October 6, 1996 in Nation/World

Interest In Mars Finds New Life Exhibit Expected To Be Very Popular

Associated Press

The possibility we are not alone in the universe has tantalized earthlings for years, and NASA’s recent announcement that scientists found life in a Martian rock has provided the first evidence that it may not be just a science fiction fantasy.

“We’re learning that we’re not special, we’re just cosmic dust like everyone else out there,” said Neil de Grasse Tyson, director of the Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, which is opening an exhibit on our neighboring planet this weekend.

The actual potato-sized rock in which researchers discovered evidence of Martian life isn’t in the exhibit - scientists are still examining it - but astronomy buffs can see four other meteorites from the red planet. The centerpiece is full-scale models of two Mars space probes scheduled to be launched by NASA in December.

The discovery of life on Mars “would be a turning point of civilization,” said Martin Prinz, director of the museum’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “It boggles the imagination. There’s every reason to believe that life should exist other places than on earth.”

The museum is riding a wave of excitement generated by the Aug. 7 announcement that a rock found in an Antarctic ice field, apparently from Mars, contains organic compounds common to life.

Researchers believe the rock was blasted out of Mars 16 million years ago when debris hit that planet, and after orbiting for eons, landed in an icefield 13,000 years ago.

NASA already had planned to send 10 spacecraft to the red planet over the next decade to try to prove or disprove whether primitive life ever existed there. Hanging in the museum are two probes that will be part of the Pathfinder spacecraft that goes up in December.

The Pathfinder looks like a 3-foot aluminum box flanked by blue solar energy-generating panels, will send data about Mars’ atmospheric conditions back to Earth. Splitting off from the Pathfinder is the Pathfinder Rover, which will go to the lunar surface.

The Mars exhibit also features enlarged pictures of the Mars rock that sparked the excitement, a video explaining why it provides evidence of life, a display of the Viking mission and images of Mars. It runs through Dec. 31.

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