Podcast

Weathering Water on Mars

Voices
Michael A. Mischna, Jolie Hales, Ernest de Leon

From reports of UFO (or UAP) sightings across the globe to scientists scouring the universe for signs of extraterrestrial life, humankind has been searching for proof that we are not alone in this universe.  In this episode, we talk to “Mars meteorologist” Dr. Michael A. Mischna of JPL about new research that not only supports evidence that life-essential water flourished on Mars over history, but shows how that was possible on such a dry, sandy planet.  And with Perseverance and Ingenuity physically traversing its sandy craters, NASA could be on the brink of unlocking never-before discovered secrets about our mysterious galactic neighbor, as well as what that might mean for us on Earth.

Credits

Interview with Dr. Michael A. Mischna,  Associate Directorate Scientist for the Planetary Science Directorate at JPL

Producers: Taylore Ratsep, Jolie Hales

Hosts: Jolie Hales, Ernest de Leon

Writer / Editor: Jolie Hales

Referenced on the Podcast

Meet Dr. Michael A. Mischna - https://science.jpl.nasa.gov/people/mischna/

Michael A. Mischna

Research Article: "Warm early Mars surface enabled by high-altitude water ice clouds"

How less extensive surface water/ice leads to high clouds and a drier, but warmer surface | Credit: Michael A. Mischna, "Warm early Mars surface enabled by high-altitude water ice clouds"

Learn more about Mars directly from NASA: https://mars.nasa.gov/all-about-mars/facts/

Credit: NASA

Gimbal: The First Official UAP Footage from the USG for Public Release

Number of UFO Sightings Reported since 1990

Credit: Statista

Perseverance Rover's Descent and Touchdown on Mars (Official NASA Video)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (TM & Paramount 1981) - Face melting movie clip

Episode Citations / More Info
  1. Rabie, Passant. Scientists Just Solved a Mystery About Life on Ancient Mars. Inverse, April 27, 2021. https://www.inverse.com/science/mars-patchy-water (accessed June 10, 2021)
  2. Andrews, Robin George. Where did Mars's liquid water go? A new theory holds fresh clues. National Geographic, March 16, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/where-did-mars-liquid-water-go-new-theory-holds-fresh-clues (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  3. O'Callaghan, Jonathan. Water on Mars May Be Trapped in the Planet's Crust, Not Lost to Space. Scientific American. March 18, 2021. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/water-on-mars-may-be-trapped-in-the-planets-crust-not-lost-to-space/ (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  4. Chang, Kenneth. The Water on Mars Vanished. This Might Be Where It Went. The New York Times, March 23, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/19/science/mars-water-missing.html (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  5. Choi, Charles Q. The water on Mars didn't run dry all at once, study finds. Space.com, April 13, 2021. https://www.space.com/mars-water-did-not-dry-up-at-once (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  6. Red, Nola Taylor. Water on Mars: Exploration & Evidence. Space.com, August 17, 2018. https://www.space.com/17048-water-on-mars.html (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  7. O'Callaghan, Jonathan. Water on Mars: discovery of three buried lakes intrigues scientists. Nature. Sept 28, 2021. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02751-1 (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  8. Brown, Dwayne | Cantillo, Laurie | Webster, Guy. NASA Confirms Evidence That Liquid Water Flows on Today's Mars. NASA, Sept 28, 2015 | Updated Nov 20, 2017. https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-confirms-evidence-that-liquid-water-flows-on-today-s-mars (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  9. Wall, Mike. Salty Water Flows on Mars Today, Boosting Odds for Life. Space.com, Sept 28, 2015. https://www.space.com/30673-water-flows-on-mars-discovery.html (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  10. Chappell, Bill. How UFO Sightings Went From Conspiracy Theory to a Serious Government Inquiry. NPR, June 4, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/06/04/1003262749/how-ufo-sightings-went-from-conspiracy-theory-to-a-serious-government-inquiry (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  11. Gimbal: The First Official UAP Footage from the USG for Public Release. Posted by To The Stars Academy of Arts & Science, Dec. 16, 2017. https://youtu.be/tf1uLwUTDA0
  12. Saad, Lydia. Do Americans Believe in UFOs? GALLUP, May 20, 2021. https://news.gallup.com/poll/350096/americans-believe-ufos.aspx (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  13. Project BLUE BOOK - Unidentified Flying Objects. National Archives, September 29, 2020. https://www.archives.gov/research/military/air-force/ufos (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  14. Li, King-Fai | Pahlevan, Kaveh | Kirschvink, Joseph L. | Yung, Yuk L. Atmospheric pressure as a natural climate regulator for a terrestrial planet with a biosphere. PNAS, April 10, 2009. https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/106/24/9576.full.pdf (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  15. Atmospheric Pressure. National Geographic, May 14, 2011. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/atmospheric-pressure/ (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  16. Seager, Sara. Is there life on other planets? NASA https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/faq/5/is-there-life-on-other-planets/ (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  17. Williams, Matt. Mars compared to Earth. PHYS ORG, December 15, 2015. https://phys.org/news/2015-12-mars-earth.html (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  18. Ozone Layer. National Geographic https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/ozone-layer/ (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  19. McCarthy, Niall. UFO Sightings Are Taking Off Again. Statista, May 20, 2021. https://www.statista.com/chart/8452/ufo-sightings-are-at-record-heights/ (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  20. High-Performance Computing. The University of Chicago. https://rcc.uchicago.edu/resources/high-performance-computing (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  21. TOP500 LIST - NOVEMBER 2020. Top500. https://www.top500.org/lists/top500/list/2020/11/?page=1 (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  22. Mega Dust Storms. Posted by National Geographic, December 12, 2016 https://youtu.be/JKBk_Kfucs4 (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  23. Washington man spent last 25 years running National UFO Reporting Center. Posted by KREM 2 News, January 31, 2019. https://youtu.be/d_ILkT94FoU (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  24. NASA's Perseverance Rover Lands On Mars to Search For Signs Of Ancient Life | NBC Nightly News. Posted by NBC News, February 18, 2021. https://youtu.be/JP7sP0fwhQc (Accessed June 10, 2021)
  25. Mars Helicopter/Ingenuity Fact Sheet. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), April 2020 https://mars.nasa.gov/files/mars2020/MarsHelicopterIngenuity_FactSheet.pdf (Accessed June 10, 2021)

Michael A. Mischna:
So I was working on the team that was responsible for making the weather forecast for the Mars landing.

Jolie Hales:
Can you imagine, like, your performance review, if you got it wrong?

Ernest de Leon:
Yeah. They're like, "Well, it was nice working with you."

Jolie Hales:
"You cost us billions of dollars."

Ernest de Leon:
"So you're going to spend more time with your family and focus on philanthropy. Okay?"

Jolie Hales:
I think NASA is a little more forgiving than that. Hi everyone. I'm Jolie Hales.

Ernest de Leon:
And I'm Ernest de Leon.

Jolie Hales:
And welcome to the Big Compute Podcast. Here, we celebrate innovation in a world of virtually unlimited compute, and we do it one important story at a time. We talk about the stories behind scientists and engineers who are embracing the power of high-performance computing to better the lives of all of us.

