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Is there life on Mars? These Aussies are helping NASA find out

“For me, growing up in Brisbane I loved space stuff but I never thought I could do it as a job, but seeing a woman there was kind of an ‘ah-ha!’ moment.

“So I hope that I can do that for some little girl or even little boys in Australia who might want to do this kind of thing.”

Australian astrobiologist Abigail Allwood leads the NASA team searching for life on Mars.

Australian astrobiologist Abigail Allwood leads the NASA team searching for life on Mars.Credit:Anthony Weate/Queensland University of Technology

Dr Allwood has worked at the JPL for years after graduating from the Queensland University of Technology, heading the team that developed and will now analyse data from the rover’s PIXL sensor, one of a suite of instruments and cameras that will gather enormous amounts of data.

PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) will analyse the chemical make-up of Martian rocks at a very fine scale, giving scientists clues about how they were formed.

The rover mission is the first from NASA sent with the explicit purpose of seeking out life on the Martian surface since the Viking probes in the 1970s.

“Viking was basically a needle-in-a-haystack approach, in that they just sent the probe to the planet and didn’t end up finding anything,” Dr Allwood said.

Professor David Flannery from QUT worked at NASA for several years helping to design its Mars 2020 rover.

Professor David Flannery from QUT worked at NASA for several years helping to design its Mars 2020 rover.Credit:QUT

“NASA has spent a long time since then narrowing the window of that approach – where should we land, where should we dig, what assumptions should we make, and also refining the way we actually look for life.”

The data will be sent to Earth to be analysed by researchers including David Flannery, who is based at QUT but who worked at the JPL on the Perseverance project, helping to design PIXL.

Professor Flannery said the team was looking for evidence of microbes having existed thousands of years ago, when Mars was believed to have had liquid water on its surface.

“The areas we’re travelling to are not the sort of areas where life as we know it can survive – the soil is highly irradiated,” he said.

“But if we were to find some evidence of life on Mars, and I think with this upcoming mission we’ve got a good chance, I think it would probably be the most significant scientific discovery of all time.”

Professor Flannery has put together a team of PhD students who will help him analyse the data.

They will look around the Jezero crater, which shows signs of having been flooded thousands of years ago.

Perseverance will also collect and package Martian rock samples to be transported to Earth.

However, Dr Flannery said it would be some time before someone would be able to collect them.

“Getting those samples back will be one of the most challenging technical and scientific endeavours of the next few decades,” he said.

“We have a pretty good idea of how we can get those samples back with a second mission, but that won’t be mounted until at least the 2030s, I would expect.”

Mars 2020 will take about six months to reach Mars, due to land in February.

As it travels and once it touches down, an Australian scientific team will help keep in touch with the mission.

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The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, managed by CSIRO for NASA, will monitor signals from the spacecraft and then help to maintain contact with the rover and the Ingenuity drone, which has been designed to fly through the thin Martian atmosphere.

CDSCC spokesman Glen Nagle said Mars 2020 was the latest in a long line of space missions, dating back to the Apollo moon missions and before, in which Australians were crucial in keeping contact.

“Although it’s a NASA facility, we have an all-Aussie team, and they’re the best in the world at what they do,” he said.

“To be doing these sorts of things, we’re literally making history, and we’re looking forward to February when it lands on Mars and our antennas will come into play again to provide a link right throughout the mission.”

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Dr Allwood said she would measure the success of the mission on what they leave for the next generation of scientists to ponder.

“We’re providing the field notes – you can describe a rock in a million different ways, but if we do a really good job in doing those file notes, they will get passed on to future generations,” she said.

“Some kid in Australia today might end up working on those returned samples, and if they find something they will need those notes, and they’ll need them to be bloody good.”

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