Gibson Suggests Evidence of Life on Mars at Astronomy Presentation

Everett Gibson arrived at the Lyndon B. Johnson Spacecraft Center on the day that lunar spacecraft Apollo 11 returned to Earth in 1969. Four decades later, Gibson is now Principal Scientist of Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences at NASA and a senior scientist at the Manned Spacecraft Center. He is collaborating with his fellow scientists in the search for evidence of life on Mars through studying meteorites and the planet’s surface.

Gibson spoke about Mars exploration and the possibility of biological existence on Mars on Tuesday in Gelb.

“If we as a civilization and humanity discover that somewhere else in our Cosmos or solar system there could be life, that would really be a changing event both philosophically and scientifically,” said Gibson.

From the evidence he has observed over his scientific career, Gibson personally believes that there used to be and there may currently be life on Mars.

The most recent indication of life on Mars resulted from NASA’s rover “Curiosity.” In fall 2012, Curiosity detected rounded pebbles embedded in sections of Mars’ surface. Gibson said this suggested there used to be large amounts of water, as water is responsible for rounding the pebbles, said Gibson.

“We have evidence that there are what looks like large outflow channels that have moved across the surface in the past, so we think that is was warmer and wetter in its history. We know there might have been oceans, and they have since gone,” said Gibson.

After closer examination of these pebbles, Gibson said he and his team at NASA were also able to find many important elements for life including carbon, sulfur, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen. Gibson said that for the last 3 billion years Mars has looked similar to how it looks now, with no obvious concrete signs of life.

Gibson explained that there are three main components that are necessary to confirm that a place is habitable: liquid water, carbon and an energy source. Gibson said that the energy source of Mars is the sun, so NASA scientists have been following trails of carbon and water to try to find evidence of life on Mars

Following the success of the Curiosity rover, Gibson spoke about the possibility of NASA sending a new rover to Mars in the year 2020. This rover will act similarly to Curiosity and will specifically help to search for additional evidence of life.

Gibson said that out of the 44 attempted rover launches to Mars, only 18 missions have successfully landed there. Gibson said that he worked on two of the failed missions. “It hurts when you lose a spacecraft, even though it is 250 million miles away,” said Gibson.

NASA has been sending rovers to Mars since the 1960s in an effort to find past or present evidence of life.

Although there has been some success landing rovers on Mars, additional evidence of possible life has come from meteorites found on the earth’s surface. Gibson said that there are seven meteorites that display confirmed Martian qualities. A meteorite found in Egypt had traces of Martian water, as isotopes of oxygen that made up the water were different from any water found on earth.

“On Earth we know that we have carbon sources that are already available and we have life everywhere and anywhere. On Mars, it is more difficult. There are no we like to detect footprints and fossils.…On Mars, we have to look at it with greater scrutiny,” said Gibson.

In addition to the presentation, Gibson spoke at an informal dinner discussion at Paresky Commons, hosted an event in the Gelb Observatory and also spoke to two astronomy classes. “I thought Gibson was engaging, and it is an interesting topic, so I think the students enjoyed it,” said Caroline Odden, Instructor in Physics.

Odden invited Gibson to campus. “I met Dr. Gibson several years ago at a conference and it was apparent to me immediately that he was very intelligent, very knowledgeable and an engaging fellow. So I had been hoping to get him to campus for quite some time,” said Odden.

Gibson has a professorship at the Open University in the United Kingdom, where he works with graduate students. He received BS and MS degrees in Chemistry from Texas Tech University and a PhD in Geochemistry, specializing in meteorites, from Arizona State University.