Ernest de Leon:
From the products we use every day, to the technology of tomorrow, computational engineering plays a direct role in making it all happen, whether people know it or not.

Jolie Hales:
Hey, Ernest, question for you.

Ernest de Leon:
Go for it.

Jolie Hales:
Have you ever seen a UFO, or I guess I should use the newer preferred term, "unexplained aerial phenomena", or UAP, I guess, they call it?

Ernest de Leon:
So the short answer is, yes, I have seen, and actually more than once.

Jolie Hales:
What?

Ernest de Leon:
Yeah, but I have to caveat that. Something was flying around, and I didn't know what it was, and it did not look like a typical aircraft, but it wasn't like in the sense of like, "Hey, this thing was darting around at ridiculous speeds and then plowed itself into an ocean," like you'll see on some of these things. I've never seen that.

Jolie Hales:
You just saw things in the sky that you, as a civilian, didn't recognize?

Ernest de Leon:
Right. And it happens frequently out in West Texas. There's a little town there named Marfa that's pretty popular in the, let's just call it the UFO circles.

News Clip:
First spotted by sellers back in the 1880s, the Marfa Lights have been documented by photographers, chased by fighter pilots, and hunted by scientists, but so far they remain a mystery.

Ernest de Leon:
Yeah. I've seen them when passing back and forth through West Texas. And every time I see it, I'm like, "It's probably a military aircraft, but whatever."

Jolie Hales:
Yeah. That makes sense.

Ernest de Leon:
How about you? Have you ever seen one?

Jolie Hales:
Okay. So I have, actually. I'll tell you the story. Back when I was a teenager in the 1990s, to age myself, I was riding in the front passenger seat of our family minivan, and then my mom was driving. And I remember it very specifically, we were on a street called Cherry Lane in Layton, Utah, and we were driving east on that road toward the mountain. So we could see the mountains in front of us, and it was during the middle of the day. So this is Northern Utah, middle of the day, driving in this minivan. And I remember we were just having a normal conversation. And then as we were in the middle of this conversation, I suddenly saw this like bright light zip across the blue sky above the tallest mountain peak. And then it stopped in midair, and it immediately caught my attention, as you might imagine, because it was so bright and big enough to stand out in the middle of the day above this tall mountain range. Right?

Ernest de Leon:
Right.

Jolie Hales:
And the way that Northern Utah is, it's like a valley, and then all of a sudden the mountains just jet out from this valley. So we were on the flatter part, and this light appeared above this range. Now, I do have to say, we lived next to an Air Force base in Northern Utah, so it was very common for jets to fly around. And as a theater performer even, we would often have to stop mid song or mid act to pause as these jets would fly over, because they were so loud. And then we'd resume once the jet disappeared into the distance. It was just very common for growing up there. But this light, this thing in the sky, was just totally different. What made it so different was in the way that it moved. It suddenly started zipping around kind of like a hummingbird. It paused and changed directions multiple times. And then after doing this like hummingbird flying thing across the sky over the mountains, it then suddenly dove down super fast and disappeared behind the mountains. And it was so bizarre and unfamiliar to me that I honestly got the chills, and right after it disappeared, my mom said, "Oh my gosh, did you just see that?" So that confirmed that whatever it was, hadn't been like in "Phenomenon," some like brain tumor, something that only I could see this light, my mother had seen it as well.

Ernest de Leon:
Yeah. If someone else saw it at the same time you did, unless you're under the influence of certain chemicals, I think it's probably valid that it was there.

Jolie Hales:
It certainly seemed like it.

Ernest de Leon:
And that's really the telling thing in your example there. The ability to abruptly change direction at fast speeds, which our most modern aircraft cannot do. Our technology cannot ignore gravity, but it seems like some of these UFOs can. And I will say that most of what people report is UFOs are in fact just experimental aircraft. They're not necessarily of alien origin.

Jolie Hales:
Right. And to your point, so I'm a person who believes that everything has a rational explanation, right? I mean, I host a technology and science podcast. I tend to want evidence before I jump to any conclusions. And I like to consider all the different possibilities. But that's also what made this light so fascinating for me, because I couldn't find a rational explanation for what my mom and I had seen. I mean, it obviously wasn't something I saw in my head because my mom had also witnessed it. It didn't move like any machine, or airplane, or weather balloon, or anything I could think of. It wasn't a reflection on the dash, and drones as we have them today, weren't a thing back then. And it would have had to be this like massive drone that defied the laws of physics. So I don't know what it was, but I'll honestly never forget it. And to this day, I still have no idea nor have I found any clue leading me to know what it was that I saw, and I never saw anything like it again.

Ernest de Leon:
This seems like it should have been an episode on the X-Files, another gem in terms of television film.

Jolie Hales:
Yeah. Kind of like the X-Files, it felt very X-Files-ish back then. I think that's actually the time when the X-Files were really popular, too-

Ernest de Leon:
It was.

Jolie Hales:
...was in the '90s. Yeah.

Ernest de Leon:
Absolutely.

Jolie Hales:
So maybe it was subconsciously influential. Anyway, so this is interesting. So as I was doing research for this episode, just a few days ago, I came across this list that the Pentagon has actually released. And it outlines characteristics that are common of UFOs reported in both military and civilian sightings. So that obviously got me curious to see how it compared to this unidentified object that I saw.

Ernest de Leon:
And was it similar?

Jolie Hales:
That's the interesting thing. It was almost like the Pentagon had just written down the characteristics of the craft that I saw, or if it was a craft. So this list that they have includes the craft appearing to defy the laws of physics, stopping in mid-air and reversing direction without inertial effects, descending rapidly in an instant, exceeding the speed of sound without generating a sonic boom. I mean, that honestly was what I saw.

Ernest de Leon:
And that makes perfect sense if you think about it. The Pentagon is not only aware of its own experimental aircraft, but also it's keenly aware of physics, right?

Jolie Hales:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ernest de Leon:
They would only report on the phenomena that are not their own experimental projects, for obvious reasons, and these things would have to seem to defy the laws of physics, right? So it would be something that is of concern to them with the current knowledge set they have, as opposed to the general public, which knows nothing as to what the Pentagon is doing and will report everything. Right?

Jolie Hales:
Yeah. I have no idea. I just find it a fascinating memory more than anything else. And I mean, if you haven't noticed, UFOs are all the rage right now, like in publications and conversations, as more US government information on the subject is being released. And apparently there's more that's going to be released any time now. And it's crazy to think about what these unidentified objects that people have reported might actually be. In fact, if you haven't seen it, there's a video that's been released by the government showing one such UFO that was captured on video by US Navy pilot jet dash cams. Apparently our jets also have dash cams. Have you seen this video?

Ernest de Leon:
I actually watched it because you put it in the script.

Jolie Hales:
Yay.

Ernest de Leon:
And it's interesting that you put this in here, because I had heard about this on the news, right? I hadn't actually seen the clip though until today, but I have a real good friend of mine who was a Naval intelligence officer, and I immediately messaged him and said, "Hey, what do you know about this?" And his response is, "nothing."

