Episode 7: Is there life on Mars?
Dr. Ed Cloutis, Professor of Geography and Director of the Centre for Terrestrial and Planetary Exploration at the University of Winnipeg, has spent a long career focusing on developing new applications of remote sensing to exploring the surface of the Earth and planets in the solar system. As part of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, Cloutis and his research team are attempting to answer a question that has fascinated humanity since the first days of space exploration.
On this episode the research question is, “Is there life on Mars?”
ED CLOUTIS: You know, there’s probably there’s, you know, certainly big, I’m sure Philosophical questions attached to, you know, finding life on Mars. For me, it’s a scientifically interesting thing to pursue, right?
KENT DAVIES: Meet Dr. Ed Cloutis, Professor in the Department of Geography and Director of the Centre for Terrestrial and Planetary Exploration at the University of Winnipeg. His research focuses on developing new applications of remote sensing to explore the surface of the earth and other planets in our solar system. Cloutis has been involved in a number of planetary exploration missions over the course of his career. As part of NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover Mission, Cloutis and his research team are now attempting to answer a question that has fascinated humanity since the first days of space exploration.
ED CLOUTIS: You know, why do we explore the solar system? You know, one of the big cool questions for me is, is life unique to the earth or could life have evolved on other planets?
KENT DAVIES: On this episode the research question is— “Is there life on Mars?”
From the University of Winnipeg Oral History Centre, you’re listening to Research Question- amplifying the impact of discovery of researchers of the University of Winnipeg.
This is the sound of NASA’s Perseverance rover making its way through the Jezero Crater on the surface of Mars. The 2.7-billion-dollar car-sized, rover is equipped with an array of scientific instruments designed to search for evidence of life on the red planet.[i] Since joining the mission in 2013, Dr. Ed Cloutis and his research team of University of Winnipeg students have played a key role in developing and testing the Mastcam-Z, a camera system that operates as the “eyes” of Perseverance.[ii] In recent years, Cloutis and his research team have firmly established themselves as major contributors to planetary science. It is a position that Cloutis has worked towards throughout his twenty-five-plus-year career.
ED CLOUTIS: I was born in a town called Oakville, which is just outside of Toronto. I was there for my first eight years when I was eight years old. My parents moved to Greece for three years. So, I was there from grades three, four and five. And then the family moved back to Canada and I was—spent a year in Scarborough and then moved back to Oakville. And I was there until 1981. And during that time, I finished high school and then went to the University of Toronto to do an undergraduate degree in engineering.
KENT DAVIES: While pursuing his undergraduate degree, Cloutis took an elective course in planetary exploration with Dr. David Strangway, former chief of NASA’s Geophysics Branch.
ED CLOUTIS: And he had worked on the Apollo missions. And so he, you know, he would relate stories about that, that time in his career. And it just seemed like super interesting. So, I thought, yeah, I want to be a junior Dave Strangway. I was always interested in geology and, you know, just exploring the planets. And I thought, boy this is something I really want to do. So, I applied to a number of different places, different universities, and ended up choosing the University of Hawaii to do my master’s.
KENT DAVIES: It was at the University of Hawaii, when Cloutis first had an opportunity to work with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA.
ED CLOUTIS: So, there was a planetary geology group there that I was a student in and they were funded by NASA. And so that sort of that would I guess be the genesis of my partnerships with NASA. And then after that, I did want to move back to Canada. So, I that’s why I applied to the University of Alberta. And then I moved to Edmonton, Alberta, to pursue a Ph.D. in geology and continued my research in planetary exploration there. And then I spent five years working as a consultant in Calgary in various environmental, remote sensing industries, companies, and then moved to Winnipeg in 1996 to join the University of Winnipeg in the Department of Geography.
KENT DAVIES: Around the same time, the Canadian Space Agency was looking to expand their planetary exploration research program.
ED CLOUTIS: That was a kind of an opportune time because the Canadian Space Agency up to that point had been largely focused on things like the Canadarm that was on the shuttles, a lot of work on communication satellites to, you know, enable connectivity with, say, northern Canada. And then gradually CSA started to, I guess, tighten their relationships with NASA in terms of planetary exploration, expanding their research programs into things like exploring the moon and exploring Mars and so I was able to use my NASA connections to tap into Canadian funding to continue my collaborations with NASA.
KENT DAVIES: Since then, Cloutis has contributed to a number of international space exploration missions supported by the Canadian Space Agency.[iii]
ED CLOUTIS: I’ve been involved with your a joint European NASA mission called Dawn, which explored a couple of asteroids out in the main asteroid belt for a number of years but most of my partnerships have been with NASA. And so, one of the early ones was the Curiosity rover that’s on Mars. And so, I was brought in on that because of my expertise in Mars geology.
KENT DAVIES: From the 1975 Viking landers to the more recent Curiosity rover mission, Cloutis stresses that the previous series of Mars missions involving orbiters, landers and rovers have all paved the way for the mission he’s focused on now, Perseverance.
ED CLOUTIS: Every mission tells us something new about Mars. Yeah. And so, every new mission tries to build on what have we learnt from the previous mission. And then that guides us in terms of what, what kind of science instruments should we put on the next mission. And so, I think a good example of that is if we compare the Curiosity rover to the Perseverance Rover. So, Curiosity came before Perseverance. Its number one goal was not to look for signs of life on Mars, but to determine whether Mars was ever habitable. So, in other words, did Mars at some time have the conditions necessary for life to have evolved and thrived? Right. So that was that was the first step. So rather than go and look for signs of life, let’s figure out if Mars even had the conditions necessary for life at some point in its past. And so, Curiosity kind of did demonstrate that convincingly that, yes, Mars was habitable at some point in its past. And so the to me, the logical follow on was the Perseverance Rover. It’s like, okay, we’ve addressed that, that Mars was habitable. Now let’s go look for signs of life on Mars.
KENT DAVIES: The primary objective of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission is to find evidence of life on Mars. This involves studying the surface environment of Mars, examining the conditions that would be favourable to microbial life and seeking preserved signs of biosignatures.[iv]
ED CLOUTIS: And we expect, you know, Mars is a very inhospitable environment right now, but we see a lot of evidence that Mars was much more like the Earth billions of years ago. And so that leads us to the idea that if life arose on Mars, it would have been billions of years ago. But now, as the planet has grown more inhospitable, there’s probably—most of us think there’s probably no chance of active life on Mars, but there could be remains of life on Mars. And it’s probably things like bacteria, you know, algae, single celled organisms that are kind of hard to find. And so, for that reason, the rovers are equipped with a number of scientific instruments that would help in the search for we call them biosignatures. So, in other words, signs of past life on Mars. If we find current life, that’s kind of a bonus, but we’re mostly expecting that we will hopefully find signs of past life on Mars that is now, you know, long dead, but has been preserved or fossilized in some way. Yeah, so that’s the main objective.
KENT DAVIES: Another mission objective is to characterize the geology of Mars. The Perseverance rover is designed to study the rock for the geologic processes that created and modified the Martian surface over time. Each layer of rock on the Martian surface contains a record of the environment in which it was formed. Samples may indicate evidence of rock that formed in water, the chemical building blocks of life.[v]
The Perseverance rover’s instruments are also examining the climate conditions on Mars, looking for evidence of environments where microbial life could have existed in the past and how habitable the red planet could be for humans in the future.[vi]
ED CLOUTIS: So we want to understand things like the radiation environment on the surface of Mars. We want to understand its climate conditions. We want to understand the—there’s some question about whether the dust that’s all over Mars, the windblown dust, might be harmful to humans in some way, whether it’s breathed in, something like that. So, that’s I guess the third objective of the mission is to prepare for human exploration of Mars. So, it’s a pretty ambitious mission, you know, with these three major objectives. So, that’s the reason that it’s equipped with a lot of a lot of different scientific instruments, because we want to hit these multiple objectives.
