Two researchers from The Open University are part of the current mission to explore whether Mars was ever able to support life. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) landed on the planet earlier this month.Dr Susanne Schwenzer from The Open University’s Centre for Earth, Planetary, Space and Astronomical Research (CEPSAR), is part of a team studying minerals formed when hot or cold water interacts with rocks on Mars.
“We already know that there is water on Mars,” she said ahead of the venture. “Now, we want to know the temperature of the water and whether it is clean and supportive of potential life - or if it is poisonous. We also want to know if Mars has niches where microbial life could have existed.”
Dr Schwenzer joins a mission led by Dr John Bridges, Reader in Planetary Science at the University of Leicester.
Dr Stephen Lewis, senior lecturer in CEPSAR, has been working with the NASA team over the last five years to study the atmospheric conditions and weather above the landing site. He said: “Just like weather forecasts on Earth, we have to predict what is going to happen on Mars when the lander arrives, so it can enter the atmosphere, descend and land safely.”
The Mars Science Laboratory mission, landing NASA’s most advanced planetary rover called Curiosity, is deploying the most powerful suite of instruments yet sent to the Red Planet. The rover has just begun two years of unprecedented scientific detective work.
NASA said: “Curiosity is carrying the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface. The rover will analyse a dozen or so samples scooped from the soil and extracted from rocks.
“The record of the planet's climate and geology is essentially ‘written in the rocks and soil’– in their formation, structure, and chemical composition. The rover's onboard laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to decide if the conditions on Mars were able to support microbial life.”
The success of the project is a critical milestone toward the goal of sending humans to Mars by 2030.
• PHOTOGRAPH: Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., celebrate the landing of NASA's Curiosity rover on the Red Planet. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech