As a researcher studying magmatic rocks, UNLV geoscience professor Arya Udry has had to rely on meteorites catapulting through the solar system and surviving their descent through Earth’s atmosphere to make her work possible.
Now, that’s all about to change.
Udry, who studies Martian meteorites, has been selected as one of 13 participating scientists to join the Mars 2020 Mission — an opportunity that will give her a closer and more refined picture of the Red Planet than she has ever had before.
“The mission is really exciting, because for the first time, we’ll have samples that come directly from the Martian surface,” Udry said.
The Mars Perseverance Rover — whose mission is to look for signs of past life on the Red Planet and determine the potential for future habitation — launched from Earth on July 30 and is currently cruising through space with a scheduled landing date of Feb. 18, 2021.
Once the rover lands, Udry’s work begins. As a participating scientist, her role - along with the other researchers - is to enhance the science contribution of the mission. Each scientist has a different specialty, but she’ll help the rover distinguish magmatic rocks - which are formed from the cooling of magma or lava - from sedimentary or metamorphic rocks and help to further the understanding of how these rocks formed.
“The first step is recognizing them, which is not an easy thing to do when a human is not in the field,” Udry said. “I’ll help the rover to identify them, and I’ll try to understand their composition and their chemistry.”
Studying magmatic rocks from the Martian surface will help Udry and her colleagues better understand the evolution of the Martian interior over time.
“That’s really one of the main goals - to better understand the climate of Mars, and understand the geological evolution of Mars,” Udry said.
Her contributions will support the work of another UNLV geoscience professor, Elisabeth “Libby” Hausrath, who was selected by NASA last year as one of just 15 Returned Sample Participating Scientists for the Mars 2020 Mission. Hausrath is part of the team that will choose which rock and soil samples Perseverance will transport back to Earth, as there’s limited space on the rover. The Mars Return Sample campaign will bring the Martian rocks back to Earth in 2031.
“I hope to advise the team and contribute to discussions regarding sample selection,” Udry said, adding that working on the Mars Mission with Hausrath, her mentor in UNLV’s geoscience department, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Hausrath, too, is looking forward to collaborating with her colleague. MIT, she said, is the only other university to have two participating scientists selected for the Perseverance rover.
"I am just so happy and thrilled that Arya was selected,” Hausrath said. “Only 13 were selected from 119 applicants, and Arya was chosen because she is a great scientist and will contribute so much to the team.”
The news from NASA came just about a year after Hausrath received her invitation to participate in the mission.
“It’s so exciting - it’s been my dream,” Udry said. “I’ve been interested in Martian meteorites since I was 15, and at 32, being selected so young for this mission is incredible.”