Silver, bug-eyed extraterrestrials zooming across the cosmos in bullet-speed spaceships. Green, oval-faced creatures hiding out in a secret fortress at Nevada’s Area 51 base. Cartoonish, throaty-voiced relatives of Marvin the Martian who don armor and Spartan-style helmets.
We humans are fascinated with the possibility of life on the Red Planet.
One UNLV geoscientist, Elisabeth “Libby” Hausrath, is on a mission to find out if there’s any truth behind our leather-bound and silver-screen musings. She’s among an international panel of 10 North American and five European scientists tapped by NASA to help design and implement the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission, and select which rock and soil samples the rover will grab (and eventually return to Earth) as it combs the planet for signs of life.
We caught up with Hausrath for a behind-the-scenes look at the rover mission and its significance, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the project, and how she hopes her participation inspires girls, young women, and anyone interested in science.
What is the Mars 2020 rover mission, and what is your role in it?
The Mars 2020 rover Perseverance will be landing on Feb. 18, 2021 in Jezero crater, Mars. One of its primary goals is to seek signs of past life, and to collect samples for return from Mars to Earth. These will be the first samples returned to Earth from Mars, and will provide incredible, exciting new information about Mars. I am a Returned Sample Science Participating Scientist, which means I am part of the Mars 2020 science team, and my job is to help select the samples for return. I am very excited to be participating in this mission!
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the Mars 2020 launch?
The COVID-19 pandemic pushed back the rover launch date several times to late July. It’s also meant that we, the science team, have been working remotely. Of course, I and many others would have been working remotely anyway, since the science team contains people from all over the country and the world, but it has meant that on our teleconferences sometimes people have their children running and talking in the background! NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory actually filmed one of our teleconferences (scroll to 24:28 for a glimpse of Hausrath in the lower left corner) to show as part of the activities for the Mars 2020 launch, and to document how we are working in this unprecedented time.
How long will it take Perseverance to reach Mars, and how long will it be stationed there?
Perseverance will leave Earth during its launch window of July 30 to Aug. 15, 2020, and will land on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021, so it will take about seven months to arrive there. Its mission will be at least one Mars year, which is about 687 Earth days.
Perseverance will land at Jezero crater, which was chosen because it used to be a lake, and was therefore likely a habitable environment where evidence of past life could have been preserved. We will select samples for return to Earth that can tell us about this past lake, and any potential past life that may have lived there.
Does your team already have in mind what specific kinds of samples you're looking for, and why?
Yes, we are currently going through a selection process to determine which kinds of samples would be the most ideal to collect once we land. I am co-leading the subgroup planning for the Jezero crater delta, and I am also currently helping construct the document we will fill out with different measurements once we collect the soil and rock samples.
When the samples are returned to Earth during the second phase of the mission, who will be in charge of storing them and distributing them to scientists for research?
Since the Mars samples will be international treasures, they will be stored in a curation facility similar to the 2,196 lunar samples collected during the Apollo missions, and distributed to scientists for research, similar to the way Mars meteorites are currently distributed.
What will it be like to witness the launch of Perseverance, knowing that you're part of this historic moment?
I am so excited to watch Perseverance launch! It's amazing to know that it will be landing on a planet so far away from Earth that, to the naked eye, it looks like a tiny dot in the sky! I am also happy because enthusiasm about space translates into excitement about science, which can help encourage a large number of young people to study science — greatly benefiting society.
Originally there was going to be a Mars 2020 science team meeting in Florida, and we were all going to be able to watch the launch together in person. However, due to COVID-19, the in-person team meeting has been cancelled. However, there is still going to be a remote team meeting, and the launch is incredibly exciting whether we get to be there in person or not!
Have you always been into space and Mars, even as a child? Early in your career, did you envision participating in a mission like this as a goal?
I actually was interested in all sorts of things when I was younger — reading, music, history, as well as science. I didn't really decide I wanted to be a scientist until I was in college. I have been working towards participating in a mission like this for about 15 years, but it always seemed like a far off dream. I can't believe it is actually happening!
What's your message to girls and young women considering careers in science?
I would strongly encourage girls, young women, and everybody who is interested in science to pursue their dreams and to persevere. Science benefits — and we all benefit — when talented scientists from all backgrounds are included and encouraged to participate. You also don't have to know from a young age that you want to be a scientist — I didn't, for example. I hope that the full diversity of people will pursue science, and I encourage everybody to persevere (the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover is well named — that is what science takes), even when it is difficult. Science is hard for everybody, so when it is hard for you, too, that is normal. You can reach out for help, and keep working at it; it doesn't mean that you aren't good enough to do science. Please persevere!