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Visitors have Martian experience in Death Valley

March 8, 2013

MarsFest participants take a trip to Mars Hill in Death Valley National Park during the recent event aimed at exploring the Red Planet. Photo courtesy Death Valley National Park

Hundreds of science fans recently got the best idea of what life on Mars could be like and how scientists are researching the red planet, all without ever having to leave Earth.
During the second Mars Festival in Death Valley National Park, visitors had an opportunity to hear NASA scientists, go to “Mars Hill,” look down into a hydro-magmatic crater and learn about microbes in the muck at Badwater Basin.
The event included presenters from several institutions who highlighted current research being conducted both in Death Valley and on Mars. 
According to the National Park Service, the keynote speaker, Dr. Chris McKay from NASA and the SETI Institute, focused on the prospects of finding organic materials on the red planet, the building blocks of life as we know it. “If found, it could provide the basis for determining the habitability of Mars,” the NPS said.
McKay also spoke about the knowledge gained from the first 200 days since the Curiosity rover landed there last year.
The annual festival is a partnership between the NPS and several NASA centers and NASA-sponsored research arms (the Carl Sagan Center/SETI Institute, Ames Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) to bring scientists and the public together to explore America’s forays into space.
“The goal of MarsFest is to raise public awareness about planetary research taking place on Earth as well as celebrate the scientific endeavor of the Mars Science Laboratory Mission,” a press release from Death Valley National Park states. “The extreme environments in Death Valley National Park make it the next best place to Mars itself. For decades, planetary scientists have come to the park to conduct research and instrument testing amid the sand and rocks here.” 
During the festival, visitors were allowed to operate a mini-rover on the Visitor Center patio, and to learn how the Curiosity can drill holes in rocks – and even change out the drill bit if needed.
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