University of Nevada at Las Vegas scientist to be among first to see Mars rock samples

LAS VEGAS >> If the Mars Perseverance Rover was lifting off from Cape Canaveral at almost any other time, University of Nevada, Las Vegas geochemistry and astrobiology professor Elisabeth “Libby” Hausrath would have had a front-row seat.

But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Hausrath, one of 10 scientists selected by NASA to study the soil and rock samples that will eventually be returned to Earth from Mars, watched from home when the rocket carrying the rover was launched.

“It’s really too bad, but I’m super excited, whether I’m in Florida or not,” Hausrath told the Las Vegas Review-Journal .

The 2020 Mars mission is the first designed to return to Earth with Martian rocks to be analyzed in laboratories, beginning in 2031.

Hausrath is not the only UNLV scientist deeply invested in better understanding the Red Planet. From geology to human health, researchers in Las Vegas may help unravel mysteries of our planetary neighbor and even pave the way for humans to make the more than 100 million-mile round-trip journey.

Previously the only Martian rocks that geologists have studied in person made it to Earth on their own, as meteorites.

Arya Udry, a UNLV geology professor who studies Martian meteorites, said their chemistry and composition provides glimpses into the planet’s ancient past and how the movement of magma on and below the surface influenced the planet’s geography, much as happened on Earth.

It is believed that there are currently fewer than 200 such rocks being shared by Mars geologists. And since their analyses often require cutting very thin slices or using a pinch of finely ground powder to examine the chemical structures, eventually they will be depleted.

The Mars mission samples will provide an unprecedented glimpse into the planet’s geology. About 31 rock samples, less than a pound total and each roughly the size of a pencil stub, will return to Earth.

Hausrath will be one of the first to study them.

Hausrath studies the way rocks interact with water. Signs of water are evident on Mars, including the presence of valleys and patterns in the dirt discovered during past Mars missions that suggest the planet’s now-hostile environment may have once been suitable to sustain life. No rover, however, can do the complex experiments that scientists on Earth can.

“Mars 2020 is really interested in looking for assessing possible evidence for past life,” Hausrath said.

Like the meteorites, scientists interested in studying the Martian rocks will have to share. In the meantime, NASA’s team of scientists will be monitoring data sent back by the rover to carefully choose which samples make the return journey.

Much of the data will eventually become publicly available for scientists like Udry and UNLV professor Christopher Adcock to use for computer modeling to answer their own questions about Mars geology.

Adcock, a planetary geochemist, is investigating the chemical building blocks for life, in his case, phosphates. Phosphates are required for life by holding DNA together and acting as a key ingredient for metabolism.

“It has some very unique properties that make it irreplaceable, so to speak,” Adcock says. “We can’t really use other compounds to substitute for it.”

Phosphates, chemical compounds that contain phosphorus, come from rocks and minerals. Adcock uses data gathered by previous Mars rovers, including Spirit and Opportunity, to create computer models to discover how phosphates transform over time.

“The phosphates are locked up inside minerals, so we study how it gets out of those rocks and into the environment so that it could possibly be overtaken by biology,” Adcock said. “Things can take a really long time in nature. So we put them into models so we can speed them up.”

While Adcock examines whether life could have previously existed on Mars, other researchers are dedicated to making the distant planet habitable for humans, at least in the short term.

Francis “Frank” Cucinotta, a UNLV health physics professor, studies one of many dangers deep space poses to humans: radiation.

The effects of radiation on Earth, from, for instance, a nuclear explosion, are most commonly associated with cancer. Studies say astronauts will be at risk of brain damage when exposed over the years a Mars mission would take.

Cucinotta is most concerned with cosmic radiation, essentially atoms that move through space at close to the speed of light. Unlike solar radiation, blocking cosmic radiation would require a barrier at least hundreds of inches thick. Earth’s atmosphere, hundreds of miles thick, keeps this dangerous radiation away from us.

Cucinotta’s research suggests the risks of developing cancer and cognitive issues during deep space travel is greater than originally thought. During a manned mission to Mars, the exposure to dangerous radiation could be as much as five times higher than any of NASA’s past manned missions, he said.

Answers to questions about whether there has ever been life on Mars, if humans will be able to support themselves there, about chemicals like phosphates or about how water interacts with the planet’s surface might eventually fit together to finally answer cosmic quandaries.

“Proving that there is life on Mars or there has been life on Mars is not something that will probably come with a single discovery,” Adcock said. “It will most likely require a large number of smaller discoveries.”

But with Mars geologists working together to study the planet from different angles, the answers may come sooner rather than later.

“Planetary science in general is one of those sciences that almost requires an interdisciplinary approach,” Adcock said. “We’re dealing with instruments. We’re dealing with natural physical materials like rocks and soil. We’re dealing with meteorites. We’re dealing with chemical experiments. … We bring them all together and then we can solve problems that on our own we probably wouldn’t have been able to solve.”

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