Purdue professor part of NASA Mars rover team

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Briony Horgan of Purdue University.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WTWO/WAWV) — NASA rover Perseverance streaked through Martian skies and landed on the planet Thursday in a risky maneuver that’s part of a quest to bring back rocks that could answer whether life ever existed on Mars. And a Purdue University professor is a key part of the team overseeing the mission.

The scientifically important landing site within Jezero Crater was selected by NASA following a presentation by Briony Horgan, Purdue University associate professor of planetary science, who is a member of the Perseverance science team. Horgan led a study of the mineralogy of the site, which produced one of the major results that contributed to its selection. She was also on the team that designed the camera that will be the scientific eyes for Perseverance.

Horgan selected Jezero Crater for the rover’s landing site.

The primary mission of the Perseverance rover is to look for signs of past life on Mars. Horgan and her colleagues approach the work like forensic detectives, looking for clues and literally microscopic bits of evidence.

If there had been life on the Red Planet, it would have left behind chemical clues that the scientists hope can still be found in the rock.

“The goal of this mission is to look for signs of ancient life on Mars and then also collect samples for future return to Earth, Horgan says. “It’s possibly the only chance we’ll ever have to get to do both of those things, especially the sample return. It’s really hard to do, and it’s expensive.

“We know we might only have this one chance to do this, and it was tough to select the site. If we had to choose just one spot on Earth to gather all the data about the entire history of the planet — well, where would you go? But we think Jezero Crater is the best location to search for evidence that life existed on Mars, if it ever did. And what we find will help us learn more about whether or not we are alone in the universe.”

Perseverance will spend its time taking photographs, video, pulverizing rock by shooting lasers (so that scientists can determine the chemical composition), using microscopes to search for organic molecules, drilling, analyzing and doing a variety of science chores. This will produce enormous volumes of data that will take the scientists years to analyze.

NASA plans to send a return mission in the next decade to retrieve the samples, which will be stored in Perseverance.

“Bringing samples back from Mars would be amazing,” Horgan says. “It would not only be a feat of engineering to retrieve the samples and return them, but it would be the first time we would have samples brought back to Earth from another planet. That would be quite historic.”

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