Planetary scientists gathered for a 3-day workshop last year to debate one of the most momentous decisions of modern space exploration: Where should NASA send its next Mars rover, a mission that will send back rocks to be examined for signs of life?
The decision was so difficult because we don’t know where life evolved on Earth. The three candidate landing sites represented three theories of life’s origins here: a river delta, a hot springs, and a mesa that exposes multiple layers that could have contained trapped water.
Sarah Kaplan showed readers the stakes of the decision and wove together what we know about Mars—a lot more than most readers realize—and the origins of life on Earth. Throughout the story, readers meet scientists deeply invested in this decision and thrilled at the opportunity to maybe, just maybe, find the first evidence of life on another planet.
The online presentation, a collaboration with Joe Fox and Brittany Renee Mayes on graphics, with a design by Leo Ji and photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof, paired satellite images of Mars with satellite images of comparable spots on Earth. A series of maps and insets showed where the candidate landing sites are on Mars and the geologic features a rover would encounter there. Columbia Hills, a former hot spring, was explored by the rover Spirit and is comparable to a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park. Jezero Crater is a former river delta feeding into a lake that might have entombed organic material. And Northeast Syrtis has minerals that suggest it was once part of an underground aquifer, as well as “megabreccias,” or debris from ancient meteorite impacts.
The gorgeous images of Mars look familiar to an earthling, and the science shows the planets weren’t all that different, once—before Mars lost its atmosphere and water and became a “failed planet,” at least where life is concerned. The Mars 2020 rover is our best opportunity to find out if life ever existed there.
—Laura Helmuth, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C.
Say you’re going to launch a spacecraft to look for signs of ancient life on Mars. Where do you send it?
Mars is a big place, and even the most adventurous rover covered just 28 miles in its lifetime. Any mission to the Red Planet will get to explore only a very tiny spot. So scientists spend countless hours studying and debating in an effort to find just the right one.
As soon as I learned this, during a conversation with a deputy project scientist for NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, I knew I had to witness the process myself. The 2020 rover (which is slated to launch this summer) was built to pursue one of the most meaningful questions humans can ask. Its landing site will determine how close we might get to an answer.
So in 2018 I asked my editor, Laura Helmuth, if I could fly to Los Angeles to attend NASA’s final site selection workshop.
I wouldn’t have blamed her if she was skeptical about the idea. Three days of jargon-filled debate in a windowless conference room doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for a compelling narrative. But Laura understood the potential for this story to give readers a glimpse at how the scientific process works—while the possibility of aliens hung in the balance—and for that I am tremendously grateful.
I am also indebted to the scientists who generously explained—and reexplained—their research during the workshop and afterward. Their enthusiasm and eloquence made Mars feel less distant and the search for life there more real.
Of course, “Next Stop, Mars” would not have been half as compelling if not for the brilliant work of my colleagues: Joe Fox and Brittany Renee Mayes, who created the maps with images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter; Karly Domb Sadof, who edited the photos; and Leo Ji, who designed the whole story.
I’m thankful to AGU and its members, who give me so much to write about, and to the distinguished writers and researchers on the Walter Sullivan Award Committee who selected my story.
Most of all, I am grateful for readers. Amid an onslaught of grim news from this world, they make time in their lives and space in their minds to wonder about others.
—Sarah Kaplan, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C.