Jolie Hales:
Nothing, like I can't tell you?

Ernest de Leon:
Well, that's kind of the joke, right? Like, "I don't know which one it is." He still has active clearance, I do not. But whenever I see clips of UFO footage in general, they're interesting to me, of course, but I really love to hear the pilots describe this, because they describe it in their parlance, because they fly all the time.

Jolie Hales:
All the time.

Ernest de Leon:
Right? So they know exactly what the limits of their aircraft ... So when they're surprised or shocked, you know that whatever that is is something abnormal or out of the ordinary. And it's usually because they see it do something, like defying gravity, that their aircraft cannot do.

Jolie Hales:
Yes. And I think that's what makes this clip so interesting to the public, is because yes, it is a fascinating object that we see. But honestly, you could tell me that there's a completely normal explanation for it and I'd be like, "Oh, okay." And then I'd move on. But the fact that the pilots are reacting the way that they're reacting tells me that, no, this is not something in the norm.

Navy Pilots:
There's a whole fleet of them [inaudible]. My gosh. They're all going against the wind. The wind's 120 knots to the west. [inaudible]. Look at that thing. It's rotating.

Ernest de Leon:
Could you imagine if you were a pilot and there's like a sea of these things coming at you?

Jolie Hales:
I would pee my pants.

Ernest de Leon:
I would back it out of there as fast as I could.

Jolie Hales:
Yeah. It's a really interesting clip. We'll put it on bigcompute.org for people to watch it if they haven't seen it. So this got me down in the UFO rabbit hole, and I looked up statistics on the number of UFO sightings reported over the last few decades, because I was curious if the wide adoption of smartphones would have potentially caused a decline in these UFO reports. Because, I mean, people catch all kinds of crazy crap on video these days, since everyone has a video camera in their pocket now. So wouldn't it make sense that as smartphone usage increased, we'd either start seeing more video footage to go along with these claims of UFOs, or that these claims would potentially even decrease because it's harder to just make something up that people won't really believe if you don't show video evidence?

Ernest de Leon:
While I definitely think that since more people have cameras with them all the time, there would be an increase. But then again, like I said, you never know. I'm curious to hear where your statistics led you on this.

Jolie Hales:
Yeah. There's actually an organization called the National UFO Reporting Center, and they basically track all UFO sightings in the world.

News Clip:
Did you know just about an hour west of Spokane and Harrington there is the National UFO Reporting Center?

News Clip:
Yeah. They had no idea what it was. All I saw was something just, just go real fast.

News Clip:
We saw it right through the trees.

News Clip:
Kind of approached from over that direction.

News Clip:
Like six bright orange color light.

News Clip:
If there's even a shard of a possibility that this is true, it is the biggest scientific question that has ever confronted mankind.

Jolie Hales:
According to their reports, which the earliest record I could find from them was in 1990, and that first year they reported that there were 319 reported UFO sightings in that year, 1990. And then from there, that number gradually climbs. And then it hits 3,000 sightings in the year 2000. So there's an increase of 10 times over one decade. Then that number continuously climbs to around 5,000 reported sightings in 2010. So it almost doubles, not quite. And then the first iPhone came out in?

Ernest de Leon:
2007.

Jolie Hales:
How did you know, Ernest? You don't know anything about iPhone.

Ernest de Leon:
Because I watched Steve do it live.

Jolie Hales:
From the front row of the auditorium.

Ernest de Leon:
I wish I had been in the front row, but I was a buyer day one, obviously, even though it was a pretty rickety device back then, I believed, but hey, you know what? My belief panned out. There are plenty of people who bought Google Glass with the same kind of fervor, where is that right now? That's all I'm going to say.

Jolie Hales:
It's going to make a comeback, Ernest.

Ernest de Leon:
They've been saying that... It's just like every year's the year of the Linux desktop. Oh man.

Jolie Hales:
Anyway, yes, the iPhone was first released in 2007, like you said, but then smartphone usage really started to take off around 2012. And then the highest reported number of UFO sightings in a given year, according to this data, was actually in the year 2014, where it hit a peak of 8,736 UFO sightings that were reported in that year.

Ernest de Leon:
Yeah. And one thing I'll point out is, remember that these are just reports. So the numbers are kind of, to me, low, because 8,700, I feel like when you take the entirety of the world and an entire year into account, that there would be much more than that. We would be in like the hundreds of thousands, not 8,000.

Jolie Hales:
I don't know. And then just four years later, that drops down to 3,500-ish in 2018. So it drops by more than half over just four years, and that's around the same time that social media really started to boom and people really started to post a lot more videos and photographs on the internet.

Ernest de Leon:
Yeah. So what you're saying is the meme culture destroyed the UFO culture, is what I'm saying?

Jolie Hales:
Yeah, very possibly.

Ernest de Leon:
That's an interesting point, but there's a couple of things, right? So you mentioned in your story earlier that you didn't report this, right?

Jolie Hales:
Yeah, yeah.

Ernest de Leon:
And I've seen UFOs roughly a handful of times. I don't know the exact number. Again, while I was out in West Texas. I never reported any one of those. Not because I thought people would think I'm crazy, but it was just one of those like... I guess I'm one of those people that just believes that they're here anyway, and it doesn't bother me.

Jolie Hales:
No way. You believe that there's aliens here?

Ernest de Leon:
Yeah. I believe that they've been here for a long time.

Jolie Hales:
Really?

Ernest de Leon:
For sure longer than humans have been a species as we are today.

Jolie Hales:
What?

Ernest de Leon:
Yeah.

Jolie Hales:
Wait, do you think that they look like... Tell me your theories. We can't just brush by this.

Ernest de Leon:
I have no idea what they look like. It's one of those things where statistically there has to be other life in the universe. Right?

Jolie Hales:
Right, I agree with you there.

Ernest de Leon:
Also, statistically, there has to be more advanced life than us.

Jolie Hales:
Yes.

Ernest de Leon:
And if a common theory is that the Big Bang happened and the universe is ever-expanding, it would make sense that if the same set of conditions that resulted in intelligence sprouting on Earth could happen anywhere, then the galaxies and the planets farthest out, that were like the first that came out of the big bang, would have the most advanced civilizations.

Jolie Hales:
And that makes sense. But do you think advanced enough to travel billions of light years to our planet?

Ernest de Leon:
Well, that's the thing. My suspicion, again, this is entirely theoretical physics. It's not any kind of proven stuff yet. My suspicion is that you get to a point where it's no longer an issue of traveling. You are not going from point A to point B. You're actually bending space time and making those two points converge, right?

Jolie Hales:
Oh my gosh.

Ernest de Leon:
That's a completely different way of looking at it. And in that context, that means you can go anywhere in the universe anytime you want, almost instantaneously. The caveat there is that no matter how you try to approach that problem, the power required to do it, the energy required to do it, is massive. Right? So my thought is that they've been around for a very, very long time.

Jolie Hales:
Oh my gosh.