KENT DAVIES: The process of selecting a landing site for the Perseverance rover was a lengthy one. After combing through more than sixty candidate sites over a five-year period, mission team members and scientists from around the world including Dr. Cloutis, came to a consensus.[vii] Just north of Mars’s equator, the Jezero Crater is a location where scientists posit a twenty-eight-mile-wide lake once existed billions of years ago.[viii]
ED CLOUTIS: So, Jezero Crater was the landing site that was picked for the rover to go to. And there’s a whole range of factors that go into picking a landing site. Number one is always safety, right? We don’t want to land in an area that’s just chock full of boulders that the rover could get stuck in or might crash on or land at an angle and it can’t get off its landing system. So, that’s safety is always number one. And then after that, you want a landing site that’s not at a high elevation because you need the atmosphere to slow down the lander as it comes in. So that’s a thing which means that we generally have to go to lower lying terrains on Mars. And then Jezero Crater was picked because it shows evidence that it’s an old lake. You know, it’s a big basin, right? So, it is like a lake or a sea and there’s evidence of water having flowed into it. So, it deposits a delta. And so, we think that those are our criteria that we want in the search for life on Mars, that, you know, our understanding of terrestrial life is that water is kind of an essential thing. And so, finding a place on Mars that shows evidence of water having been present at some time in the past is a key thing for us.
KENT DAVIES: An area of great geological diversity, the Jezero Crater is one location where remnants of ancient life are more likely to exist.[ix] In order to navigate the Jezero Crater, Perseverance is equipped with the Mastcam-Z, or as Cloutis calls it, in the proper Canadian way, the Mastcam-Z(ed).
ED CLOUTIS: Yeah. So, it’s an instrument called Mastcam-Z or Z(ed). So when we have these team meetings, I insist on calling it Mastcam-Z(ed) and my American colleagues are just used to me doing that.
KENT DAVIES: The Mastcam-Z is a pair of powerful zoomable cameras, that offer a three-dimensional detailed view of the red planet’s surface. Perseverance also uses the Mastcam-Z to photograph, measure, and characterize locations and rock samples during the mission.[x] It’s also responsible for taking the majority of the incredible images of Mars we’ve seen circulating online since Perseverance landed.[xi]
ED CLOUTIS: So, you can think of it as a very high end digital camera. And so, what it does is it collects pictures of the surface. So, you know, it can swivel it’s on an arm. It can look 360 degrees. And we use that as our primary tool for looking at what’s on what’s on the surface of Mars, what kind of rocks, what kind of soil. It’s used to identify where the rover can safely traverse across the surface. So, you know, we want to avoid places that might have deep sand or sand dunes that the rover could get stuck in. We use it to identify targets on Mars, whether they’re rocks or soil, that the rover would then go to analyse with some of the instruments that need to be in contact with the rock that we’re looking at. It’s also the primary tool for planning where the rover will go. How does it get safely from point A to point B? It generates colour images that, you know, how Mars surface would look to us, which is really useful because as geologists, you know, we’re used to seeing things how they appear on the Earth, but it also has the capability to look at the surface in infrared light as well, which gives us additional information about what kind of rocks, what kind of minerals are we looking at on the surface of Mars. So, it’s really the sort of the primary exploration tool to help us identify targets of interest and also plan where the rover should go in its day-to-day operations.
KENT DAVIES: Perseverance also has a drill it uses to collect rock samples in strategic locations, around the base of a delta in the Jezero crater. After a rock is selected and the drill collects a core sample, the material is then deposited in an internal carousel mechanism. The sample is then photographed, analyzed and sealed in tubes that will eventually be retrieved by future missions to Mars.[xii]
ED CLOUTIS: The rover is also equipped with a drill system that they’re using to collect samples on Mars and then leave them on Mars. So, the rover is going to collect samples, drop them off somewhere, what we call a depot. And then around—the plans are still a little fluid, but maybe around 2028 or so, they’re going to send a spacecraft or two to collect those samples and eventually bring them back to Earth. So, it’s a long process, but that’s one of the goals of the mission, is to collect samples for eventual return to Earth.
