Is Mars Habitable ?
Assessing the habitability of Mars has been an objective of the scientific community for a long time, but it has recently become a sustained focus in light of data being returned from the planet and growing knowledge about life in extreme environments. The Curiosity rover on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), one of NASAs flagship missions, analyses since August 2012 the Martian environment to assess whether Mars could have supported life. After more than 5 years of operations on Mars the rover Curiosity has acquired an unprecedented data record of near surface measurements providing an invaluable ground truth about the environmental conditions on Mars. In particular Curiosity has found: (i) evidences for liquid water conditions on Mars; (ii) preserved indigenous organic molecules in mudstone soil samples; (iii) indigenous fixed nitrogen which may provide a biochemically accessible source of nitrogen for life; (iv) manganese oxides on the surface; and (iv) also detected methane in the atmosphere at variable concentrations throughout the mission. These discoveries, together with other from previous and current missions to Mars, have sparked speculation about the past or present existence of life on Mars; and they have opened many scientific questions and challenges. Moreover, the future human exploration of Mars requires access to in-situ resources. Space agencies are requesting, for the first time ever, for ideas on In-situ Resources Utilization (ISRU) instruments that can efficiently extract key resources (water, oxygen, etc.) from Mars. But the international efforts of Mars surface exploration require a coordinated effort to respect the Planetary Protection protocols and to avoid the forward contamination of Mars. This in turn requires, updating our knowledge about the Martian habitability conditions.
Javier Martín-Torres is Chaired Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the Luleå University of Technology in Sweden. He is also Visiting Professor at the School of Physics and Astronomy, at the University of Edinburgh, in the United Kingdom, at the Spanish Research Council, and Specially Appointed Professor at the University of Okayama in Japan.
Javier is the principal investigator of the HABIT instrument that will fly to Mars aboard the ExoMars mission of the European Space Agency. He has been the scientific responsible for the REMS instrument in NASA's Curiosity, which since 2012 investigates the habitability of Mars, and co-investigator of 7 space missions of NASA and ESA. He has worked for ESA, CalTech and Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and ten years for NASA, from which he has received seven awards, one for "Outstanding contributions to the Investigations to the Columbia Challenger accident" and another "for the success of the operations and scientific exploitation of REMS/Curiosity ". Recently his team has won several European space innovation awards, including the OHB Innospace Challenge, and in November a team consisting of two of his students will fly in the Fly Your Thesis! Campaign of the European Space Agency, after being one of the 2 European teams selected in a European competitive process. In addition, for three years he was director of the Planetary Atmosphere Group of the Center of Astrobiology in Madrid, Spain.
Javier Martin-Torres is the Principal Investigator of HABIT (Habitability: Brines, Irradiation and Temperature). HABIT is one of the instruments selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) to be part of the scientific payload on the Surface Platform module of ExoMars 2020 mission.
Check out the HABIT video HERE.
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