Ernest de Leon:
And like I said, if I happen to see something, great. I'm not going to call some official organization. Now, if I actually saw one of these things land and things get out of it-

Jolie Hales:
I would die.

Ernest de Leon:
...then I would call somebody and report that. Right? That's a different scenario. That's not like I saw something fly around for a minute or two, and then I never saw it again.

Jolie Hales:
All right. Well, when I finish my second masters in theoretical physics, I'll contribute more to this conversation. But let it be stated here, you heard it, Ernest believes that aliens walk among us, and maybe that's because maybe Ernest is an alien.

Ernest de Leon:
It's possible. And I wouldn't say that I believe they walk among us. I know that there are people out-

Jolie Hales:
You just believe that they're somewhere on Earth?

Ernest de Leon:
I believe that they come around from time to time. They come around, look at what's happening, see that there hasn't been much progress in the last thousand years, and then take off.

Jolie Hales:
They leave disappointed.

Ernest de Leon:
Right. Exactly. And their thought is like, observe them from a distance, but don't engage them directly, because you will essentially break their worldview. And that creates a problem. So I think the cases where we supposedly have crashed craft or whatever, are the accidents.

Jolie Hales:
Like Will Smith punching the alien?

Will Smith in "Independence Day":
Welcome to Earth.

Jolie Hales:
Okay. But there is more with the statistics that I was looking at. So while the numbers that we've been talking about seem to kind of potentially support my hypothesis about smartphones maybe killing off UFO sightings. Then the numbers did something interesting after that year, 2018. They kind of did this about base, and then they jumped again over the last couple of years, hitting 7,267 sightings last year in 2020, which was the pandemic year. And that's close to the highest number reported in a given year since 1990. So, I don't know what that means. This is just one part of the data that I found, but it is interesting to consider nonetheless, I would say.

Ernest de Leon:
Yeah, if I had to offer a guess, it would be that because of the pandemic in 2020, more people were trapped at home, they had a lot more time on their hands to be out in nature. Right?

Jolie Hales:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ernest de Leon:
And maybe that's why they saw more things.

Jolie Hales:
So going back to whatever the heck it was that I saw in the sky in the 1990s, again, I believe that there must be some kind of rational explanation for what I saw, I just don't know what it was. Was it some government device that I know nothing about? I mean, I guarantee there are devices utilized by our government that I'm not privy to, though I wouldn't think that we had the technological capability to create the kind of physics-defying movement I saw in that craft way back when, but who knows? Or could it have been something extra terrestrial, like you've been talking about? I mean, is there the statistical probability that life exists somewhere else in this universe? I'm with you on that, I totally think so. Does that mean that they visited Earth? I don't know. I can't say for sure. I don't really believe that, but I'm open to it.

Ernest de Leon:
It's just a gut feeling, right? No one can prove that yet. Like we have data, we have pictures, and whatnot, but until someone has met one in person and kind of bring them on TV, it's going to be very hard to say we have definitive proof, right? So it's just kind of a theory.

Jolie Hales:
And honestly, we could do an entire episode on UFOs and it would be incredibly fascinating, though I'm not sure what the Big Compute angle would be. So if anyone knows a scientist or an engineer out there who is using super computing to study UFOs, please reach out.

Ernest de Leon:
There has to be somebody doing that.

Jolie Hales:
There has to be. And while UFOs are a mystery, the idea of life existing on other planets is honestly not far-fetched for scientists who are in the business of studying what lies out there in the universe. In fact, let's move away from the fantastical and onto something a bit more scientific, because honestly, NASA probably won't appreciate this direct association with UFO sightings.

Ernest de Leon:
Some there might, but I think the administration will not.

Jolie Hales:
Yeah. So beyond all of the UFO reporting, there are actual scientists working at NASA right now with a primary goal of learning if there is, or has been, life on other planets. And that includes our red rock neighbor, Mars.

Michael A. Mischna:
I think as a whole, NASA is very hopeful that there might still be evidence of past life on Mars.

Jolie Hales:
That's the voice of Michael Mischna.

Michael A. Mischna:
I am a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is a NASA center in Pasadena, California.

Jolie Hales:
Specifically, he's-

Michael A. Mischna:
The Associate Directorate Scientist for the Planetary Science Directorate.

Jolie Hales:
For JPL, or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, owned by that little company called, I don't know if you've heard of them, NASA. So he works with all of the Planetary Science missions, including Mars.

Michael A. Mischna:
The recent missions that we've sent, like the Mars Science Laboratory and Perseverance, are designed to look for habitable environments, what we call habitable environments. Meaning areas that have the proper energy sources, be it chemical, sunlight, or what have you, the presence of nutrients that life could survive on, and the presence of water. Because on Earth, all life, as we know, it requires water at some point in its life cycle. So our expectation is that ice or water on Mars would be necessary for life on Mars to exist.

Jolie Hales:
This isn't science fiction. Scientists actually believe it's possible that life could have existed on Mars at some point. And they're trying to find any evidence that that's the case. But before we dive deeper into Michael's research, let's give ourselves a grade school refresher on Mars, which means, we need some good Mars music.

Ernest de Leon:
Is that what that is?

Jolie Hales:
It's perfect, right?

Ernest de Leon:
Oh man, this is so bad.

Jolie Hales:
Okay. That doesn't work. How about something like this?

Ernest de Leon:
Okay. Yeah. This is much better.

Jolie Hales:
We'll go with this. Okay. So we all know what Mars looks like from awesome space pictures, right? Red, dry rock, sand everywhere. And as far as size goes, Mars is about half the size of Earth by diameter, and about twice the size of our moon. And Earth has a lot in common with Mars. Earth and Mars both have a similar access tilt, with Earth at 23 degrees, and Mars just above 25 degrees, which contributes to both planets having four seasons and temperature variations. And both are terrestrial planets, or rocky planets, with an atmosphere, crust, mantle, and core.

Ernest de Leon:
As opposed to a gaseous planet like Saturn or Jupiter.

Jolie Hales:
Right. And so far all the rocks and minerals that have been found on Mars, can also be found on Earth. And as far as age goes, scientists believe that Earth is around 4.5 billion years old, and Mars is around 4.6 billion years old. Which means that basically the galaxy got pregnant again with Earth soon after Mars was born, and then they grew up close in age and next to each other in orbit. So there's probably some sibling fights and whatnot, I imagine.

Ernest de Leon:
Right. And that's why there's a lot of value in studying Mars, because although it is different from Earth, it is possible that at one point it was very similar and we can probably pick up a lot of clues from studying that planet as to what will happen to Earth in the next 100 million years, give or take.

Jolie Hales:
But there are clearly some major differences between Earth and Mars too. And while we're both next to each other in the solar system, Mars is much further away at an average of 142 million miles from the sun, when compared to Earth's 93 million miles from the sun on average. Which contributes to generally colder temperatures as you might imagine on the surface of Mars, although not as different as one might think. In fact, the temperature range on the surface of Mars is -284 degrees Fahrenheit to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, or -140 Celsius to 30 degrees Celsius, which I don't know, 86 degrees Fahrenheit sounds kind of comfortable, but apparently it wouldn't be.

