Steve Squyres, a professor of astronomy at Cornell University and the principal investigator of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Mission, talked about his experience and recent discovery with the Mars Rovers Exploration project, in an email interview with International Business Times.
Opportunity, NASA's senior Mars Rover and Curiosity's cousin, completed its 20-month journey on Mars' "Cape York" where it traced a special wet rock named "Esperance". The wetness of the rock provided clues about the existence of ancient life on the red planet.
IBT: What was the reason behind such an obsession about finding life on other planets?
SS: If we could discover that life has taken hold twice, on two different planets, in just this one solar system, then it would take no great leap of imagination to conclude that life might be commonplace through the universe.
IBT: With the recent discovery of the "Esperance" how much do you think are the possibilities to find life on Mars?
SS: I have no idea. Finding evidence that conditions may have been right for life on Mars tells us nothing about whether life was actually there.
IBT: Is this pale wet rock (Esperance) being tested to find any sign of fossil which would confirm the belief that life existed on Mars millions of years ago?
SS: No. We do not expect to find fossils in a rock like Esperance. Moreover, if life ever existed on Mars it was probably microbial, and the rovers are not equipped to search for microfossils.
IBT: What does the Whitewater Lake, discovered by Opportunity, consist of?
SS: Whitewater Lake contains clay minerals that were probably formed under non-acidic conditions.
IBT: So is true that if clay materials are formed under conditions that weren't acidic then it would be a favourable condition for the existence of life?
SS: Yes. Conditions of neutral pH are more suitable for life than conditions of low pH.
IBT: What is most interesting aspect about dealing with rovers?
SS: "The scientific discoveries that we make" with the help of rovers is the most interesting thing.
Talking about Opportunity, which has been sent on tour to Mars' "Solander Point," Squyres said, "The most important objective is simply to get to the Solander Point" and nothing is so far expected out of the tour."
The Cornell University professor has been working on many interesting projects, including the famous study of the "history and distribution of water on Mars" and the possibility of existence of liquid water ocean in Europe.
He claimed that the Mars Exploration Rover project is the most exciting and challenging project that he has been associated with so far. At present, he has no particular plans for future projects and has been "spending most of his time on the current project."