KENT DAVIES: These samples are vital to the mission, as they likely will have the highest potential for containing signs of ancient microbial life while also providing researchers with information on how the climate and geology has evolved over time on Mars.[xiii]
In the past scientists have learned a great deal about Mars through Martian meteorites. Pieces of the red planet that have travelled here after the planet was struck by an asteroid.[xiv]
ED CLOUTIS: We found meteorites that come from outer space and about at least a hundred of those have come off the surface of Mars. So, when Mars is hit by a big impact by an asteroid, that material gets sprayed everywhere. If the impact is large enough, some of those rocks get blasted off of Mars into space. Right? And so, some of those rocks can and do eventually find their way to earth. They just kind of spiral through the solar system and sometimes they fall on the Earth and we can recover them. So, we have we have samples of Mars already. Right. But they’ve been sitting on the earth. So, they’re not pristine. They, you know, been contaminated by terrestrial organisms and that kind of thing. And so, you know, if rocks can get blasted off of Mars and get to Earth, the reverse can happen that Mars may have samples of the Earth that have been blasted off the Earth by big impacts, and depending on their trajectories, they could possibly find their way to Mars. Right. So that means there is a transfer of material back and forth. Right? And so, if we find life on Mars, there’s always the possibility that they could be terrestrial contaminants, that they’ve come off the earth. So, you know, how do we sort that out? So, let’s say we do find evidence of life on Mars. You know, it’s going to require really sophisticated analysis to say, you know, these things that we found on Mars are unlike anything we found on the Earth or could plausibly have come from the earth.
KENT DAVIES: All the more reason, Cloutis emphasizes the importance of bringing uncontaminated samples back to earth.
ED CLOUTIS: That’s one of the big reasons that we want to bring back samples of Mars because we’re—you know, the mission is meticulous about whatever samples we collect are going to be pristine, uncontaminated by terrestrial organisms. So, the rover has gone through this very convoluted and intensive process of decontaminating it as much as we can so that when the samples do come back in their sealed containers, they have not been exposed to terrestrial contamination. So if we’re going to address this question of did life arise on Mars independent of the earth, we’re going to need to we’re going to need these samples because we’re going to have to throw, you know, really sophisticated analytical tools at these samples. And they’re the kind of instruments that you can’t possibly miniaturize enough to put on a rover. So, if we can show that it’s unique, it’s not derived from the earth, that’s kind of a cool thing. And so that increases the chance that, you know, maybe the universe is full of planets that that have life on them.
KENT DAVIES: And one place the samples may end up is here, The Centre for Terrestrial and Planetary Exploration or C-TAPE at the University of Winnipeg.[xv] C-TAPE is a state-of-the-art facility founded by Cloutis for simulating planetary environments.[xvi] For instance, C-TAPE is home to a chamber that can mimic the surface of Mars, in terms of atmospheric pressure, temperature and a carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere. Before Perseverance launched, Cloutis’ team used the chamber to test equipment that was mounted onto the rover and two rock samples from the C-TAPE lab were also installed on the rover to help with the calibration of the Mastcam-Z.[xvii]
ED CLOUTIS: One of the things that we have tried to specialize in is to develop our lab here at U of W that focuses on being able to reproduce the surface of a planet in a box, right, what with what we call planetary environment chambers. And we also focus on one aspect of exploration that we call spectroscopy, which again, kind of comes back to these digital camera ideas, right? That you look at you look at a surface in wavelengths of light that your eye is not sensitive to. And we’re also very, I guess, agile in terms of if a new potential discovery comes in from a planetary mission, we can fire up our environment chambers, do some experiments and verify or refute a particular potential discovery that’s been made. And so that gives us an ability to participate in multiple missions.