Michael A. Mischna:
It would be a matter of minutes before you were beyond roasted. It would be incredibly painful after just a couple of minutes I think.

Jolie Hales:
Even though Mars can get up to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, it's average temperature is -81 degrees. So it's well beyond freezing most of the time. And despite the fact that it's freezing, a human body would almost instantly burn to a crisp on Mars because the atmosphere is incredibly thin with no ozone layer to protect anything on its surface from the sun's UV rays, which I don't know, it kind of reminds me of... Do you know what I'm talking about? It reminds me of that scene in Indiana Jones, "Raiders of the Lost Ark," where that guy's face melts.

Ernest de Leon:
Another great, great film. Second only to "The Crystal Skulls."

Jolie Hales:
Is that the new one?

Ernest de Leon:
That's the last one, yeah.

Jolie Hales:
That's so bad.

Ernest de Leon:
I know.

Jolie Hales:
What is with your horrible taste in movies?

Ernest de Leon:
I love the bad ones. I don't like it when they're like mediocre bad. Like you have to be so bad you're good, or actually a good movie.

Michael A. Mischna:
Mars today is an extremely harsh environment for life. There's so much ultraviolet radiation that hits the surface, because Mars doesn't have an ozone layer like the Earth does. It has a very thin atmosphere which doesn't really protect the surface. So on Earth, that's why we put sunscreen on, is to avoid cancer and other negative things to our bodies. On Mars it's like going out in the desert in the middle of the summer on a sunny day times 100. It's just incredibly unpleasant for life to survive in such a harsh environment.

Jolie Hales:
So finding current life in this kind of atmosphere is incredibly unlikely.

Michael A. Mischna:
Personally, I don't think there's going to be anything beyond some type of microorganism on Mars, if we find anything at all.

Jolie Hales:
Radiation isn't the only issue making it unlikely that life exists on the red planet today, obviously. I mean, while Earth's atmosphere consists of 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, which is necessary for us to breathe, Mars' atmosphere is almost completely carbon dioxide, which causes quick collapse, coma, and death.

Ernest de Leon:
And I think it's important to point out that because we're humans who live on Earth, a lot of the way we look at things is from a very Earth-centric viewpoint. So we're looking for life on other planets similar to what we have on Earth, which would mean carbon-based, you need water, and all these kinds of things. But, just know that there are other scientists out there who are looking at the possibility of life that is different. That, for example, might live off of methane, might live off of other gases, or don't need oxygen, or don't need hydrogen and oxygen, right? Or water in that case. Of course, it's all theoretical. No one's saying that this stuff exists, but it's a possibility that there are life forms that just don't need what we do to survive.

Jolie Hales:
But all of this doesn't mean that life has never existed on Mars. In fact, according to NASA's website, they say, "Scientists think that Mars may have had a thicker atmosphere early in its history. And data from NASA's spacecraft indicate that Mars has lost significant amounts of its atmosphere through time." And they also say that while Mars may be a cold, dry, barren place, it may have once been this warm and wet place.

Ernest de Leon:
Yeah. And being that it's 4.6 billion years old, who knows what it was like during the entire time before it was observable by us? If anything, we'd need to do some serious archeology to figure out a lot more of the history, because right now we're, and I say this tongue in cheek, we are literally scratching the surface.

Jolie Hales:
But one reason scientists wonder about life having existed on the red planet is because there has been evidence discovered of the past existence of something quite essential to life.

Ernest de Leon:
Water.

Jolie Hales:
Exactly, liquid water, specifically. In fact, as many of our listeners probably know, there is water on Mars today. It's just frozen in the polar caps, or like ice buried beneath the surface. Basically surface pressure and cold temperatures prevent water from existing on the planet in liquid form on the surface. So there's no rivers, lakes, seas, just dry, barren rock as far as the eye can see, if the eye wouldn't immediately be burned to a crisp from radiation.

Michael A. Mischna:
For 40 or 50 years, we've really seen things on Mars from spacecraft that we couldn't easily explain. What we've seen has been evidence of liquid water or some liquid that has carved out features in the surface. We see evidence of, for example, dry river beds, old paleo lakes, lakes from billions of years ago, the effects of catastrophic floods that have really etched out and carved out canyons and channels all across the planet. But if you look at Mars today, you see no liquid water, you see no liquid of any kind. And this has really been one of the fundamental scientific mysteries about Mars. And this is dated back to the 1970s when the Viking spacecrafts in the mid 1970s got to Mars and started sending back these really detailed pictures. We simply couldn't explain what happened to all of that water.

Ernest de Leon:
So we know that there was water on the planet once, it's just not there anymore.

Jolie Hales:
Right. But if water existed, I mean, that certainly amps up the chances that life, as we understand it, may have also existed at one point on that planet.

Michael A. Mischna:
We're continuing to look, but we haven't found any conclusive evidence to suggest that there was life, but we have found plenty of places where life might have been able to survive.

Jolie Hales:
And it's that possibility that fuels the search for signs of past life on Mars. But all of this brings us back to Michael's research. While we've seen evidence that liquid water must have existed on the red planet at some point in history, the question was how?

Michael A. Mischna:
The scientific community has spent a good deal of time trying to come up with different hypotheses that could have explained how a planet could have had a lot of water long time ago, and then today be not only very, very dry, but also extremely cold. Mars today is far too cold most of the time to allow for liquid water on the surface. And the surface pressure is too low to allow liquid water on the surface. It just doesn't make sense.

Jolie Hales:
Scientists have proposed a number of different theories, but then none of them really panned out.

Michael A. Mischna:
For a long time, people thought that perhaps Mars had a much thicker atmosphere made up of various gases, carbon dioxide, for example, maybe other trace gases, things like sulfur dioxide or methane. And a combination of these gases could have acted as sort of a very impactful greenhouse atmosphere. In fact, Carl Sagan back in the, I think in the early 1980s, hypothesized that some trace gases like ammonia might have actually been in the atmosphere and reflected back some of the infrared radiation that is basically responsible for the greenhouse effect. And so it's a very popular idea, but it never quite worked. You could never quite get temperatures that were warm enough, and you could never quite explain just all of the geological features that you saw with this explanation of just having a warmer, thicker atmosphere.

Jolie Hales:
And so scientists began to test these various theories by modeling them computationally. What if the atmosphere is like this? And what if there's this much liquid water here, or here on the planet, what would that do to the temperature?

Michael A. Mischna:
You can sort of establish on what we call the back of the envelope calculation how much of a certain gas you might think would be in the atmosphere. So you could pick say one part per million of the atmosphere might be methane. So a really small methane or ammonia. And it's a really small amount. You then have laboratory studies, which tell you just how much radiation methane or ammonia can absorb, and then emit back to the surface. Then you can run climate models that incorporate all of that information. And the climate models will tell you what the temperature of the surface would be if you added a certain amount of this gas, or a certain amount of that gas.

Jolie Hales:
But the results of these models never really matched up.

Michael A. Mischna:
It just never quite all fit together.

