WWU’s Melissa Rice, Students Attend NASA Workshop for Mars 2020 Mission

by Rossella Bernocco
Office of Communications and Marketing intern

Western Washington University Associate Professor of Geology Melissa Rice recently attended a NASA workshop in Monrovia, California with a number of her students to help select landing sites for the Mars 2020 rover mission.

Rice, who is a member of the Curiosity rover science team that has been exploring Mars since 2012, joined 172 scientists in narrowing down eight different potential landing sites to a final three sites.

One of Rice’s graduate students, Joshua Williams of Albuquerque New Mexico, received a travel grant to present his master’s degree thesis work at the workshop. Two other WWU students attended the workshop: undergraduate Katherine Winchell of Arlington, and graduate student Darian Dixon of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

One of the three final sites, Jezero crater, contains remnants of ancient lakes and river deltas. Another site, Northeast Syrtis Major, contains some of the oldest rocks on the planet. The Third site, Gusev crater, is the landing site of the Spirit rover (which landed in 2004), and it contains evidence of an ancient hydrothermal system. An important aspect of the rover mission is to find out if life existed on Mars during the period when the planet had water, so exploring and sampling from these areas is crucial.

Winchell said she thinks that it is important to keep in mind that this mission is mostly about retrieving samples from the planet’s surface.

“This mission is going to be a sample-collecting mission, and that is what is causing most of the debate about where to send it,” Winchell said. “These are probably the only samples that we will get back from Mars until we can actually send a manned mission to the planet.”

Rice said this type of detailed planning and discussion is crucial to a successful mission.

“I am glad that I have a year before the next workshop so I can start thinking about the three sites and try to understand which one is going to be best for this mission,” Rice said.

The next workshop is scheduled for summer 2018 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Rice will remain involved with the landing site discussion between now and then because she is on the rover’s Mastcam-Z camera team.

“We are in the process of building and testing the cameras that will fly on the new rover,” Rice said. “From the cameras’ perspective, what I am interested in is: What are the landscapes like? What are the colors like? Where are we going to have the most spectacular vistas to photograph? Those are the kinds of things I am going to start thinking about.”

Dixon went to the workshop and is also a part of the rover camera team.

“We went over engineering details and the progress of the camera. We also presented our research and talked about how the camera will work with the different proposed landing sites, which is really interesting,” Dixon said.

Williams said one of the most important goals for the Mars 2020 mission is to find evidence of life in the form of bio-signatures, which is any substance – such as an element, isotope, molecule, or phenomenon – that provides scientific evidence of past or present life.

“My studies are involved in finding the sites with the highest potential for bio-signatures from the planet’s past, because they are actively being destroyed by cosmic radiation,” Williams said.

“So once the final landing site is chosen, we will send the rover to find places on Mars that have the highest potential of finding preserved bio-signatures from the past,” Williams said.

NASA will announce he final landing site and the meeting next summer; until then, Rice and her students will work on planning for all three site finalists.

For more information about Rice’s research with the Mars rover teams, contact her at (360) 650-3592 or at Melissa.rice@wwu.edu

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

WWU undergrad Katherine Winchell of Arlington and Melissa Rice outside of the recent NASA conference held to discuss potential landing sites for the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission.