Earthlings are coming to Mars

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Last winter, Colorado Mountain College astronomy professor Jimmy Westlake talked his way through a slideshow of Saturn's 46 moons.

A few people were slouching in their chairs as Westlake sorted through some of the smaller, featureless moons, but when he started speculating about the possibility of life on Titan, people sat up and moved to the edge of their seats.

What: "Is there life on Mars?" slideshow and presentation by CMC astronomy professor Jimmy Westlake. Telescope viewing of Mars to follow, weather permitting.

When: 7 p.m. Nov. 16

Where: Room 300, Bogue Hall on the CMC campus,1330 Bud Adams Drive. Seating is limited to the first 75 people.

Cost: Free

Call: 870-4537

The search for life on other planets (or moons) is the main driving force behind people's curiosity about outer space.

On Nov. 16, when Westlake lectures on "Is There Life on Mars?" as part of the college's Alpine Enrichment Program, expect the room to be full.

"I don't think we would be going to Mars or Titan if we weren't looking for some form of life," Westlake said. "It's exciting to think we might not be alone."

Westlake chose to discuss Mars this month because it's as close to Earth as it will be for the next 18 years.

"A lot of people are thinking about Mars right now and about our quest for life on that planet," Westlake said.

Scientists think Mars was once much more like Earth. Now, it's a cold desert, but there is evidence it was a warmer, wetter place in the first billion years of its existence, Westlake said.

Based on rock samples gathered by space probes and from tests on meteorites, astronomers think the solar system formed at the same time, 4.6 billion years ago.

"In the first billion years of Mars' existence, the planet had a much thicker atmosphere that was able to sustain liquid water," Westlake said. "We know from the fossil record on Earth that life, simple-celled organisms, existed in that same period. Life on Mars may have followed a parallel path."

But Mars, being smaller and farther from the sun, was unable to hold on to its atmosphere. The question remains whether life was able to adapt and whether life is still there today.

"There is some tantalizing evidence that there is," Westlake said. The evidence lies in several pockets of methane gas detected by the Mars Express, a European spacecraft orbiting the red planet.

"Methane gas rapidly breaks down and disappears," Westlake said. "The fact that we see pockets of it means that it is being replenished. On Earth, methane gas is replenished by biological activity.

"It doesn't mean there is life there, but it's something we want to investigate."

Westlake's slideshow presentation will include video clips of Mars' surface, a discussion of our planet's relationship with Mars and an examination of the possibility that life could exist there.

"Humans have always been intrigued with Mars," Westlake said. "Its unusual red color meant it was associated with blood and death and war.

"These same ideas led to stories of Martians like "War of the Worlds," written by H.G. Wells in 1898."

When the first spacecraft took fly-by images of Mars in the 1960s, humans realized there were no cities or Martians.

As exploration continued, we began to notice what appeared to be river valleys and flood zones where it looked like water had been.

"Life as we know it requires liquid water," Westlake said. "I don't think there are green men or women there, but there could be some kind of simple life forms still in existence on Mars."

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