Episode Summary

Written and Directed by Denis Blaquière

The journey to Mars and the search for life on another planet is the most dangerous and compelling mission in the history of space exploration. Bacteria are the most basic and the hardiest life form. And, either still living or now dead, bacteria are one of the things astronauts will be looking for on the Red Planet.

In preparation for the challenges of Mars, scientists are searching for bacteria in the driest and most barren places on Earth. The temperature, valley networks and well-preserved large-impact craters on Devon Island in Canada’s Arctic echo those on Mars. And, 90 per cent of the rocks on Devon Island have bacteria growing on their underside.

Canadian scientist Darlene Lim, a member of the NASA Haughton Mars Project Team, explains her contention that the most primitive forms of life to be discovered on Mars might be carbonate formations similar to those in British Columbia’s Pavilion Lake.

Chile’s Atacama Desert has had little rain in the last 10 million years making it the oldest and driest desert on our planet. Yet the Atacama yields fluorescent minerals and organic matter. Might ultra-violet headlights on a Mars Rover illuminate life forms which are invisible to us in daylight? Geophysicist Pascal Lee theorizes that “it might merely be that we are members of the same family spread over two planets.”

Canadian chemist Alison Skelley is searching for amino acids, one of the building blocks of life, with an ultra-sensitive Mars Organic Analyzer. Bacterial super bugs that once lived on the surface of Mars may have migrated underground, protected from dust and radiation, where only drilling can find them.

In addition to drilling for liquid water, the astronauts will search the caves formed by volcanic lava tubes that have been identified on Mars’ surface. Similar tubes exist in New Mexico where, deep underground, Penelope Boston has discovered white bacterial formations living in near freezing droplets of water, feeding off rock.

Martian bacteria may be hazardous to humans and cause contagion on Earth. Every precaution must be exercised while transporting samples from the Red Planet.

After 18 months searching for life on Mars, the crew must return on a tight schedule with Earth and Mars in the proper alignment. Will their landing capsule be capable of returning the astronauts to the orbiting Mars mothership? If the capsule does not make its scheduled departure, its crew is doomed.

Links and References

Darlene Lim
Dr. Darlene Lim received her Doctorate of Geology in 2004 from the University of Toronto. Lim is a biogeology researcher at the NASA Ames Research Center in California. Over the past nine years she has been involved with extensive field work in the Arctic and Antarctic. She is currently conducting Mars analogue research in the Atacama Desert, Chile. In 1999 she joined an international effort to conduct Mars analogue studies at Haughton Crater, Devon Island, Canada. In 2000 and 2001, Dr. Lim was also selected to inhabit the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station, the world’s first Mars simulation base, at Haughton. Dr. Lim has offered her expertise to such documentaries as the Channel 4 (U.K.) production ‘Ascent of the Red Planet’ (2002), which was filmed on a volcano on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, ‘A Bridge to Mars’ and ‘Discovering Mars’ (Discovery Channel Canada) and ‘Mars on Earth’ (National Geographic).

Robert Zubrin
An aerospace engineer, inventor and prolific author, Dr. Robert Zubrin is best known for his advocacy of manned Mars exploration. While working as a contractor for NASA in the 1990s, he became the driving force behind Mars Direct, a proposal to produce significant reductions in the costs and complexity of such a mission. Disappointed with the lack of interest from government in Mars exploration and after the success of his 1996 book The Case for Mars, Zubrin formed the Mars Society (1998). The international organization’s goal is to further the exploration and settlement of the Red Planet. Zubrin’s books include Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization; Mars on Earth: The Adventures of Space Pioneers in the High Arctic; First Landing and The Holy Land. He co-edited Islands in the Sky: Bold New Ideas for Colonizing Space; From Imagination to Reality: Mars Exploration Studies of the Journal of the British Interplanary Society; On to Mars: Colonizing a New World and On to Mars 2: Exploring and Settling a New World.

Scientists and experts
in order of appearance
Nationality Company or Institution
Pascal Lee American NASA Haughton-Mars Project, Devon Island. Science fiction author, TV producer
Chris McKay American NASA, Planetary Scientist
Paul Delaney Canadian York University, Professor of Physics and Astronomy. Director, York University’s Observatory
Gordon Osinski Canadian Canadian Space Agency & NASA Haughton-Mars Project, Devon Island
Darlene Lim Canadian NASA Ames, Geobiologist in Chile’s Atacama Desert and Devon Island. Media spokesperson on Mars. Doctorate U of T
Peter Willis American NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Drilling
Allison M. Skelley American Graduate U.C. Berkeley, Graduate Student Researcher Amino acids
Mario Runco American NASA, Astronaut, Haughton-Mars Project, Filmed Physics of Toys scenes in space, (‘Sesame Street’)
Jeffrey A. Hoffman American Former NASA Astronaut, 1,000 hours Space Shuttle. Prof. Aeronautics & Aeronautics MIT
Brian Glass American NASA Ames Research Centre
Penelope Boston American New Mexico Tech. Assoc. Prof. Cave and Karst Science. Researches microbial life in caves. Educational outreach to kids.
James Longuski American Purdue University, Professor Astronautics
Buzz Aldrin American NASA, Retired Astronaut (Apollo 11), National Space Society and The Planetary Society. Chairman Share Space Foundation. Author.
Robert Zubrin American Mars Direct. Aerospace engineer and advocate of manned Mars exploration. President Mars Society, Prolific author
Dave Williams Canadian Canadian Space Agency, Astronaut. Crew commander NEEMO 9. Training for 3 space walks Shuttle Endeavour August 2007
John Rummel American NASA, Planetary Protection. Protecting Earth from extraterrestrial contamination
John Hirasaki American NASA, Recovery Engineer for Apollo 11
James Garvin American NASA’s Chief Scientist Mars Exploration Program and Lunar Exploration
Robert Godwin Canadian Apogee Space Books, Canada, CEO. Space historian, archivist and author