Club Lecture Friday, February 2nd

Friday, February 2, 2018 - 7:30pm


Lienhard Hall, 3rd floor lecture room, Pace University, Pleasantville, NY 

Br. Robert Novak, PhD, Professor of Physics, Iona College

The Astronomical Search for Aliens on Mars

One of the questions pondered by thinkers for thousands of years has been “Does life exist outside of the Earth?” From studying life on our planet, a set of conditions including the presence of liquid water, an energy source, and a protective shield from space radiation, is considered necessary for life to exist. If these conditions can be found on another object in space, then that object could possibly harbor life. Within our solar system, Jupiter’s moon Europa, Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus, and the planet Mars have been candidates.

Since 1996, Br. Novak has been collaborating with the Astrobiology Group headed by Dr. Michael Mumma at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, studying the composition of comets and the atmosphere of Mars using infrared spectrographs on large research telescopes. The current study of Mars began with telescopic observations of ozone and water vapor in its atmosphere. The atmospheric density of these gases varies considerably with respect to latitude, time of day or night, and season. For life, ozone is needed to protect the planet’s surface from ultraviolet radiation, and water vapor may be a clue that there is liquid water somewhere on the planet.

This study has been expanded to include other gases. While studying heavy water (HDO), there were indications that methane exists on Mars, as well as previously undiscovered absorption bands of isotopic forms of carbon dioxide. The finding of methane let to a paper published in the journal Science in 2009. The paper was very controversial, but the presence of methane was later confirmed by the Mars Curiosity Rover. The origin of the methane is unclear. On Earth, most atmospheric methane originates from living organisms. Is the source of methane on Mars biological, or is it geological?

The telescopic search for these gases on Mars will be presented. With new instrumentation, the origin of methane could be determined. If conditions for life exist on Mars, then perhaps life does exist on Mars. Various scenarios will be discussed, with implications that may change our own view of life on Earth.

February is Mars Month at WAA. We get to hear the latest research data before anyone else!  

Map to Lienhard Hall