KENT DAVIES: Cloutis also believes the topography and geology of Manitoba has something to offer when it comes to future rover missions. In previous years, Cloutis and a team of UWinnipeg and high school students participated in rover simulated missions around the Lake Saint Martin area.[xviii]
ED CLOUTIS: It’s a very good simulation of I guess of a real mission. For future missions to Mars and the Moon, we need to have qualified people. Right. And so, what I’m doing, and others are doing as well is that we’re exploring places on the earth that have some relevance to Mars and that and as part of that, we involve a lot of students and we do what we call simulated missions. Around Gypsumville, there’s what’s called the Saint Martin Crater. So, 200 million years ago, there was a big impact in central Manitoba that created this big crater. And so, you know, craters are all over the place on the moon and Mars, right? So, it creates this environment that’s to first order kind of like Mars. After the crater formed, water kind of rushed in and precipitated in form various minerals. Most of the crater has been covered up since then by, you know, 200 million years of geology. Right. So, there’s only a few spots there where the original crater is exposed. And so, what we’ve done at Saint Martin and other places is we have a team of students that act as mission control, so they don’t go to the site. Another group of students go to the site and they collect data that a rover would collect. And so we send back pictures. We send back data from our instruments to the science team that’s located here in Winnipeg from our site in Gypsumville. And then the science team that’s here is only seeing the site through the data that we send them. They then help guide the pretend rover that we have. So, you know, they’ll look at the data that we send them and they’ll pick targets that that we then transmit back to the field crew and say, “okay, you guys, the pretend rover crew, you guys go here, check out these rocks that we’ve identified in the pictures, collect some samples here, here and here.” And so, we run it as close to as close to a real mission as we can. And so that gives the students practice in terms of analyzing data from a rover, getting familiar with operations, getting familiar with the fact that you’re not at the site, you know, getting used to the fact that you’re only get—you’re not going to get all the data you ever want, right? You are limited to the data that a rover can provide to you. So that’s part of training, you know, what we call the next generation of planetary scientists.
KENT DAVIES: Cloutis is excited at the prospect of more UWinnipeg students being able to participate in future planetary missions.
ED CLOUTIS: One of the things I’m really proud of is the fact that I can make these opportunities available to UWinnipeg students. You know, and I—I’m often, I’m really jealous of the students, right. Because they get to do the cool stuff. I get to be the bureaucrat, my life is taken up with, you know, shuffling papers, it seems sometimes. But I’m really like I said, I’m very proud of the fact that that, you know, students get a chance to work on these cutting edge, really cool space missions. Right. That has evolved over time because I’ve been involved in planetary exploration for so long. You know, we have developed a really good reputation in terms of our scientific knowledge, integrity, quality of the work we do. And so that’s, you know, that pays increasing benefits to us. So, you know, for, for planetary missions, um, back in the day, I would have to, you know, kind of hustle to get on a mission. But nowadays it’s, it’s much easier, you know, sometimes, you know, colleagues will come to me and say, “Ed, you know, we’re planning a proposal to NASA for a particular mission. Would you be a part of it?” And so that’s a really cool thing, you know? We talk about this a lot. But, you know, in terms of what we do in exploration, we definitely punch above our weight.
KENT DAVIES: So, back to our research question, is there life on Mars? According to Cloutis, while it’s certainly possible, we may need to wait a little longer for a more definitive answer as the samples collected by the Perseverance rover may not arrive back on Earth until sometime after 2030.
ED CLOUTIS: Now, Right now, you know, as we sit here and speak about this, I think I’m pretty optimistic. I think it’s going to be really hard to definitively say what we’re seeing in Jezero Crater is unambiguous evidence of life. Right. You know, even here on the earth, when we look at old rock to old rocks here on the earth. Right. There’s still debate. And, you know, we can apply every. Analytical tool we have at these samples. We can hold them in our hands, we can grind them up. We can do everything with these samples. And there’s still questions about whether some of the old rocks on Earth are showing evidence of life or not. Right. And that’s, again, with every analytical tool at our disposal, with samples in hand. On Mars, it’s tougher. And you know, even if we find something on Mars, unless it’s like, you know, a rabbit jumping in front of the camera, it’s going to be ambiguous about, you know, is this a sign of life or not? So, I think we’re going to prove I guess that life did exist in Mars in the past, I don’t think life currently exists. Curiosity demonstrated that all the conditions for life as we know it on the Earth are present on Mars, running water in the past, you know, the right kind of geology. There’s organic molecules on Mars, which is an important thing. We don’t think they’re necessarily biological, but, you know, we see everything that you would need to have. Life on the earth was present on Mars in the past. So that gives me hope that life could have arisen on Mars. Yeah, but right now it’s such a hostile environment that, you know, organic molecules break down, the radiation that reaches the surface is going to trash organic molecules. There’s just a lot of stuff working against preserving signs of life. It’s a hard thing to do, especially with the limitations of what you could put on a rover. We’re bringing back samples from Jezero Crater, right? We’re going to bring those samples back hopefully by 2030, 2032, but maybe Jezero, you know, turns out to have not hosted life, but maybe life arose in some other places on Mars. Right? So even a negative answer from there doesn’t mean that life was not present on Mars. Just doesn’t happen to be in that place where we got our samples from. So, we’ll see.
