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UC astrobiologist helps NASA look for life on Mars

Andy Czaja is on the science team that will explore Mars with advanced rover

The world’s most advanced rover will look for evidence of ancient life on Mars with the help of a University of Cincinnati astrobiologist.

The six-wheeled rover called Perseverance is scheduled for launch July 30 from Kennedy Space Center aboard an enormous Atlas V rocket designed for interplanetary flight. It will take the partially autonomous robot more than six months to reach Mars.

Its mission: to look for signs of ancient life on the red planet and collect samples for future study on Earth.

Andy Czaja, an associate professor of geology in UC’s College of Arts and Sciences, serves on the NASA science team that is trying once and for all to confirm we are not alone in the universe by finding signs of ancient extraterrestrial life.

“If life forms separately on two planets in one solar system, that means it’s fairly easy for life to get started,” Czaja said. “And if we can prove Mars witnessed a separate origin of life, that’s very exciting. It means we have a high probability of finding life elsewhere in the universe, too.”

The project shows UC's commitment to research as described in its strategic direction called Next Lives Here.

Andy Czaja points to fossilized stromatolites in a rock that are evidence of ancient life.

UC associate professor Andy Czaja helped NASA decide where on Mars to send its most advanced rover. Now he will serve on the science team using the rover to look for evidence of ancient life on the red planet. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand

Picking a destination

Czaja is an expert in Precambrian paleobiology, astrobiology and biogeochemistry. He studies the early evolution of life on Earth in his geology lab at UC. In 2012, shortly before joining UC, he stayed up late to watch the landing of Curiosity on the surface of Mars. With the words “touchdown confirmed,” the control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory erupted into jubilant whoops and hugs.

Now he will be part of NASA’s next chapter of Mars exploration.

Czaja served on a NASA committee, the Returned Sample Science Board, that helped to choose Perseverance’s landing site called Jezero Crater. The 28-mile-wide crater contains what scientists say is a former river delta near the Martian equator.

“It’s a very good choice because the crater formed very early in Mars history,” Czaja said.

There are so many big questions we have about this place.

Andy Czaja, UC associate professor of geology

Best of all, scientists believe it was full of water at one time.

“It was a crater lake,” Czaja said. “Water flowed flowed off the landscape into the crater and deposited a mass of sediment at the mouth of the river, like the Mississippi River Delta.”

Perseverance and the NASA team will undertake the most thorough and sophisticated examination for life on Mars to date.

Among other tasks, Perseverance will look for fossils long buried in the clay of the delta, Czaja said.

“If microbes were living there, they would fall onto the lake bottom and get buried. The fine-grained particles act to seal everything in and trap it. This happens on Earth,” he said.

An Atlas rocket takes off from the launchpad.

NASA will use an Atlas rocket like this one to launch Perseverance to Mars on July 30, weather permitting. Photo/Bill Ingalls/NASA

Ancient life on Earth

Compared to Earth, the surface of Mars has seen far less erosion and active geological disturbance from plate tectonics. So if any evidence of life were deposited in those lake bottoms, it likely is still there, he said.

Andy Czaja sits at a microscope in his UC geology lab.

Andy Czaja works in his UC geology lab. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand

“Earth is extremely active with plates moving and colliding and mountains eroding and rain and wind and new oceans forming over millions and billions of years. Mars has been mostly inactive for billions of years,” he said.

The shallowest part of Jezero Crater might have evidence of carbonates that could provide evidence of ancient life on Mars. Czaja and his colleagues also will look for stromatolites, ancient rocks typically made of carbonate. On Earth, they form through the layering of year after year of photosynthetic bacteria.

The microbes secrete a sticky mat that binds with sediment and creates visible layers that persist long after the microbes have died and provide evidence of ancient life on Earth.

Stromatolites found in Australia date back more than 3.5 billion years, Czaja said.

The team also will look for evidence of organic carbon in the rocks.

“Organic carbon isn’t a slam dunk for life, but it’s consistent with life and would be an exciting find,” he said.

An artist's rendering of NASA's new rover Perseverance with its sidekick helicopter called Ingenuity.

An artist's rendering of the rover Perseverance with its sidekick, Ingenuity, a 4-pound helicopter that will test powered flight on Mars. Illustration/NASA-JPL-Caltech

Breaking new ground

Jezero Crater also holds tantalizing possibilities for geologists as the possible site of former hot springs. Czaja and his students have studied hot springs in places like Yellowstone National Park to gain insight into ancient life on Earth.

“There are so many big questions we have about this place,” he said.

When you think of a fossil, you might imagine trilobites or the hard shells of brachiopods or even dinosaurs. But Czaja said the fossils Perseverance can search for are microscopic — single-celled organisms like those found on Earth that gave rise to nature’s varied splendor.

“It’s probably not reasonable to think you’ll find fossils that you can see with the naked eye,” he said. “But you can’t have larger organisms without microbial life. So if life was on Mars, you would expect to find evidence of microbial life.”

An artist's rendering of the twin-rotor helicopter Ingenuity as it might look taking off on Mars.

Ingenuity, the first interplanetary helicopter, will stow away in the belly of Perseverance for deployment on Mars. Illustration/NASA-JPL-Caltech

Also new to the mission: The rover will carry its own payload, an autonomous helicopter called Ingenuity that will be deployed to test powered flight in the thin Martian atmosphere. Similar aircraft could be useful tools for future science missions.

Perseverance is scheduled to land on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021, using a “sky crane,” a rocket-powered platform that hovers over the Martian surface and deploys the rover gently using tethers.

“Parachutes don’t work as well in a thin Martian atmosphere,” Czaja explained.

NASA also will collect data on Mars’ geology and climate. It will collect promising samples chosen by scientists, place the samples in special containers and store them on the surface for a future retrieval mission.

But the rover’s suite of instruments will allow it to test the feasibility of harvesting local oxygen in the atmosphere for use as rocket propellant or breathable air. And like NASA’s other rovers, Perseverance will be able to document its mission with 19 cameras to capture the landscape and get detailed views of the Martian surface.

Video link:

Perseverance is the largest, heaviest rover NASA has ever built. It’s one of the world’s most advanced autonomous robots.

“The more autonomous the rover can be, the better,” Czaja said. “It will be much faster than the last rover, Curiosity. It can cover much more distance in a shorter time because it has a better autonomous navigation system.”

NASA landed the rover Curiosity on Mars in 2012. It continues to provide images of Mars as it, too, searches for evidence of past microbial life. NASA said Curiosity is taking a “summer road trip” to navigate around a treacherous mile-long sand pit so it can continue its exploration.

Previously, NASA explored Mars with the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which landed in 2004. In 1997, NASA deployed the rover Sojourner from the lander Pathfinder. Sojourner recorded 16,500 images of Mars during its three-month mission.

Much of the public discussion about Mars involves future human exploration. SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted out an artist’s rendering of an imagined spaceport on Mars. Czaja said colonizing Mars in the short term is unrealistic with present technology given how hostile living conditions there are. But missions like Mars 2020, which will study how local resources can be harvested and identify potential hazards to humans, will bring us closer than ever.

Featured image at top: An early rendering of Perseverance on Mars. Illustration/Christian Mangano/NASA

Andy Czaja poses for a photo outside.

UC associate professor Andy Czaja is helping NASA explore Mars in a quest for evidence of ancient life. Photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative + Brand

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