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Festival Focuses On Mars – Mojave Desert Similarities

An article from InsideNPS by Cheryl Chipman

For Immediate Release: March 20, 2012

Hundreds of people descended on Death Valley National Park for the first ever “Mars and the Mojave Festival” on the second weekend of March. The event, which celebrated similarities between the Mojave Desert landscape and the Red Planet, was hosted by NASA and the NPS and reflects an ongoing partnership between NASA, the park, and other planetary science organizations.

The festival kicked off on Friday night with a standing-room only keynote presentation by planetary scientist Dr. Chris McKay, who talked about Mars Science Laboratory, the NASA mission that successfully launched a new rover, “Curiosity,” this past November. “Curiosity” will land on Mars this August and will study whether conditions there are, or ever have been, suitable for fostering life. Many festival activities elaborated on the same theme, introducing visitors to the types of environments, on Earth and Mars, which can harbor microscopic life. Dr. Susanne Douglas of the Planetary Science Institute led a field trip to Badwater, where she studies bacteria that dwell in salt crusts. Dr. Rosalba Bonaccorsi of NASA and the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute showed visitors the water-sequestering clay minerals in short-lived ponds at the bottom of Ubehebe Crater, which can harbor the building blocks of life. Dr. Henry Sun of the Desert Research Institute presented a talk about microbes that eke out a living under the surface of granite and sandstone rocks in the Mojave Desert and Antarctica. All three of these scientists demonstrated the surprising conditions under which life occurs.

Other festival presenters focused on how researchers overcome the engineering challenges of doing science on other planets, by first testing Mars-bound equipment on Earth. Dr. Aaron Zent of NASA led a field trip to Mars Hill, where early rover models practiced maneuvering over rocky terrain. Dr. Luther Beegle of NASA spoke about testing a drill designed to collect samples on Mars at a mine site in Death Valley. Lucinda Land, the executive director of the non-profit Mars Society, described the mock Martian research station her organization runs in the Utah desert, where volunteer crews practice living and working on the Red Planet. The Mars and the Mojave Festival also featured an expo on Saturday afternoon where children could try their hand at driving a robot mini-rover, extreme microorganisms wriggled under microscopes, and equipment for detecting life-supporting conditions on other planets was demonstrated.

Other festival highlights included:

  • Dr. Joe Kirschvink of Caltech presenting the panspermia hypothesis, the idea that life evolved elsewhere in the universe (possibly on Mars), then traveled to earth on a meteorite billions of years ago.
  • Dr. Tyler Nordgren of University of Redlands offering an impassioned appeal for preserving natural darkness in the national parks and beyond.
  • A panel of planetary scientists sharing the positive implications of their research for human society here on Earth.

Death Valley National Park hosted the festival because it protects some of earth’s most extreme environments, from salt flats to chemically complex springs to dramatic volcanic craters – all scoured by intense winds, shaped by rare but violent floods, and baked by hadean temperatures. That life can survive and even thrive under such conditions is testament to its adaptability and tenacity. For these reasons, scientists have traveled to the Mojave Desert for decades to study the conditions that might foster life on Mars. NASA and the park hope to make this festival an annual event. Death Valley is a natural laboratory for testing out-of-this-world hypotheses and equipment, making it an ideal venue for the festival. Many other national parks host planetary analog research, and NASA is also interested in partnering with them to produce similar events. For more information, or to get in touch with relevant NASA representatives, email or call the park's education specialist at stephanie_kyriazis@nps.gov or 760-786-3226.


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