Jolie Hales:
So there was this dilemma. We knew that there was all this liquid water on this dry planet in the past, but with the atmosphere and temperatures and conditions of Mars being what they are, scientists couldn't figure out how these rivers and lakes, and possibly even an ocean, could have ever been possible.

Michael A. Mischna:
It wasn't as if the planet was just always this swamp world and then something happened and it dried out. The water on Mars kind of came and went it seems. The geology of the planet shows many episodes of the planet getting wet and then drying out, and then getting wet and then drying out. And so we needed to figure something out that would allow this to happen on the planet.

Jolie Hales:
And so a study was born!

Ernest de Leon:
I think this is that point where NASA took to putting the scientific method to the test.

Jolie Hales:
Yeah. So a team of four scientists, which included our interviewee, Michael Mischna, they got together to test a new hypothesis. And that was led by--

Michael A. Mischna:
Edwin Kite, he's over at the University of Chicago.

Jolie Hales:
With-

Michael A. Mischna:
Liam Steele, from University of Chicago, and Mark Richardson, who works for a company in Arizona called Aeolis Research.

Jolie Hales:
Michael wanted to make sure that credit was given where credit was due.

Michael A. Mischna:
They are the brilliance behind a lot of this work. So I felt privileged to be able to work with them.

Jolie Hales:
I love how humble so many scientists are. I mean, there're all these like ridiculous celebrities famous for doing dumb crap on Instagram or something or on TV, and some of them are so into themselves. But then you have these scientists who are actually changing the world and even discovering the truth of other worlds in this case, and I find that they're often some of the most humble people I've ever met, which is pretty admirable, if you ask me.

Ernest de Leon:
I think that's because coming up in the science and engineering world, you quickly realize that there's more out there that you don't know than you do know.

Jolie Hales:
Than you do know. It's like the more I learn, the more I realize the less I know.

Ernest de Leon:
Right. And you're constantly trying to learn more, but the process itself tells you that you're never going to be able to know everything, right?

Jolie Hales:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ernest de Leon:
You're never going to be an expert in the purest of senses. So it's kind of humbling by nature. You know that you're going up against something much bigger than yourself. You're investigating something much bigger than yourself.

Jolie Hales:
That's a really good way to put it. I mean, imagine actually working for NASA, that explores space.

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Jolie Hales:
So Edwin, Michael, Liam, and Mark took a look at previous research that had not quite hit the target. And then they built a new hypothesis, a new explanation as to how the surface of Mars could ever have been warm enough to sustain liquid water.

Michael A. Mischna:
It was an incredibly counter-intuitive idea that came out. We think of water vapor in the atmospheric community as being a really strong greenhouse gas, meaning just like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, how it warms the surface, water vapor is actually a much better greenhouse gas. It would warm a planet much more so than carbon dioxide. In fact, on Earth, most of the greenhouse warming that we experience is from water vapor. It's not from carbon dioxide. So we thought, "Okay. Well, on Mars, if we want Mars to get as warm as possible, we just need to pump as much water into the atmosphere as possible." And this is what people had been doing for decades. And it never got there. It never got warm enough.

Jolie Hales:
In fact, when simulations modeled water being pumped into Mars' atmosphere, it created these big, bright, puffy cumulus clouds in the sky, which were not good at warming the planet and keeping the warm air in that atmosphere. So the result was this planet that was still too cold for liquid water. So that clearly wasn't the answer. It wasn't working. And since these models weren't able to explain the clear signs of past rivers and past lakes, Michael's team decided to go in the completely opposite direction.

Michael A. Mischna:
The counter-intuitive aspect of our work was that what if we made the planet dry instead of wet? So what if we took out all of this water vapor in the atmosphere, and we got rid of most of the water on the surface, how would that impact the atmosphere?

Jolie Hales:
So they ran climate models of a dry Mars to see what would happen.

Michael A. Mischna:
It turns out that you can get much warmer surface temperatures by doing that. And the reason is because just like on Earth, you get the most warming out of clouds that are very high in the atmosphere, clouds that are very cold. And when we look up and we see those fair weather cirrus clouds, those wispy ice crystally type of clouds, those clouds are actually much better at reflecting heat back down to the surface than the puffy, big, thick cumulus clouds. So getting a lot of those high cold clouds is a much better way to go. That requires though that we get rid of most of the water on the surface, because that water on the surface is just going to produce those big, thick-

Jolie Hales:
Yeah, cumulus.

Michael A. Mischna:
...low clouds, which don't warm.

Jolie Hales:
By running their climate model with ice in restricted locations just near the south pole, and just in very high topographic areas, Michael's team found that there was just enough water rising up from those locations that would get just cold enough to freeze, and then create these high wispy kind of clouds that then generated a lot of warming on Mars' surface below.

Ernest de Leon:
Absolutely fascinating.

Michael A. Mischna:
So I was like, "Oh my gosh. This is not something anyone had expected." You'd think you want to get as much water in the atmosphere. But the answer is no, you want to get just a little bit. And that's what the ultimate result of our study was, was that at very arid Mars, a very dry Mars is actually better for getting warm surface conditions to allow liquid water to form.

Jolie Hales:
So it turns out that Mars may have been wet, because it was actually dry.

Ernest de Leon:
So, did they run these models on NASA supercomputers?

Jolie Hales:
They did actually. Well, at least in part.

Michael A. Mischna:
The one that I ran is actually a supercomputer that's operated by NASA up at the Ames Research Center here in California, up in the Bay Area, and it's the 25th largest computer in the world. It has about a quarter of a million cores on it.

Jolie Hales:
I believe the supercomputer is called Pleiades, and it's currently ranked number 46 on the Top500 list. So, a very capable machine, I'd say.

Michael A. Mischna:
And then the second computer is one that is operated by the University of Chicago. It's a bit smaller. It's only got 16,000 cores in it.

Jolie Hales:
And that supercomputer is called Midway2, and as far as software goes--

Michael A. Mischna:
The model that we use, the climate model, is actually based on an Earth weather forecasting model called the Weather Research and Forecasting model, or the WRF model.

Jolie Hales:
Okay. WRF being W-R-F, which is widely used in weather forecasting, or at least the Earth version of WRF is widely used in Earth weather forecasting.

Michael A. Mischna:
A group led by Mark Richardson, who is one of the authors on this paper, about 15 years ago, took that WRF model and made it generic enough that it could be used on different planets for different planets' atmospheres.

Jolie Hales:
Wow.

Michael A. Mischna:
And we call that model planetWRF. And the version that we use is called MarsWRF, which basically simulates now the environment of Mars.

Jolie Hales:
I didn't expect the model to work for other planets. I thought that it was just an Earth thing. I mean, did you?

Ernest de Leon:
Honestly, I'd never really thought about that before, but now that you bring it up, at the end of the day, all this stuff is fluid dynamics, right? It's just a different type of fluid, right? The density of the atmosphere, the type of gases in there, the movement is still based on standard fluid dynamics. So I would imagine that maybe it's not exactly the same, but it's probably based on very similar principles.

Jolie Hales:
I just assumed everything was different on other planets. It's like, physics is different. Newton's law doesn't apply. Clearly, I am a genius.

