Photo By: Kathryn Tomaino/Special to the Town Crier
Kobie T. Boykins, a mechanical engineer with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, accompanied the Morning Forum audience on a video trip to Mars in his Feb. 5 presentation, “Exploring Mars: Explorers of the Red Planet.”
Boykins worked on developing the solar panels that power the rovers NASA sends to Mars. Since 2003, NASA has explored Mars with unmanned rovers, the latest of which cost $2.5 billion and required the expertise of approximately 10,000 people.
The ultimate goal is to uncover whether life exists on Mars.
Perhaps long ago, Mars, Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor, sustained life. Mars boasts high levels of radiation and carbon dioxide and is very cold. Its atmosphere is thin (approximately 1 percent density compared to Earth’s atmosphere), so it doesn’t retain heat. It would be very difficult for human life to survive on Mars.
“If a person stood on Mars, it might be 10 degrees at his feet and minus 110 degrees at his head,” Boykins said. “A one-mile-an-hour wind on earth would feel like 100 miles per hour on Mars.”
NASA’s first rover, Spirit, landed on Mars in 2003. Spirit transmitted data to NASA for five years and then stopped working. The rover Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004 and is still sending information back to Earth. Curiosity, NASA’s latest rover, landed on Mars last August. Because the rovers uncovered evidence of water and methane on Mars, it is conceivable there is or has been life on the Red Planet, according to Boykins.
Curiosity acts like a roving biologist in its search for life on Mars, analyzing the surface dirt on the planet. The rover recently drilled below the surface of Mars, the first time a planet has been drilled without a human directing the action on site. The future goal of Martian ventures is to merge robotic and human exploration.
Was the Mars mission worth $2.5 billion?
“Our country is falling behind,” Boykins said. “If the Mars mission inspires our children to go into math, science, technology and engineering, it was worth $2.5 billion and more, because innovation comes from these fields. It’s much better to spend on discovery than to spend on bombs.”
To view images taken by the Curiosity rover, visit www.jpl.nasa.gov. The pictures are updated weekly.
Morning Forum is a members-only lecture series held at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. For membership details and more information, visit www.morningforum.org.