July 20, 2007

New discoveries about red planet keeps professor well read

Professor Chris Taylor
Professor Chris Taylor
Every time NASA sends a probe to Mars, Sacramento State Professor Chris Taylor has to toss out his text book.

Taylor teaches astrophysics at the university. His specialty is galaxy formation but he also teaches planetary science. With all the attention given to Mars lately, the text books he uses are outdated almost as soon as they are printed. 

“The Mars missions do not directly influence my research, but they do influence what I teach because what we know about Mars changes so rapidly,” Taylor says. “I just switched text books because the one I had was published in 2000, and now it’s just about useless.”

He’ll need an even newer text book in a few years. Next month, NASA will launch a new probe that will continue the search for water, and possibly life, on the red planet. The probe, called Phoenix, will explore an area near the northern polar cap, and new discoveries can be expected, Taylor says. 

“The entire thrust of NASA’s missions to Mars has been figuring out whether or not there was life on Mars at one point. So each mission brings us a new piece of the puzzle,” he says.

Phoenix will dig into the icy soil to determine whether frozen water near the surface was ever liquid enough to sustain a livable environment for microbes, according to NASA.
“The theory is that if there were once large oceans or lakes there may have been life in those environments. If the water retreated and went underground, life may have adapted to those conditions and gone there as well,” Taylor says.

Meanwhile, the two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which were sent to Mars in 2003, continue to patrol the planet and provide new information. The rovers were expected to function for about 90 days, Taylor says, but they are still sending back information, even though they are a little beaten up by the Martian terrain, harsh climate and age.

“A wheel on one of the rovers is broken, so it drags as it moves,” Taylor says. “Technicians turned the onboard camera around to look at the track and saw that the wheel had dug out a trench a few millimeters deep exposing a layer containing silica. When you see this mineral on earth that means there is water. So even when you make a mistake you discover something new on Mars.”

Those discoveries and others like it are helping rewrite the book on Mars and that’s okay with Taylor.

“Planetary science, at its most basic level, tells us more about the Earth and directly impacts our knowledge of things like the greenhouse effect. By studying other planets we can learn more about what could happen here on Earth,” he says.

To conduct an interview with Professor Taylor regarding the Mars launch, contact the Sacramento State Public Affairs office at (916) 278-2613.