Ernest de Leon:
No. If that was the case, boy, would it be hard for us to research anything.

Jolie Hales:
Yeah. That's a good point.

Ernest de Leon:
Because we'd have no reference point. We would be like, "Well, it's completely different than here. So the only thing we know is that it's not the same."

Jolie Hales:
Yes. If I would have given this maybe like a second of thought, I could have reached that more intelligent conclusion.

Ernest de Leon:
Yeah. As a human being, I would have just been like, "Nevermind, I'm going to go do something else."

Michael A. Mischna:
There's a VenusWRF, there's a TitanWRF, there's a PlutoWRF. So all of these models are out there being used by different research groups to simulate the atmospheres of other bodies out there. Because the physics of atmospheres and atmospheric motion, it's all the same.

Jolie Hales:
No matter which planet?

Michael A. Mischna:
It doesn't matter which planet you're on. The underlying physics are basically the same.

Jolie Hales:
So like differences in gravity and whatnot, that doesn't come into play at all?

Michael A. Mischna:
That does. So you care about things like the gravity, the composition of the atmosphere, how big and thick the atmosphere is, but the equations like F=ma, the Newton's laws of motion, and things like that, that's all the same. It's universal.

Jolie Hales:
Awesome.

Michael A. Mischna:
So all of the algorithms in the model are basically identical from version to version. It's just what we call the physical parameters of the model that need to be adjusted.

Jolie Hales:
And for a typical MarsWRF run, Michael and his team ran the model at about five degree resolution, meaning that there's like a data point for every five degrees of latitude and five degrees of longitude. And then they would typically use 64 cores or so at a time.

Michael A. Mischna:
So maybe four to five hours, we can do a full Mars year at that scale.

Jolie Hales:
And they usually run simulations for what it would have been like on Mars for 10 to 20 years, which thanks to high-performance computing, could typically be simulated in less than a week.

Ernest de Leon:
Right. And that's not a crazy amount of compute compared to some of the other projects that we've looked at, or people we've interviewed.

Jolie Hales:
Yeah, like some of the COVID research that took up like a quarter of some of the biggest supercomputers on Earth, right?

Ernest de Leon:
Right.

Michael A. Mischna:
I've compiled this model on my laptop, and the thing runs just fine. It's of course a lot slower.

Jolie Hales:
Just a hair.

Michael A. Mischna:
Instead of five days, it might take you, I don't know, 50 days, or it may take a couple of months to do the whole model. Plus, these supercomputers are really stacked. So they've got a lot of memory, a lot of bandwidth allows them to communicate very quickly with each other, and because the models are so computationally intensive, you need all that memory.

Ernest de Leon:
Yeah, that's absolutely true. Right? And that's really where the supercomputing comes into play here, in that having all of the memory and bandwidth available in one run, as opposed to even the most powerful of desktop PCs, like a high end desktop, a Threadripper or something. It's a powerful machine, and it's going to do well, but it's never going to be able to keep up with a cluster of machines that are specifically designed to work as a team.

Michael A. Mischna:
In my mind, these types of climate models are like the perfect use case for supercomputers, because 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago when climate models were first being developed on the most primitive computers, they were very, very basic. And they provided a good deal of insight, but as we kind of develop the technology and the computers become faster, and now we're networking computers together and doing these high performance computing clusters, we can convert a whole planet from looking at maybe a dozen different points on the surface, to one where we could be looking at 100,000 points on the surface. And each point represents a small fraction of the surface. So you get this incredibly high resolution, and it allows you to sort of solve these problems that were unthinkable 20 years ago.

Michael A. Mischna:
When I started in this field, when I started doing my first work, maybe 20 years ago, one Mars year would take two to three days, what now takes about five hours. So just the speed of the computers, the size of the computers, it makes it so much more efficient. And it's just such a great example of how a problem can scale at these large sizes.

Jolie Hales:
And not only is simulating weather on Mars important in helping us learn about the past, but aside from his study, Michael also worked on the NASA team that was responsible for forecasting the weather for the latest Mars Rover landing.

News Clip:
The tension inside mission control, as real as if this were a human mission. Watching and waiting at 127 million miles away, Perseverance was in its final fiery descent through the thin Martian atmosphere.

Michael A. Mischna:
We needed to predict what the winds were like, what the surface pressure was like, the temperature and all that.

Ernest de Leon:
So I remember watching the landing live as it went on, and I hadn't even considered that weather forecasting had been done. So I can imagine that if you were responsible for the weather forecasting that ultimately impacted the atmosphere as this thing came in-

Jolie Hales:
Oh man.

Ernest de Leon:
...you were on pins and needles, hoping that your predictions were right.

News Clip:
Perseverance has now slowed to subsonic speeds and the heat shield has been separated. This allows both the radar and the cameras to get their first look at the surface.

Michael A. Mischna:
We were a little on pins and needles, hoping that what we forecasted really panned out, and it turns out it pretty much did. We had a lot of good tools and a lot of good scientists working on the problem. So we pretty much nailed it.

NASA Mission Control:
Touchdown confirmed. Perseverance is safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life.

News Clip:
Soon Perseverance will drill into rock and soil, searching for evidence of ancient microbial life.

Jolie Hales:
And after the landing, his weather forecasting work actually isn't finished.

Michael A. Mischna:
The dust storms are probably like the most dramatic type of weather that you get on Mars.

Jolie Hales:
In fact, Ernest, have you ever been in a haboob?

Ernest de Leon:
I have no idea what a haboob is, but-

Jolie Hales:
Ah, something I know that you don't. Woo hoo! That's not film related.

Ernest de Leon:
But from the context of the interview, I'm guessing it's some kind of dust storm?

Jolie Hales:
You are correct.

Ernest de Leon:
And I've been in some serious dust storms in Texas. Yes.

Jolie Hales:
I wonder if they're in Texas. I know they're in Arizona. So, for those who haven't seen one of these, they're these huge, intense dust storms, and they look like this ginormous creepy wall of like supernatural sand that engulfs everything in its path.

Ernest de Leon:
Okay. I know what you're talking about now. They use one of those in the Dogecoin meme. Yes.

Jolie Hales:
Yeah. It's kind of like the clouds on the movie Independence Day, right before the alien ship emerges, like those haunting looking clouds, except it's all dust and sand and it's closer to the ground, and there's no alien ship, I should throw that in there, yet.

Ernest de Leon:
Right. We keep bringing the aliens back into this discussion.

Jolie Hales:
I know, poor NASA.

Independence Day Clip:
Aren't you coming, David? I got to see this.

Jolie Hales:
So I haven't been in a haboob, but my brother was caught in one in Phoenix while he was moving all of his belongings in the back of an open bed pickup truck.

Jolie's Brother:
Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. Oh, my stuff! No!

Jolie Hales:
And while these haboob-type dust storms only happen on Mars I guess every three years or so, apparently they're pretty intense.

Michael A. Mischna:
It's an amazing sight to see. You actually can't even see the surface of Mars from spacecraft orbit. It's that thick. Nobody has any idea why those happen.

