UTC Scholar Steve Symes participates in Mars rover Perseverance, seeking life on Mars through soil chemicals.
Steve Symes is “skeptical” there has ever been life on Mars. But he still wants to make sure one way or the other. “It almost depends on what day of the week you ask me. I like to remain optimistic. I remain hopeful that it will be found, evidence of past life will be found, but I guess I’m going to have to say that I’m going to remain skeptical until shown the evidence.”
Symes, a UC Foundation professor of chemistry at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, isn’t skeptical about the need to explore Mars to find about the planet’s past, present and future, including the possibility of life. To that end, Symes is a member of a group that helped plan the most recent Mars visitation, the Perseverance rover, which lifted off July 30 and is expected to land on Mars in February. Rather than “life,” though, his focus is on chemicals in the soil of Mars, elements that will help him trace the planet’s growth through volcanic processes known in science circles as igneous activity.
“I’m what’s called an isotope geochemist, so my specific interest is in the evolution of the planet. When was it volcanically active? For how many billions of years was it volcanically active? What does that mean in terms of how the planet formed?” Since about 2010, Symes has been a member of NASA E2E-iSAG, an acronym for End to End International Science Analysis Group. It was created by, yes, another acronym, MEPAG, the Mars Exploration Planning and Analysis Group.
A team of about 20 scientists and researchers from around the world, E2EiSAG’s task was to map out specific objectives for Perseverance, coming up with lots of ideas, then paring them down until a final set of achievable goals was agreed upon. “It’s one of those standing-on-the-shoulders-of-giants things. I am but one of many scientists that have been defining what are called ‘science objectives’ for the sample-return aspect of the mission,” he said. “Just putting ideas out there, then each objective would get critically assessed by this team, then the ones that had scientific merit and were deemed to be achievable were chosen.”
“It’s one of those standing-on-the-shoulders-of-giants things. I am but one of many scientists that have been defining what are called ‘science objectives’ for the sample-return aspect of the mission,”
Once it arrives on Mars, the Perseverance rover, which is about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, will gather multiple rock and soil samples as well as take readings from the atmosphere, searching for, among many other things, evidence of past microbial life, a better understanding of the planet’s past and to prepare for future exploration. The rover will collect soil and rock samples about the size of a pencil, Symes said, place them in hermetically sealed tubes and wait. And perhaps wait and wait and wait. “It will leave the samples on the surface in hopes that NASA, the U.S., humanity decides to go back and retrieve them at a later date.”
Fact is, the samples might wait a long time, maybe forever. “Obviously we’d love to do it all in one fell swoop, but it’s just too technologically difficult and therefore too expensive,” Symes said. “Before those samples can be picked up, scientists must develop the technology to send another device rocketing to Mars, pick up the Perseverance samples off the planet, then blast off again and use a different rocket to head back to Earth.
Symes was selected by NASA to be part of E2iSAG due to his longtime involvement in NASA- and Mars-related projects. He has written several papers on the planet, including one on possible methods of getting the Perseverance samples off Mars and back to Earth and one on the scientific priorities for them once they’re here. He is hopeful that the lure of the Mars samples becomes so strong in science circles, it will be impossible to leave them up there. “We’re all kind of hoping that there’s this giant carrot up there, right? And we’re hoping that’s enough momentum for NASA to say, ‘Come on, guys. We gotta go do this.’”