Earth and Planets Laboratory Goes to Mars Again

Carnegie on Mars Perseverance Touchdown
Hanging from a parachute about the Martian landscape, NASA’s Perseverance rover can be seen falling through the Martian atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL
Monday, February 22, 2021 

Last week, NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover made it safely to Mars. Now, the fun begins! 

Perseverance is the most sophisticated rover NASA has ever sent to the Red Planet. It arrived with cutting-edge tools, including a helicopter named Ingenuity—the first aircraft to attempt powered, controlled flight on another planet!

Carnegie staff astrobiologist Andrew Steele has been involved in many aspects of the Perseverance mission so far—including as a part of the Science Definition Team (along with our former Director Lindy Elkins-Tanton) that originally defined the mission. He is also on several review boards and working groups related to planetary protection and sample return for the M2020 mission. 

Steele commented, “Our journey to Mars is a part of a broader exploration of our own origins on this planet, as well as trying to answer another one of science's oldest questions: ‘Are we alone?'".

Instrumentation diagram of NASA's Perseverance rover. Credit: NASA

It’s elementary my dear

Steele and his lab member Pamela Conrad are co-investigators on the rover's SHERLOC instrument, which will use a microscope as well as laser spectroscopy to search for organic molecules and minerals that have been altered by watery environments and may be signs of past microbial life. 

Steele’s previous work on Martian rocks delivered to Earth as meteorites and on the current NASA Curiosity mission revealed the presence of organic materials made by non-biological processes on Mars—setting a baseline for SHERLOCs current search for ancient life. These terrestrial laboratory investigations have also prepared Steele for another role on the mission as part of the Return Sample Science working group. This group will help analyze the drilled samples of rock and dirt that Perseverance brings back to Earth.

Conrad is also a co-investigator on SHERLOC's partner instrument, WATSON—a color camera for taking close-up images of rock grains and surface textures—and on an instrument called MEDA, which will act as a weather station and characterize Martian dusts. She will be working on Mars time for the next three months as she serves on a rotating daily basis as a tactical science lead, sending instructions to Perseverance. 

Morrison wants to use the red planet to inspire students across the nation. For several years, she has worked with a local 8th grade Earth Science teacher in Virginia to develop the popular Mission to Mars curriculum.  

Challenge accepted

The astrobiology lab isn’t the only group on campus with its eyes on Mars. Martian mineralogist and planetary scientist Shaunna Morrison has been a co-investigator on the Curiosity mission since 2012. In 2018, Morrison developed a way to glean more information from the Mars Curiosity Rover's Chemistry and Mineralogy Instrument, allowing scientists to understand Martian mineralogical history and potential for habitability in unprecedented detail.

Now, Morrison wants to use the red planet to inspire students across the nation. For several years, she has worked with a local 8th grade Earth Science teacher in Virginia to develop the popular Mission to Mars curriculum.  

The curriculum was extremely successful and led to an unprecedented increase in Earth Science state testing scores. Last year, the team adapted it to a National 4-H grant solicitation for their annual STEM Challenge—and their proposal was accepted! From that proposal, Morrison developed the 2020 STEM Challenge: Mars Basecamp outreach project in conjunction with Google, Bayer, the US Air Force, Toyota, and NASA.

“Our spokesperson is Bill Nye,” Morrison said. “my childhood dreams have come true!”

The program provides a collection of activities that teaches kids ages 8-14 STEM skills like mechanical engineering, physics, computer science, and agriculture. 

Whether problem-solving in a classroom or following along with Martian missions, the successful landing of Perseverance on Mars is certain to inspire students and scientists alike. 

Videos About the Mission: 

Mars Rover Landing Virtual Watch Party

Relive the magic of a successful mission! Andrew Steele discusses Perseverance's instrumentation during the RPI's Mars Rover Landing Watch Party. 

Mission to Mars: Exploring Martian Habitability through Mineralogy

Shaunna Morrison explains what Martian mineralogy can tell us about our red neighbor.