5 Top Researchers
Steven D. Tanksley
Steven W. Squyres
Barbara A. Baird
Shahin Rafii
Watt W. Webb
Issue
Winter
2006
Volume
19
Issue
1
Contact
Cornell University
222 Day Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853-2801
 
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F: (607) 255-9030
E: VP Research
C: Credits

At Cornell

Steven W. Squyres
To Answer A Simple Question

Steven W. Squyres

Conducting an Experiment on Mars

Image from Mars RoverThe classic scientific method says this: we go with a hypothesis; we devise an experiment to test the hypothesis; we get the results; we reevaluate the hypothesis; and we do a new experiment. This works well in a lab. It even works sometimes in traditional field sciences, such as field geology or biology. But when we do an experiment on another planet, immediately we run into a host of challenges.

First, the missions are extraordinarily expensive. When it costs almost a billion dollars to conduct a science experiment, there are many factors such as political or practical issues that govern what one can afford to do. When entrusted with this kind of money, a researcher has to be much more conservative than if going on a field trip to do geology some place. So we design our experiment very carefully.

Another factor is we don’t get a chance to do it over. This is a very big deal. We don’t get a chance, once we have answered our first set of questions, to design a new experiment. It took $850 million and 17 years to make this journey to Mars. We can’t say, next time we’re going to do this or that—the process is too lengthy. When we design our experiment, we make it as flexible as we possibly can.

The hypothesis we were testing on Mars is a very straightforward one to state. Did Mars once have environmental conditions on its surface that would have been suitable for life? We wanted to answer that single question. A simple question.

 

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