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Mars and the Mojave Festival

Hundreds of people descended on Death Valley National Park for the first
ever Mars and the Mojave Festival, held March 9-11 and hosted by NASA and
the National Park Service.  This event, which celebrated similarities
between the Mojave Desert landscape and the Red Planet, reflects an ongoing
partnership between NASA, the park, and other planetary science
organizations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The festival kicked off on Friday night with a standing-room only keynote
presentation by planetary scientist Dr. Chris McKay, talking about Mars
Science Laboratory, the NASA mission that successfully launched a new
rover, Curiosity, this past November.  Curiosity lands on Mars this August,
and will study whether conditions there are, or ever have been, suitable to
foster life. Many festival activities elaborated on the same theme,
introducing visitors to the types of environments, on Earth and Mars, which
can harbor microscopic life.

Dr. Susanne Douglas of the Planetary Science Institute led a field trip to
Badwater, where she studies bacteria that dwell in salt crusts.  Dr.
Rosalba Bonaccorsi of NASA and the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial
Intelligence) Institute showed visitors the water-sequestering clay
minerals in short-lived ponds at the bottom of Ubehebe Crater, which can
harbor the building blocks of life.  Dr. Henry Sun of the Desert Research
Institute presented a talk about microbes that eke out a living under the
surface of granite and sandstone rocks in the Mojave Desert and Antarctica.
All three of these scientists demonstrated the surprising conditions under
which life occurs.

Other festival presenters focused on how researchers overcome the
engineering challenges of doing science on other planets, by first testing
Mars-bound equipment on Earth. Dr. Aaron Zent of NASA led a field trip to
Mars Hill, where early rover models practiced maneuvering over rocky
terrain.  Dr. Luther Beegle of NASA spoke about testing a drill designed to
collect samples on Mars at a mine site in Death Valley.  Lucinda Land, the
executive director of the non-profit Mars Society, described the mock
Martian research station her organization runs in the Utah desert, where
volunteer crews practice living and working on the Red Planet.

The Mars and the Mojave Festival also featured an expo on Saturday
afternoon, where children could try their hand at driving a robot
mini-rover, extreme microorganisms wriggled under microscopes, and
equipment for detecting life-supporting conditions on other planets was
demonstrated.

Other festival highlights included:
Dr. Joe Kirschvink of Caltech presenting the panspermia hypothesis, the
idea that life evolved elsewhere in the universe (possibly on Mars),
then traveled to earth on a meteorite billions of years ago.
Dr. Tyler Nordgren of University of Redlands offering an impassioned
appeal for preserving natural darkness in the National Parks and
beyond.
A panel of planetary scientists sharing the positive implications of
their research for human society here on Earth.

Death Valley National Park hosted the festival because it protects some of
earth’s most extreme environments – from salt flats, to chemically complex
springs, to dramatic volcanic craters – all scoured by intense winds,
shaped by rare but violent floods, and baked by hadean temperatures.  That
life can survive, and even thrive, under such conditions is testament to
its adaptability and tenacity.  For these reasons, scientists have traveled
to the Mojave Desert for decades to study the conditions that might foster
life on Mars.

NASA and the park hope to make this festival an annual event.  Death Valley
is a natural laboratory for testing out-of-this-world hypotheses and
equipment, making it an ideal venue for the festival.  Yet many other
National Park sites host planetary analog research, and NASA is interested
in partnering with them to produce similar events.  For more information,
or to get in touch with relevant NASA representatives, email or call the
park’s Education Specialist at stephanie_kyriazis@nps.gov or 760-786-3226.

-NPS-

Photo caption: Dr. Susanne Douglas of the Planetary Science Institute shows
visitors the kind of extreme life that lives in salty ponds at Badwater,
and could have existed on Mars.

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