Behind the Spacecraft: Seeking Signs of Life in Ancient Martian Rocks
When the NASA Perseverance Mars rover lands on the Red Planet, it will be caching rock samples for a future mission to collect and return to Earth. For Mars 2020 Deputy Project Scientist at NASA-JPL Katie Stack Morgan, studying rocks is not only important in the search for ancient life, but it's also a hobby.
Follow Perseverance's journey to Mars: mars.nasa.gov/mars2020
When you go to another planet there's just so much potential for making brand new discoveries. My name is Katie Stack Morgan and I study rocks on other planets. So Mars 2020 will be seeking science of ancient life in the rock record of Mars. The instruments are really well suited to look for things that we call biosignatures which are signs that ancient life might have been there in the past. To really confirm that life had a hand in creating those signatures or textures we really do need to bring those samples back. We have capabilities in laboratories here on Earth that we can't fit in a compact instrument on a rover. This is the Mars Yard and this is where our rovers practice driving over rocky terrain. We work together with the engineers to understand what type of terrain the rover can handle so we can get to the most exciting places which are often the most challenging. Our landing site for Mars 2020 is Jezero Crater. What's really exciting about Jezero is that it has a beautifully preserved Delta. They tend to be a really good place to preserve evidence of past life and we look for things like organic matter that get concentrated in the rocks of a delta. So this rock is a sandstone not unlike a rock that we might actually find in Jezero Crater. We would be interested in sampling a rock like this to understand what each individual sand grain has to tell us about Mars and its evolution. Growing up as a kid we used to go on lots of hikes and would visit national parks for summer vacations so when I found out that I had the opportunity to combine geology and love of the outdoors with exploring rocks on another planet I thought, "You know, this is really the perfect type of thing for me to do." Not only could I work on an interesting science project but I could do it with a big team of people all working together with a focused goal and I thought, "That's what I want to do.
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