that is true, there is a lot we can do in Astrobiology by understanding life oin the one place we actually knoiw it exists, namely Earth! So my work is mostly involved with understanding the limits to life here and then asking what that implies for the the search for life elsewhere. While I'd love to find life and prove the legitimacy of the field, we are just taking the forst baby steps toward realizing that dream. So I guess the short answer is: It is very exciting to be a pioneer in this area! I very much enjoy my work and have no trouble gettinmg up and coming to work each day!

[ JackFarmer/ASU - 19 - 15:23:05 ]
RE: [Stephanie/Edmonton] How do you like playing your flute? I play the flute, and I must say it's one of the hardest instruments to play well!
Dear Stephanie, I love to play my flute, although I must admit I'm not very good yet. Still, I try and when I get frustrated turn to my guitar where I much better!

[ JackFarmer/ASU - 22 - 15:25:47 ]
RE: [Stephanie/Edmonton] Are there lots of hydrogen in the Martian surface? Wouldn't it be needed in abundance to make fuel, and for water?
Dear Stephanie, There is a lot of ice (H20) and maybe hydrated minerals that contain hydrogen. These are the materials we will probably use to extract hydrogen for fuel if we go that route.

[ JackFarmer/ASU - 23 - 15:28:16 ]
RE: [Stephanie/Edmonton] Do you highly recommend taking biology in high school?
Yes! I highly recommend taking biology and if possible advanced courses (e.g. botany and zoology)!

[ JackFarmer/ASU - 27 - 15:37:33 ]
RE: [Stephanie/Edmonton] Since it has been proven that ALH84001 has no signs of life, what caused the "bacteria-like" formations?
Some of the nanostructures in ALH84001 that resemble microbes have been explained as an artifacts of sample preparation. Before examining a material under a Scanning Electron Microscope (required to get to the high degree of magnificatioon needed to see nanometer-sized features) you need to apply a metal coating so the sample will be conductive to electrons that are used to make the image. In the process of applying that coating (it is put on as a plasma vapor) you can create small crystals of the coating metal that take the form of simple bacteria. Also, many minerals assume simple spherical to filamentous shapes at the nanometer scale and can easily be mistaken for organisms. I pointed this out in a CNN Press Conference the day of the big ALH meteorite Press Conference and have been sorry to see my expectations come true. I'd love it if the structures in that meteorite were actually fossils, but it really seems now that they are all inorganic!

[ JackFarmer/ASU - 29 - 15:40:33 ]
RE: [Stephanie/Edmonton] I saw you on the Scientific American program on PBS last month.
I really enjoyed doing the "Fronteirs" episode and especially meeting Alan Alda, one of my all time favorite actors since MASH (still in reruns!). The time in the field with the film crew was quite interesting, especially negotiating all the hot springs, geysers, notious vapors and inclement weather. Considering all that it turned out very well I thought!

[ Oran/NASAChatHost - 31 - 15:42:18 ]
Stephanie, at the conclusion of today's chat, please share your thoughts at http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/qchats/qchat-surveys. Thanks so much!

[ JackFarmer/ASU - 32 - 15:42:22 ]
RE: [Stephanie/Edmonton] Unfortunately I'll probably be able to only take chemistry and physics. That'll enough to take geology.
Nothing wrong with beginning with Chemistry and Physics which are perequisite for understanding biology. Of course being a geologist/paleontologist by training, I think that geology and Earth Science in general is quite fascinating as well!

[ JackFarmer/ASU - 33 - 15:44:18 ]
RE: [Stephanie/Edmonton] How long did it take to complete college?
I completed my Bachelor's in 4 years, my Master's in just under 2 years and my PhD in 7 years. My PhD took a long time because I was working full time as a Museum Curator after the first two years of my PhD Program. A long haul, but well worth it for me!

[ JackFarmer/ASU - 37 - 15:51:55 ]
RE: [Stephanie/Edmonton] Have you researched the underground lake in Siberia?
I have not heard of an underground lake in Siberia, although I have been following the exploration of subglacial lake Vostoc in Antarctica. This is quite an amazing thing. Lake Vostoc is just one (probably the largest) of many subglacial lakes lying beneath the Anarctic ice cap. They were discovered by the Russians using seismic reflection methods. The plan is to drill into Lake Vostoc and see if there are living organisms there and if so, what kind. The problem is to avoid forward contamination of the lake. Drilling is a dirty, messy business and if we introduce organisms into the lake before we have obtained an uncontaminated sample, we may have a hard time discovering what is realy there. So the big challenge before continuing our drilling efforts is to create sterile drilling methods that will work without contaminating the lake. While this is delaying our present exploration efforts to explore Lake Vostoc, it is also allowing us to solve important problems that are bound to come up in the future when we try to drill and xeplore for life on Mars or Europa.