Jolie Hales:
These storms can be so massive that they can even cover the entire planet with like a 15-mile high cloud of this tiny powder-like sand. So if you've thought about being instantly burned to a crisp, well, suffocating in below freezing temperatures is a bad way to go. Imagine that happening during a dust storm so large that it blocks the view of the planet's surface from space. So note to self, don't go to Mars. But in the meantime, the Perseverance Rover is allowing us to explore the red planet without being there at the moment. And it even brought with it a four-pound 19-inch tall passenger.

Ernest de Leon:
Yes. You must be talking about the helicopter, Ingenuity.

Jolie Hales:
I am.

News Clip:
Celebration this morning at JPL mission control. Stunning images just coming in as NASA yet again pulls off the unbelievable, flying a four-pound autonomous chopper, a drone really, on another planet.

Jolie Hales:
Ingenuity was specially designed to fly in Mars' low gravity and incredibly thin atmosphere. So we're talking 1% the thickness of the atmosphere on Earth, which actually makes me think, I mean, guaranteed, they had to design this thing using computational simulation. Don't you think?

Ernest de Leon:
Absolutely. And so anybody at JPL, I guess it's JPL, right? Who helped design that thing, we'd be happy to have you on.

Jolie Hales:
Reach out.

Michael A. Mischna:
This helicopter, it's original primary purpose was to demonstrate that flight could occur on Mars.

Jolie Hales:
Well, check the box! It worked!

Michael A. Mischna:
It worked. And that was basically it. If it just flew one time and we were able to show that the helicopter could get lift, it could move to and fro and go up and down, that would have been satisfactory, because it would have allowed us then to start developing more sophisticated aircraft to allow us to do more exciting things. We could explore places on Mars that we can't get to with rovers, and all sorts of things like that. Today, what we're doing, is we're actually, now that we demonstrated that and we checked that box, the purpose of the helicopter is to serve as sort of an advanced scout for the Rover. So we will fly, in the air, about 10 meters high, we fly forward ahead of where the Rover is, take pictures of the surrounding area, and then land. And then those pictures can be assessed for interesting locations that the Rover may wish to go to. It can identify potential hazards that the Rover might have to negotiate.

Ernest de Leon:
So they were just hoping it would get lift and be able to fly once on Mars. But instead, it's flying so effectively that it's now enhancing Perseverance's mission.

Jolie Hales:
Yep.

Michael A. Mischna:
The helicopter has performed exceptionally well. We've had seven flights under our belt right now, and it's a testament to the amount of work that's gone into this thing that it's been able to operate as it has.

Jolie Hales:
In the meantime, Michael and his team at NASA keep their fingers crossed that Ingenuity and Perseverance don't get hit by some of the weather that actually can't be predicted.

Michael A. Mischna:
You can see many pictures from the Rover of dust devils, which are sort of like mini tornadoes, in the distance. And they can't be predicted, so it's not like we can control where they are, or avoid them to any great extent, but that's our biggest worry, right? Is we fly and then-

Jolie Hales:
That's interesting.

Michael A. Mischna:
...a little dust devil happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and blows us away. But we've been lucky so far.

Jolie Hales:
So time will tell, but so far, so good, knock on wood. And who knows, maybe one of these days we'll pick up some proof that life did in fact exist somewhere on Mars, or maybe somewhere else.

Michael A. Mischna:
I subscribe to that idea that the universe is so vast that there has to be life somewhere in it, apart from Earth. Whether it's as close as a planet like Mars, or under the ice of one of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, or whether it's light years or light millennia away, it seems like it has to have taken hold somewhere else.

Ernest de Leon:
It's one of the reasons that science like this is so important, right? Looking at other planets, looking at other galaxies, because that's the only way that we're going to figure out are we truly alone or are there others that we could perhaps interact with sometime in the future?

Jolie Hales:
Yeah. Oh my gosh. There's so much to think about there. And before we wrapped our conversation, Michael blew my mind with this.

Michael A. Mischna:
In our solar system, the sun is like the biggest gravitational body. It's much bigger than everything else. So things float in towards the sun. Now, people wonder, could life on Earth have transmitted itself to Mars? Could an asteroid have hit Earth and ejected material that then traveled out to Mars? And then it landed on the surface, and these-

Jolie Hales:
And was able to live.

Michael A. Mischna:
...microorganisms were able to live? Well, possibly, but wouldn't it be more logical for something to have come from Mars and then been tugged in to Earth?

Jolie Hales:
Oh my gosh, how crazy! That's a crazy thought.

Michael A. Mischna:
Maybe life on Earth originated on Mars, this early Mars that had oceans, and lakes, and rivers, and you had microorganisms, and bacteria, or something like that. And then an asteroid hit, created one of the big craters on the surface. That material landed on Earth, and Earth developed life. And then poor little Mars was out there and it dried out, and it got cold, and the life disappeared. So maybe we are all Martians.

Jolie Hales:
That's crazy. Mind equals blown.

Ernest de Leon:
Yeah, that's definitely an interesting hypothesis of whether or not life from one planet made it to another planet. It reminds me of the panspermia theory that life exists floating around in the universe, and when it lands on planets and has the ability to survive, it then-

Jolie Hales:
Like a dandelion seed in the universe?

Ernest de Leon:
Sort of, and for all of our listeners, if you don't know what a tardigrade is, go look it up. They're awesome.

Michael A. Mischna:
We think we learned how you could have had liquid water on Mars for a long period in its history. And that liquid water could have allowed life to have evolved and flourished on Mars long ago. That's the great part about science, right? There's always more to learn and there's always more to discover. So this is just a small little blip in the larger sphere of scientific exploration. But this is a really interesting, and frankly, I mean, I agree, this is an exciting area of research where we're really learning a lot more about our neighbor there in Mars, and whether there could have been life, and what it takes to get life to exist on a planet like that.

Jolie Hales:
To learn more about Michael and his work, you can visit:

Michael A. Mischna:
science.jpl.nasa.gov, and search for me, Michael Mischna, and you'll have information about the work that I do at the lab. And frankly, you can put in anybody's name, or any research project that you want, and learn an incredible amount of interesting planetary science that's going on at the lab.

Ernest de Leon:
We'll also post a link to their research article in the episode notes of bigcompute.org.

Jolie Hales:
It's called "Warm Early Surface Enabled by High-Altitude Water Ice Clouds." And you can find links to pictures, videos, and articles we've referenced during this episode also on bigcompute.org.

Ernest de Leon:
And as always, if you like what you hear, please tell a friend about us, post a review, and subscribe, and rate us on Apple Podcasts.

Jolie Hales:
Or Google Podcasts, or both, whatever.

Ernest de Leon:
Or Spotify.

Jolie Hales:
And I mean, if you operate a skywriting business, you could consider writing bigcompute.org in the sky, above a popular beach.

Ernest de Leon:
That is super random.

Jolie Hales:
Hey, we don't discriminate on how our listeners spread the word.

Ernest de Leon:
That's true. Thanks for joining us, everyone, and always remember to use multi-factor authentication and 3-2-1 backup.

Jolie Hales:
Stay safe out there.

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