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UNLV Team Part Of Mission To Find Life On Mars

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(NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)

This photo provided by NASA shows the first color image sent by the Perseverance Mars rover after its landing on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.

NASA’s Perseverance Rover spent seven months traveling 292 million miles to Mars.

Perseverance landed last week, and now it starts its mission to collect samples to return to earth. Researchers hope to learn about the history of The Red Planet and see if there are any signs of life there.

Two of those geoscientists are based right here at UNLV. Libby Hausrath is part of the return sample scientists team that will be evaluating samples collected by the rover to see if they would be important enough to bring back to Earth.

“We will be looking at the data that the instruments collect," she said, "There will be images and also chemistry and mineralogy of the samples. And so, based on that, we will be able to choose samples that can be sampled and cached and then returned to Earth.”

Perseverance will not be coming back to Earth. In either 2026 or 2028, another craft will be sent to Mars, collect the samples from Perseverance and then blast off and return to Earth.

For now, Hausrath and her team will be looking for samples that have the highest impact on some important scientific questions.

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Perhaps the biggest question they'll be trying to answer is: Are there any signs of ancient life on Mars?

“So, we will be selecting samples that have evidence for past habitability," she said, "So evidence of past liquid water, which is necessary for all life as we know it, nutrients, energy sources, as well as, the potential to preserve evidence of past life – biosignature preservation potential.”

The rover landed in what is known as the Jezero Crater. Hausrath said the crater was picked because there is evidence that a lake filled the crater at some point. Liquid water is necessary for life, which makes the crater a candidate for research.

In addition, the mineral content of the area, mainly clay, detected from orbit could make it a place for biosignatures, that is evidence leftover from ancient life, could still be there, she said.

When the samples are brought back to Earth, Hausrath said they will be about the size of a piece of chalk, but the size of the sample doesn't really matter.

“They are relatively small, but back on Earth, we will be able to analyze them using techniques that use just a tiny grain," she said, "Although the samples will be small, the techniques will be able to analyze even smaller pieces of the sample.”

There will also be several precautions to make sure the samples don't bring something unwanted back to Earth and so that something from Earth doesn't contaminate Mars' environment.

“Once they’re received, they will be contained in special facilities to deal with any potential risk from the samples,” she said.

Besides looking for ancient life, the mission is vital in NASA's efforts to advance human exploration, Hausrath said. There is important information that can be gained from knowing more about the planet's surface.

She noted that moon dust gathered by astronauts proved to be a lot sharper than expected. In fact, it cut through spacesuits. 

“It would be very useful to know if there is anything about Mars dust or soil that would be relevant to human exploration. It would be very useful to know that ahead of time,” she said.

Plus, launching soil and rock samples from a planet back to Earth is a good first step to launching humans. There is also the effort of finding out if resources on Mars could be used in further human exploration, she said. 

There is no telling exactly what scientists will find when they're able to test the Mars samples, but Hausrath believes it would be amazing to find some signs of life.

“It would just open up all these questions and lines of inquiry," she said, "It would allow us to ask questions that we haven’t been able to ask. We would be looking at questions that we didn’t even existed. It would be just fascinating,” she said.

Guests

Libby Hausrath, Geoscientist and Associate Professor, UNLV

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