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The Great Mars Debate

photo of mars surface
photo of mars surface
photo of mars surface
photo of mars surface

February 5 - February 9, 2001

Forum 2/5 - 2/9
Live Webcast 2/9 10:00 a.m. PT / 1:00 p.m. ET

[Overview]        [Participate]       

[Educational Objectives and Standards]        [Supporting Educational Materials]

Student Preparation

There are five areas that students can use in preparation for the debate and webcast.

  • Scientific Goal and Questions
  • Video clips of scientists
  • Images of Mars landing sites
  • Web sites to research
  • Extensions

Scientific Goal and Questions (These are the questions that scientists hope to answer with the site chosen for the Mars Explorer Rover 2003 mission)

The mission seeks to determine the history of climate and water at a site on Mars where conditions may once have been favorable to life. The landing sites have not yet been chosen, and will be selected on the basis of intensive study of orbital data collected by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft and other missions. The site will be ones at which there is clear evidence that liquid water was once present. The rovers' scientific instruments will be used to read the geologic record at each site, to investigate what role water played there, and to determine how suitable the conditions would have been for life.

1. Does or did Mars have all of the requirements for life? (What places on Mars are most likely to have had all requirements for life?)
Life as we know it requires:

  • liquid water
  • an energy source
  • access to elemental building blocks of life: Carbon, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Sulfur to construct basic proteins and enzymes. This means that pure water will not produce life. There needs to be a connection between water and rock.
  • stability over time (stable temperature without interference from too many meteorites, for example) Note: We are seeking requirements for bacterial life, not complex life such as animals or humans.

2. Since scientists believe that life may have and possibly still exist under the surface of Mars, where might rocks that were once underground be exposed on the surface?

3. Where might we see evidence of liquid water existing on Mars in the past?

4. What locations on Mars might tell us more about the geologic history of Mars?

5. How is water important to the climate on Earth and how might it be important to the climate of Mars?

Landing Site Constraints

Because they are solar powered, the Rovers need the maximum amount of sunlight possible during their 90 day mission. This means that MER-A (Mars Exploration Rover A) which will land first, can have landing sites between latitude of 15 degrees south to 5 degrees north. MER-B which will land about 52 Mars days (sols) later can have landing sites between 10 degrees south and 10 degrees north.

In order to receive and transmit data, the Rovers need to be 37 degrees apart on the surface of Mars.

The surface has to be relatively flat in order for a successful landing of the Rovers. It cannot have too many large rocks because it can be a hazard to the Rover. The landing will be similar to the Pathfinder landing and uses giant air bags to cushion it's landing. Because the scientists want to study the rocks and soil at the landing site, there cannot be too much dust from the atmosphere covering the rocks. The data collected from the Mars Global Surveyor which currently in orbit around Mars has information about how dusty the surface is. This map of the range of latitude of landing sites gives information on how dusty the surface is. The blue areas have more dust and the red and white areas have the least amount of dust. You can try to match features from this map with the landing site maps. site map

Videos of Scientists

Images of Mars Landing Sites

These are the sites being considered for the 2003 Rovers: (Scroll down a little to the Interactive Map Display. Select the small squares to see images of the sites. Click on them again to see an gray-scale close-up view of the site) Sites

Types of Sites

Specific landing site images by categories will be added here on 2/2 under each category.

Valles Marineris Sites: These are sites located in parts of the canyon system that is as long as the width of the United States. Example of this type of site: Melas Chasma

Terra Meridiani Hematite Sites: Sites located on Mars by Global Surveyor that have sand-sized grains of the mineral hematite. Hematite is a common iron mineral found on Earth and usually occurs where rock has interacted with water. The grains in this deposit are grey, similar to the hematite used to make jewelry because of their size. The red grains in the dust of Mars are the size of powdered sugar. An example of this type of site: Hematite Deposit

Paleo-lake Sites: Ancient lake bed. Example of this type of site: White Rock Basin

Hydrothermal Sites: Hydrothermal means warm or hot water is or has interacted with rock. This interaction alters the composition of the site. Example of this type of site: Apollinaris Patera 2


Web sites to research:

On-line Education and Outreach by Mary Urquhart, Ph.D.
A teachers tour guide to the planets
A Question of life on Mars
Mars Explorer Rover 2003 Landing Site Conference Program and Abstracts You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader
Click on numbers by titles of the abstracts to see scientists abstracts describing the site they would choose and why. (This is not written at a K-12 level)

Extension Activities

These sites will be exciting for you to explore and learn more about astrobiology and life in extreme environments. Astrobiology Institute
Astro-Venture This interactive, multimedia Web environment allows students in grades 5-8 role-play NASA occupations as they search for and build a planet that would be habitable to humans.



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