[ JackFarmer/ASU - 39 - 15:55:42 ]
RE: [Stephanie/Edmonton] Will you be involved with any of Mars Climate Orbiter's or Polar lander's experiments?
My involvement with these missions has mostly been as an objective evaluator and not an actual team member. By having a role in the mission planning groups, I was not free to be a member of proposing teams. Then I became a member of a proposal team that was not selected. So, unfortunantely, I will be watching from the sidelines cherring everyone on, but probably not there during mission operations. However, it may be different for the 2003 mission where I do plan to be more directly involved.

[ Oran/NASAChatHost - 40 - 15:56:03 ]
RE: [Stephanie/Edmonton] I would like to thank you and Oran for the chance to chat! Happy Holidays!
Thanks so much for joining us again, Stephanie. Jack will answer your remaining questions before signing off. We hope to have the "bugs" out of our network for our upcomig chats. Happy Holidays to you, too!

[ JackFarmer/ASU - 41 - 16:02:11 ]
RE: [Stephanie/Edmonton] Might there be life on Triton?
Triton, moon of Neptune, really surprised us during Voyager with what appear to be ponds of surface ice that apparently have come from below and pooled and frozen out. Where there is ice and heat, there is the possibility of liquid water. Perhaps deep below the surface there is enough internal heat to allow liquid water to exist which could support life. This is a long shot, but given we know so little of Triton it can't be ruled out as yet.

[ JackFarmer/ASU - 48 - 16:25:52 ]
RE: [Stephanie/Edmonton] Where do you draw the line between science and religion, or can you draw a line?
Where do I draw the line between science and religion? Good question! I come from a religious upbringing (my Father and Mother were both seminarians and we were missionaries until I was about age 5-6). I grew up with a strong fundamentalist protestant heritage. But as a young adult going to college I immediately became aware of the conficts. Over the years I have studied lots of religions and tried to understand (in an objective way) the value of each. I have come to realize that most religions share a similar core of beliefs. But I've also seen that science and religion function on a fundamentally different basis. Religion provides an explanation for what we see around us, where we came from and our relationship to the rest of the world in one way and science in quite another. Religion gives you an explanation and asks you to accept it on faith. So, if you are having trouble with your religious convictions, most of the time the only solution is to strengthen your faith. If you are having trouble with your science then you need to come up with another hypothesis and test it against your actual observations. That is how science operates. (If you believe in your hypothesis, but don't want to test it, you are not doiing science!) Scientific approaches work well for many fields of inquiry, while philosophy and religion have their applications to other areas of experience where science has trouble testing hypotheses. I find my religious convictions serve me well in making decisions about how to interact with others to achieve maximum harmony and productivity (it is called the Golden Rule!). And for me the Ten Commandments are simply good rules for living a life effectively (although I have found that other religions also provide similar standards for living that are equally useful). Because I got a good sense of how to treat others through my early religious training as a child, I think I have been more successful as an adult. I also think that eventhough I grew to accept the standards my parents imparted to me on faith, as an adult I have also had plenty of opportunities to test the hypotheses they provided about life against real life experiences. So in a sense, I have been trying to use the methods of science (observation, hypothesis and test) in my later religious life to see how useful these ideas actually are. I have begun to believe that what my parents imparted to me through our collective religious experiences was in fact a very truthful and useful way to live!

[ JackFarmer/ASU - 49 - 16:26:31 ]
RE: [Stephanie/Edmonton] Bye!
Thanks for the chat. Hope to talk again soon! Jack

[ Oran/NASAChatHost - 46 - 16:05:35 ]
RE: [Stephanie/Edmonton] Bye!
Good bye, Stephanie. We hope to hear from you again!

[ Oran/NASAChatHost - 50 - 16:27:00
This concludes today's Mars Team Online chat with Jack Farmer from Arizona State University. Be sure to share your thoughts about today's chat with us at http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/qchats/qchat-surveys. Upcoming chats with Mars experts will occur as part of the Space Scientists Online project. To learn about upcoming chats with other NASA experts, visit our schedule of events page at http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/common/events.

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