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Mars Perseverance Rover
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How a Washington geologist is helping with the search for life on Mars

The Perseverance rover landed on Mars on Thursday. (Getty Images)

NASA celebrated the successful landing of its Perseverance rover on the surfaces of Mars on Thursday. Now, the real work begins, as the rover begins its search for signs of life on the planet’s surface, with the aid of Western Washington University planetary geologist Dr. Melissa Rice.

Dr. Rice holds a couple jobs on the mission, as part of the team managing the rover camera that takes panoramic color images on Mars, and helping direct discussions about where the rover should drive and drill next.

That’s all in service of the larger mission to identify signs of alien life, albeit not in the way that we’re familiar with from movies and TV.

“We’re not looking for little green men; we don’t expect to see a dinosaur bone sticking up out of the ground,” she told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “What we’re looking for when we look for life on Mars is evidence for ancient microbes.”

UW physics professor helps design instrument on Mars Perseverance rover

That’s why NASA opted to land the Perseverance rover in Mars’s Jezero Crater, believed to be the site of a lake that dried up billions of years ago. It’s there that NASA will be looking for evidence of primitive single-celled organisms.

There’s more to the mission than that, though, with this being the first step in a 10-year journey to send the first ever samples from Mars back to Earth.

That will see Perseverance drilling into rocks, extracting sample cores, hermetically sealing them into tubes, and then leaving them on Mars for another mission to pick up.

“That mission will launch no earlier than 2026,” Dr. Rice described. “It will go to Mars, pick up those samples, and then launch them away from Mars into orbit. And it’s going to take a third mission to go back to Mars into orbit, grab those samples from orbit around Mars, and bring them all the way back to Earth.”

You can listen to Dr. Rice’s full Ross Files interview here.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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