KENT DAVIES: You’ve been listening to Research Question. Research Question is produced by the University of Winnipeg Research Office and Oral History Centre.
The University of Winnipeg is located on Treaty 1 Territory, the heartland of the Metis people.
Written, narrated and produced by Kent Davies.
Our theme music is by Lee Rosevere.
For more information regarding Dr. Ed Cloutis’ research publications, please see the selected readings section on our Research Question episode page.
For more on University of Winnipeg research, go to uwinnipeg.ca/research
For more information on the University of Winnipeg oral history centre, and the work that we do, go to oralhistorycentre.ca. Thanks for listening.
[i] Brendan Byrne, “NASA’s Perseverance rover marks its first year hunting for past life on Mars,” National Public Radio, February 18, 2022. Accessed June 1, 2022.
[iv] “Mars 2020 Mission Contributions to NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Science Goal,” NASA, accessed June 1, 2022.
[v] “Mars 2020 Mission Contributions to NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Science Goal,” NASA, accessed June 1, 2022.
[vi] “Mars 2020 Mission Contributions to NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Science Goal,” NASA, accessed June 1, 2022.
[viii] N. Mangold et al. “Perseverance rover reveals an ancient delta-lake system and flood deposits at Jezero crater, Mars.” Science, vol. 374 (October 7, 2021), pp. 711-717.
[xi] J.F. Bell, Ed Cloutis, et al. “The Mars 2020 perseverance rover mast camera zoom (Mastcam-Z) multispectral, stereoscopic imaging investigation.” Space science reviews 217, no. 1 (2021): 1-40; Alexander G. Hayes, Ed Cloutis, et al. “Pre-flight calibration of the Mars 2020 Rover Mastcam Zoom (Mastcam-Z) multispectral, stereoscopic imager.” Space science reviews 217, no. 2 (2021): 1-95; “Mars 2020 Mission Perseverance Rover: Images,” NASA, accessed June 1, 2022.
[xii] William Harwood, “Perseverance Mars rover poised to collect first samples,” CBS News, July 21, 2021. Accessed June 1, 2022.
[xiii] “NASA’s Perseverance Rover Arrives at Delta for New Science Campaign,” NASA, April 19, 2022. Accessed June 1, 2022.
[xiv] Rachel J. Worth, Steinn Sigurdsson, and Christopher H. House. “Seeding life on the moons of the outer planets via lithopanspermia.” Astrobiology 13, no. 12 (2013): 1155-1165; Gerda Horneck et al. “Microbial rock inhabitants survive hypervelocity impacts on Mars-like host planets: first phase of lithopanspermia experimentally tested.” Astrobiology 8, no. 1 (2008): 17-44.
[xv] “Centre For Terrestrial and Planetary Exploration (C-Tape),” UWinnipeg, accessed May 30, 2022.
[xvi] “Centre For Terrestrial and Planetary Exploration (C-Tape),” UWinnipeg, accessed May 30, 2022.
[xviii] Ed Cloutis, Jessica Stromberg, Daniel Applin, Stephanie Connell, Krista Kubanek, Jesse Kuik, Adam Lechowicz et al. “The Lake St. Martin impact structure (Manitoba, Canada): A simulated rover exploration of a sulfate-bearing impact crater.” Planetary and Space Science 208 (2021): 105336.