- Press Release
- Dec 3, 2022
Keck Foundation Awards $500,000 to Fund Search for Life on Mars
The NASA philosophy for finding life on Mars is simple: follow the water.
A $500,000 challenge grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles will
enable Derek Sears and his students and colleagues to investigate how liquid
water forms on Mars and examine the existence of considerable amounts of
near-surface ice all over the planet. They also will study how slight changes in
pressure and temperature could transform Mars into a wet planet hospitable to
simple life forms. Additionally, a laboratory used by Sears, a professor of
chemistry in Fulbright College and director of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Center for
Space and Planetary Sciences, will be renovated and named the W.M. Keck
Laboratory for Space Simulation at the University of Arkansas.
The W.M. Keck Foundation, established in 1954 in Los Angeles by William Myron
Keck, is one of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations. For half a
century, the foundation has supported pioneering discoveries in science,
engineering and medical research. The name is associated with some of the most
innovative research programs and facilities in the country.
“People have always been fascinated by the prospect of life on Mars,” said
Sears. “With the support of a high-profile foundation such as Keck, I am
confident that we’ll find the additional funding we need to match the award and
fully realize the potential of our research.”
Together with Barney Farmer, distinguished visiting scientist, and Michael
Hecht, research scientist, both from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in
Pasadena, Calif., Sears will study the conditions under which liquid water could
form on Mars today and whether water on the planet could remain stable long
enough to sustain life. The W.M. Keck Foundation grant will enable the team to
present their findings at international conferences and to offer graduate
assistantships and research funding for doctoral students.
The researchers will employ a large stainless steel environmental chamber,
dubbed Andromeda, that holds up to a half ton of Hawaiian volcanic dust, which
shares chemical characteristics with Martian soil. The chamber can replicate
most properties of Martian atmosphere, surface pressure, temperature and
The team will investigate five problems key to understanding the existence of
water on Mars: the evaporation rates of water under a variety of conditions,
today and in past epochs; the evaporation rate of various brine solutions,
linked by some to the famous gullies on the planet; the melting and evaporation
rates of both water and ice from sun-warmed surfaces in cold atmospheres; the
lateral transfer of water and ice by sublimation; and the behavior of ice under
a layer of dust.
The last investigation, and the most ambitious, offers the greatest potential
for finally demonstrating that liquid water has existed or still does exist on
Mars. Frozen water makes up as much as 10 percent of the top three feet of land
in some regions close to Mars’ equator. The dust may be acting as an insulator
for lingering ice.
“The interactions of dust and ice offer the most likely explanation for water on
Mars,” said Sears. “What’s tantalizing is how close Mars is to the triple point
of water, the point at which ice, liquid and steam can exist together in
equilibrium. On Mars, the surface remains below the triple point of water. You
cannot have liquid water. But it’s very close. Little is needed to make water,
and very little indeed is needed to make the planet suitable for life.”
Scientists theorize that over 3.5 billion years ago, half the Red Planet was
covered with water and experienced catastrophic floods. Today, Mars looks like a
barren desert, with dust storms at times enveloping the entire rocky and cold
planet. In some ways, it looks strangely like Earth, with ice caps, seasonal
changes, gullies and volcanoes.
The Viking missions in the 1970s found no organic life but in 1976 discovered
that the northern permanent ice cap was composed primarily of water ice and
measured seasonal variations in water vapor. In recent decades, Tim Kral and his
students at the U of A have used the Andromeda chamber to explore whether life
originated under anaerobic conditions. If so, organisms might be able to survive
on Mars without organic matter or oxygen.
Images from recent missions have revealed vestiges of groundwater seepage and
surface runoffs. New findings from NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter suggest Mars may
be going through a period of climate change. Odyssey has been mapping the
distribution of materials on and near Mars’ surface since early 2002, nearly a
full annual cycle on Mars.
In 2004, the Opportunity rover collected samples of sulfate minerals that
indicate large amounts of water were once present on the surface. Rolling into
the crater Endurance, Opportunity investigated a jagged ridge of sharp peaks
called “Razorback,” which very likely formed as a result of water flowing
through cracks and depositing hard minerals.
“Science is always a cultural, never entirely an esoteric undertaking,” said
Sears. “The possibility that life on Earth is not unique will represent a major
advance in our understanding of the solar system — and of ourselves as well.”
This gift counts toward the $300 Million Challenge, the campaign-within the
Campaign for the Twenty-First Century. The purpose of the Challenge is to raise
$300 million for academic purposes to match the Walton Family Charitable Support
Foundation’s $300 million gift to the U of A. Challenge funds must be raised
between Jan. 1, 2002, and June 30, 2005, the end of the Campaign. The Challenge
total stands at $194.3 million, and the overall Campaign total stands at $830
million as of June 30, 2004.