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Life on Mars

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MODEL CITIZEN: J.R. Skok holds a model of Earth, which his company makes to help people get a better grasp on the solar system.

It was the British astrophysicist Sir Reg Dwight who once observed, "Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids. In fact, it's cold as hell." Almost 34 million miles from here at its closest, this potential target for human exploration is not going to be an easy ride. Under current propulsion technologies, the effort requires an eight-month trip each way, plus a year-and-a-half stay on Mars to wait while Earth and Martian orbits align.

The South Bay's Andy Weir (author of The Martian) will be at Silicon Valley Comic Con all three days. Another guest, J.R. Skok, PhD has been studying the matter of how to turn Weir's smart fiction into fact.

Skok was on the team that created the Mars Rovers. Today Skok's company AstroReality creates detailed (and quite beautiful) models of the solar system's planets, including what he claims is the best replica of the moon ever made. "It's a way to put the planets into people's hands, to get them to turn a point of light in the sky into a place where we could imagine going," Skok says. AstroReality also has a VR component, updated with new info from NASA and the various international space agencies, showing topography and landing sites information.

"I am a Mars geologist," Skok says by way of introduction. He credits his interest in space to the fact that his mother was a big Star Trek fan. She stenciled glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling of his bedroom and took him to the local planetarium, where he worked as a teen. After studying at Cornell, Skok traveled to places analogous to the unforgiving Martian landscape. These include the McMurdo dry valleys in Antarctica: "It's the coldest, driest place on Earth, and yet it's warmer and wetter than Mars." In Iceland, Hawaii and Chile's Atacama desert, he explored volcanically active areas and glaciers to study what such extreme geological activity does to microbes.

Skok is a member of SETI, a group listening for potential alien chatter. Hope of hearing something is encouraged by the equation of UCSC's Dr. Frank Drake, which sifts through the factors that might give us hope for an encounter with alien intelligences. But they also search for habitable worlds. "If we can find that life rose independently on Mars, we can double the number of planets in this solar system where this happened," Skok says. Such news would affect the calculations of how many planets might be able to harbor humans.

The current presidential administration is interested in going to Mars, but so far this interest hasn't made money talk. Skok says, "I don't work for NASA, but my understanding is that priorities are changing, shifting from climate change and Rovers to the Artemis project," the plan to return humans to the moon.

"The year I hear a lot for the return to the moon is 2024. It's an easy number to say; it's an election year. This all may be more politically driven than scientifically driven. I'd be surprised if that were doable by then."

NASA's exhaustive "Twins Study" contrasted the effects on astronaut Scott Kelly's body during his year at the International Space Station with the health of his twin brother Mark on Earth. Though there were some encouraging results, the news is that space can be hard on a person's eyes, muscles and DNA.

"It's enlightening to understand what the challenges are," said Skok, "and that's the first step to solving them. We have some very personal data now on what space does to humans. Certain people will have genes that handle it better, with more resistance to cancers and radiation. We need a better sense of the kind of genes that do well in space."

A high school student, class of 2020, wants to go to Mars more than anything. What sort of training should he get? "Probably the most useful jobs would be doctors and engineers. They're the first people I would send."

If Skok arrived on Mars, the first experiment he'd want to do would be to break down the chemical composition of the dust to check its toxicity. Just as important would be a chance to study the sterility of Mars "before it is overwhelmed and lost forever" as he says. "Human beings will contaminate it with the microbes we'll be bringing with us."

Once travelers land on Mars, they're going to need entrenching tools. "Mars doesn't have an ionosphere, and radiation on the surface is going to be tough. In the long term there's the danger of solar or magnetic flares. The most likely hypothesis is that a half-meter layer of sand or rocks would almost be equivalent to an ionosphere. I'm a fan of landing them where the resources are, where there's sand, and rather than finding caves, having them dig into an area using local materials."

As for the timeline for such a trip: "That's a good question. It depends on when we get the money to go. Under the current climate, there is no date. If SpaceX gets a commercial reason to go to Mars, or if there's a national push, that'll be different. There is talk of a Chinese colony on the moon by 2049." Like 2024, this too may be a political date; it would be a coup to have it by the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic in 2050. "Skipping the moon to go to Mars is an expensive path. As things are, we're on a steep road, and there's no time frame. I hope things change, and I want to make it change."

Mars: Transforming from a Point to a Planet
J.R. Skok, Yvonne Cagle & Kitty Yeung
Aug 17, 4:30pm
Room 211 ABCD