Mars star

Local teacher Roger Spears attends Mars research project in Mojave Desert

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Life on Mars?

Roger Spears is a believer, especially after his weeklong trip to the Mojave Desert last week through NASA's Spaceward Bound program.

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He was one of 110 participants, including 40 teachers from around the country and the world, to attend the conference March 25 to 30.

The others were scientists and graduate students. Spears was the lone Coloradan on the project.

Spears teaches physics, chemistry and earth science at Moffat County High School and astrology and geology at Colorado Northwestern Community College.

"It was remarkable," he said. "It was a wonderful experience."

Spears and the other conference participants worked at a California State University research center to gather samples and complete tests in an area defined as extreme, based on dryness and temperature.

"We wanted to put some analogs together for Earth, the moon and Mars to see what similarities there are between them," Spears said. "Now they have a dozen more research projects just from what we got this past week."

He noted the existence of algae, fungi and lichen that adapted to the unusual habitat of the Mojave Desert by seeking refuge from the sun and places to access moisture or water.

"If we're looking for life on Mars, we shouldn't be looking for life that's humanoid. We should be looking for life that's very simple," Spears said.

The group also detected life in lava tubes, or caves created by now-extinct volcanoes, in the Mojave Desert area.

"They're finding life forms in caves that are just unbelievable," Spears said. "We have just found lava tubes on Mars."

Spears said the conference participants used a remote-sensing camera attached to full-size hot air balloons to detect six lava tube skylights never detected before at the Spaceward Bound conference.

Such lava tubes on Mars could be used as a base camp for astronauts in the future, Spears said.

With robotics work and DNA testing in the field, the Spaceward Bound conference offered more in-depth, exciting research than what Spears completed in college.

"This is all leading edge, all brand new stuff," Spears said. "It kind of gives you a bug. It makes you itchy to do more."

Spears was selected to participate in the conference because of his Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers membership. He was in the final 200 of 27,000 applicants for NASA's program to send three teachers into space.

Those 200 finalists are now part of NEAT.

"They basically use us as a door to inform everyone about what NASA is doing," Spears said.

That mission particularly focuses on students, Spears said. So part of the Spaceward Bound experience is presenting his photos and findings to local students, who Spears said need to realize there's more to life outside of Craig. He hopes to inspire some

to consider careers in science.

"It's our jobs as teachers to say to our students ... 'this is an exciting opportunity,'" Spears said. "You need to do well in school and go to college, and you never know what's going to

happen next."

Spears said considering the research being done and NASA's focus on returning to the moon and Mars, today's youths will likely make history someday soon.

"Somewhere -- maybe even in Craig -- there's a fifth- or sixth-grader who could be the first one to step on Mars," Spears said.

"And I think that's pretty cool."

Michelle Perry can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 213, or mperry@craigdailypress.com.

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