Science Night crowd heads to Mars by way of St. Paul

John Grotzinger and Tom Weber
John Grotzinger, chief scientist of NASA's Mars Curiosity mission, left, and The Daily Circuit's Tom Weber walked onto the stage in flight suits for Science Night Minnesota at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., on May 22, 2013.
Tim Gruber for the Public Insight Network

Tens of thousands of people around the world have said they want to go to Mars, even if it means they will never return to Earth. Dozens of them were in the crowd Tuesday night at the Fitzgerald Theater for Science Night Minnesota — Mission to Mars.

(See more photos of the event at The Daily Circuit Blog.)

Host Tom Weber posed the one-way trip question to a crowd of space enthusiasts who came to view photos taken by the Curiosity rover and hear remarks from John Grotzinger, chief scientist for the Mars Science Lab (as the rover is also known). Grotzinger, though, is not driven by a desire to colonize Mars. The Caltech geology professor is more interested in Mars as a means of understanding the geology of Earth's ancient past.

"The great thing about Mars — unlike any other planet in the solar system — it uniquely contains the geological record which tells us about what Earth could have looked like 3.5 to 4 billion years ago, when we have such a poor record here on Earth," he told Weber.

"Mars is like a planet in a state of suspended animation," he said. "So we can get back and we can look at these rocks and reconstruct ancient times that might have had to do with the origins of life on Earth. So even if we never find evidence of life on Mars, we get a better glimpse of our own roots."

Also joining the conversation were Maggie Koerth-Baker, science editor at BoingBoing.net, and Abby Harrison, a 15-year-old from Minneapolis who blogs as Astronaut Abby and wants to become the first person on Mars. Harrison joined in by phone from Russia, where she was getting ready to watch the launch of a mission to the International Space Station.

Koerth-Baker told the story of some lost-and-found moon rocks that NASA gave to Minnesota. The rocks were misplaced, twice, but now they are safely in the care of the Minnesota Historical Society. They were on display at the Fitzgerald event.

Curiosity completed its mission goal after just eight months. By drilling into and analyzing Martian rock, Grotzinger's team made its major scientific finding: that Mars once had an environment where microbes could have thrived. This week, Curiosity drilled again into a different rock, 9 feet away from the first, to confirm its discovery.

Grotzinger finds working on Mars to be "awesome, in the literal sense of the word," but also frustrating at times: "Every once in a while you wish you could just reach into the computer and just pick up the darned rock."

Today The Daily Circuit plays highlights from the evening. Science Night Minnesota was a coproduction of MPR, the Public Insight Network and the Science Museum of Minnesota.

LEARN MORE ABOUT SCIENCE NIGHT AND CURIOSITY:

• Video from Science Night Minnesota

• Watch other videos from the event here, here and here.

NASA Rover Finds Conditions Once Suited for Ancient Life on Mars
"An analysis of a rock sample collected by NASA's Curiosity rover shows ancient Mars could have supported living microbes. Scientists identified sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon — some of the key chemical ingredients for life — in the powder Curiosity drilled out of a sedimentary rock near an ancient stream bed in Gale Crater on the Red Planet last month." (NASA)

#ScienceNight: Mission to Mars
Archived live coverage of Science Night Minnesota. Commentary, photos and videos curated from #sciencenight tweets.

Moon Rocks! - Apollo 11 Lunar Soil Sample
"The display is presumed to have been received by the Office of the Governor, but for reasons which remain uncertain it was transferred to the Minnesota Department of Military Affairs where it remained for 40 years. In 2010 the display was discovered in a storage area by staff of the Minnesota National Guard, who transferred it to the Minnesota Historical Society in November, 2012." (Minnesota Historical Society)

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