Professor Peter Smith is the University of Arizona expert who led NASA's Phoenix Mars Mission, which landed on the Red Planet on May 25th, 2008. Speaking at the University of Delaware on April 16th, his lecture, Journey of the Phoenix, captivated the audience with its contents, as well as with the idea that the professors had of space exploration. He argued that at least basic forms of life would be discovered within the next decade. Microbes and bacteria were, thus far, the best bet, he told the audience.
“We're ardently searching for evidence of life on our closest planet. I think it's coming, I really do. At some point, we'll turn over a rock, and by gosh there it is,” the professor said in his lecture. He added that the six-legged apes and other such creatures, which had been envisioned by a number of science-fiction writers as living on Mars, were certainly not there.
But bacteria have been proven to endure for millions of years in the harshest conditions on our planet, in volcano craters, near hydrothermal vents, and also under hundreds of feet of ice.
While he spoke, a screen behind Smith displayed photos taken by the Phoenix Mars Lander during its mission, which was one of the first to show clear evidence that frozen water existed on the Red Planet. The Lander was a collaboration between University of Arizona's Science Operations Center, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, and Lockheed Martin Space Systems, in Denver, as well as scientific institutes in Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Switzerland.
Smith detailed the Phoenix mission, explaining how the craft had to decelerate from 13,000 miles per hour in the upper Martian atmosphere, to withstand temperatures of up to 2,600 degrees, and then deploy by parachute on the surface. It spent the next five months under Smith's supervision, operating its solar panels, digging tools, microwave ovens, robotic arms and cameras according to the team's command lines. “Martian soil is really sticky and clumpy,” Smith joked.
Despite the fact that it only lasted for a few months on Mars, before entering the “Sleeping Beauty” mode on November 2nd, 2008, Phoenix's contributions to astronomy were remarkable. It confirmed the existence of frozen water just under the Martian surface, proved the fact that nutrients capable of sustaining microscopic life existed in the soil, and also offered an excellent view into what substances still lingered in the desolate Martian landscape.
In addition, it supplied Smith's team with some 25,000 pictures of its surroundings, ranging from panoramas to microscopic-scale ones, taken with the first atomic force microscope to have ever been used outside Earth.