Western professor working to break new ground in NASA’s 2020 mission

By Chris Johansen

With howling winds, brutally cold temperatures, a barren desert with vast mountain ranges and ravines where the laws of physics prohibit liquid water from ever existing, planet Mars holds mysteries of potential previous life and maybe even habitable landscapes.

Assistant professor Melissa Rice researches planetary science at Western and was a NASA team member, has been mapping out areas of Mars in efforts to break new ground in the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission.

For the first time ever, NASA will collect samples from the surface of Mars and Western is playing a role in this new frontier. These samples will tell scientists more about the ancient landscapes of Mars and its nearly five-billion-year-old history.

In her May 28 talk, “Mapping Mars: Our Evolving Vision of the Big Red Planet – Part II” at Wilson Library in the Map Collection department, Rice focused on how mapping out the geological surface of Mars will help to find the best places for the next rover to land safely.

Scientists believe that Mars once had large rivers and oceans of water, Rice said. These samples will give NASA a closer look at the geological and biological makeup of Mars. The journey through space to the planet will take approximately seven months, according to Rice.

The entire mission to roam, collect, retrieve and transport these samples back to Earth could take up to 20 years, Rice said.

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission will be launching the rover into space to land on the big red planet. A rover is similar to a car, except this car is nuclear powered and is designed to take its own pictures, as well as collect data from other planets, according to Rice.

Currently, there is a fleet of space crafts surrounding Mars, surveying it’s deep valleys and cloud breaking mountains. The fleet is collecting imagery of all different types: thermal, topical and from different angles and resolutions, Rice said.

“If you were to just send a spacecraft with a rover to Mars without carefully selecting where on Mars you would like it to land, it could easily land on the side of a mountain and tumble off,” Rice said.

According to Rice, the ability to explore Mars is significant, because it means being able to compare the geography and minerals on Mars to planet Earth. This mission aims to  uncover habitable and previously inhabited land on Mars, said Rice.

It’s a sense of curiosity for science, adventure, discovery and human potential that drives Rice to continue this frontier on Mars.

“It has that stark-naked beauty of the land that the American Southwest does. A lot of our pictures from our rovers look like Ansel Adams could have taken them in Death Valley,” Rice said.

Rice discovered a passion for astronomy in high school and carried that interest into her college career. Rice realized what she knew about space and stars were the equations and theoretical constructs. Sparking her curiosity of geology, Rice merged her two passions of study in to what is called planetary geology. Planetary geology is a way to look at Earth’s land formations in order to relate them to geological processes taking place on other planets.

Rice sought to understand her daily physical experiences with landscapes, vistas and rock formations to compare them to geological formations on other planets.

“This glimpse of the surface of Mars has been a mystery for all of humanity and I get to be the first, if not one of very few, set of eyes on it,” Rice said.

Graduate student Cory Hughes is currently studying orbital geological analysis in pursuit of his master’s degree at Western. He is working under Rice to learn about whether or not life ever existed on Mars.

“Our current understanding of life is that you need water for life,” Hughes said.

According to Hughes, there are some rocks in this crater that are consistent with interacting with water. This can be observed by comparing rocks on earth that interact with water to that of rocks on Mars.

Another Western graduate student working with Rice is Katelyn Frizzell, who is pursuing her masters in the planetary sciences, said Mars is a comparable model to Earth in some ways.

“Mars is a good analog for early Earth, and what could happen to Earth if we lost our atmosphere over time,” Frizzell said.

Rice came to Bellingham to teach at Western not only for its beautiful scenery, but to also provide opportunity for students in the world of planetary sciences.

“I came to Western because I wanted to be at a place where I could continue to be involved with space exploration and NASA Mars rover missions, but also to bring students on board to those missions as well.”

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