Dr. Joel S. Levine is planning a trip.
The trip won’t come for another 14 years and will cover some 150 million miles, but as the professor and former NASA Mars exploration program scientist explained, plans for a human mission to Mars are underway and, if successful, the expedition could bring forth giant scientific leaps.
Levine spoke to a crowd of local students and community members at a lecture Feb. 17 titled “Sending Humans to Mars: How? Why? and When?” The event was was organized by Jamestown High School student Noah Katz to raise funds for cancer research as part of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's 2019 Students of the Year program.
Katz said his personal interest in the subject of space exploration inspired him to coordinate the lecture. Katz and his classmates accepted donations at the event’s entrance in hopes of reaching their $20,000 goal.
“Seeing the devastating effects that cancer can have not only on an individual, but on an entire community, is why I’m here today,” he said.
Now a William and Mary research professor of applied science, Levine led a 41-year career at NASA, working at its Langley Research Center in Hampton and as a scientist in the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s headquarters, where he also co-chaired NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Science Analysis Group.
As Levine explained, sending humans to Mars became a national goal in 2004, and a team of NASA astronauts could be booking their tickets for a 150 million-mile journey to the red planet in 2033. The trip would last nine months each way, and astronauts would spend 500 days exploring the planet’s surface and searching for answers to some of the world’s most pressing scientific questions.
“For the first time in history, humans will become a two-planet species, and when they get to Mars, they have a number of scientific tasks to perform,” Levine said.
In particular, a successful mission to Mars would answer two important questions: whether life currently exists on the red planet, and what caused Mars to change from a planet covered with oceans, lakes and rivers 4.7 billion years ago to the barren, inhospitable landscape that exists today.
“Mars experienced catastrophic climate change, and the question is, what happened on Mars to change it from a hospitable water-covered planet with a thick atmosphere, to the Mars of today?,” Levine said. “The second part of that question is, can it happen to Earth in the future?”
He said that although no liquid water exists on the planet today, the first evidence of water erosion was found as part of the Viking expedition in 1976. These days, he said, most of the water on the planet’s surface is frozen and buried several hundred feet under polar caps.
“There’s a lot of water below the surface, and that’s good when we send humans to Mars, because the water begins a few inches below the surface, so all the astronauts will have to do is melt it and they’ll be able to drink it,” Levine said.
Although no proof of life on Mars has been found yet, Levine said there has been some compelling evidence. One study has found high levels of methane being produced in Mars’ atmosphere each summer, which could point to microscopic life on the planet.
“99 percent of the methane on our planet is produced by life, microscopic life produces methane as a metabolic byproduct,” he said. “This is very important because I think this is the strongest evidence that we have that there’s some sort of microbial life on the planet Mars.”
Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.