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UNLV Professor Part Of NASA's Newest Mars Rover Team

Artist’s depiction of NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artist’s depiction of NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover.

On July 30, NASA will launch its newest Mars rover. 

The $2.7 billion Mars Perseverance is set to land February 2021 with a mission to look for evidence of ancient microbial life on the Red Planet.

UNLV geoscientist Libby Hausrath is part of that exploration project. She was selected as a 'return sample science participating scientist' after submitting a proposal to NASA.

“We’re basically representing the interests of future scientists, who will be analyzing the samples that come back," she told KNPR's State of Nevada.

Unlike other rover missions, the samples Perseverance collects will be brought back to Earth. 

Hausrath said a fetch rover and a launch vehicle will be sent to the surface to collect the samples and then will blast off back to Earth. She said it will be the first time NASA has launched from the surface of another planet.

Bringing them back to Earth will allow scientists to get a more detailed look at them besides the cameras and instruments onboard other rover missions.

“There are actually multiple different kinds of bio-signatures, signatures of past life," Hausrath said, "It can be organic molecules. It can be isotopes that are fractionated by life. It can be chemical or mineralogical signatures or morphology – the shape.”

Before the samples return, scientists will get a good look at what they're made of with chemical analysis and fine-scale cameras on the rover.

“That would be amazing,” Hausrath said of the possibility of finding signs of past life on the Red Planet, “I think it would be so exciting and help us learn so much more about our solar system, potentially more about Earth as well. It would be so exciting.”

While she is excited about the prospect, she's not entirely sure that it exists, but she noted life on Earth exists in harsh conditions like the dryness of the Mojave Desert, the deep freeze of the Arctic and the thermal vents of ocean floor. 

“I don’t know whether it’s there. I think it’s possible that it’s there,” she said.

Besides the main mission of finding signatures of ancient life, Hausrath hopes the mission sparks interest in science, technology, engineering and math in kids.

“I think that is one of the really important aspects of the space program and missions such as this one to Mars is that it does attract children to science and that really benefits all of us when we have more people and the full diversity of people in science,” she said.

Libby Hausrath, associate professor of Geoscience, UNLV. 

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.