Under the guidance of John Grotzinger ’79, Sc.D. ’13, mission leader and project scientist in charge of the Mars Science Laboratory, NASA’s Curiosity Rover landed on Martian soil in 2012 to begin exploring the planet’s geologic and organic history. In a paper published this month, NASA announced that Curiosity “has found new evidence preserved in rocks on Mars that suggests the planet could have supported ancient life, as well as new evidence in the Martian atmosphere that relates to the search for current life on the Red Planet.”
These new findings, which appear in the journal Science, build on Grotzinger’s research and innovation, which led to the 2014 discovery of methane and carbon-based organic molecules. In 2013, Grotzinger made history when he confirmed the presence of an environment that could have supported microbial life.
“Organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen, and also may include oxygen, nitrogen and other elements. While commonly associated with life, organic molecules also can be created by non-biological processes and are not necessarily indicators of life,” NASA reported.
The studies published this month also reveal that Curiosity found that the atmospheric methane concentrations on Mars follow season patterns. “Water-rock chemistry might have generated the methane, but scientists cannot rule out the possibility of biological origins. Methane previously had been detected in Mars’ atmosphere in large, unpredictable plumes. This new result shows that low levels of methane within Gale Crater repeatedly peak in warm, summer months and drop in the winter every year,” according to the space agency.
As Grotzinger said in a 2014 New York Times article, the possibility that the methane is the product of living organisms “is one of the few hypotheses that we can propose that we must consider as we go forward…In part, Curiosity was built to explore for organics, and we found them.”
Continuing his involvement with the NASA mission, Grotzinger currently serves as the Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology at the California Institute of Technology, where he also is the Ted and Ginger Jenkins Leadership Chair for the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences. An eminent geologist with wide-ranging interests in sedimentary processes, geobiology and Earth’s early history, Grotzinger has been elected into the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors that can be accorded a U.S. scientist.
Grotzinger, who delivered the 2018 Commencement address, has received a multitude of awards throughout his career, including the National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award, the Fred Donath Medal from the Geological Society of America, the Henno Martin Medal from the Geological Society of Namibia and the Charles Doolittle Walcott Medal by the National Academy of Sciences. He was the recipient of the 2011 Laurence L. Sloss Award from the Geological Society of America for his original and lasting contributions to sedimentary geology. He was also awarded NASA’s Outstanding Public Leadership Medal in recognition of the Curiosity Rover mission’s success, and his work on that project led Popular Mechanics to list him among its 10 Innovators Who Changed the World in 2013.
At Hobart, Grotzinger received a bachelor’s degree in geosciences. He went on to earn an M.S. from the University of Montana and a Ph.D. from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He completed his post-doctoral work at Columbia University.
In 2013, Hobart and William Smith Colleges presented him with an honorary Doctor of Science during Commencement.