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Meet the Australian leading our search for life on Mars

Will Higginbotham on the Australian leading NASA’s search for life on Mars, and what she is discovering.
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NASA’s latest mission to Mars has the explicit aim of discovering whether or not there has been life on the red planet.

It’s led by the first Australian and the first woman to lead such a major mission for NASA, astrobiologist Abigail Allwood. 

So what are scientists uncovering and are we closer than ever before to discovering evidence of life on Mars?

Today, contributor to The Monthly Will Higginbotham on the Australian leading NASA’s search for life on Mars, and what she is discovering. 

Socials: Stay in touch with us on Twitter and Instagram.

Guest: Journalist Will Higginbotham.

Read Transcript
[Theme Music Starts]
 
##RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am*. 
 
NASA’s latest mission to Mars has the explicit aim of discovering whether or not there’s been life on the red planet.
The robotic rover Perseverance - is on the latest mission to the surface of Mars and it’s led by an Australian astrobiologist, using technology modelled on instruments first used in the Pilbara desert. 
 
So what are scientists uncovering? 
 
Today - contributor to *The Monthly* Will Higginbotham on the Australian leading NASA’s search for life on Mars, and what she’s discovering. 
 
It’s Thursday July 7. 
 
[Theme Music Ends]
 
##RUBY:
So Will, you've been writing about this mission to Mars, which I understand is underway right now. NASA is looking for any sign of life on the planet. And so I wonder if we could start by talking about why? Why is NASA investigating the mystery of whether or not there is life on Mars, right now?
 
##WILL:
Yeah, well well, right now there's a rover up there on Mars called Perseverance, and it's whizzing about on this dusty landscape that aeons ago they - NASA's scientists - think was a river and a delta lakebed. So it's there looking for signs of ancient life. I checked this morning on the mission's website, and perseverance has been up there for 469 Martian days. Now that's about 460 Earth days. 
 
And as for the question of why now? Well, I guess it's an enduring question, isn't it? And it's an exciting one. I'm sure people listening have heard the phrase ‘is there life on Mars?’, and this mission seems to be taking us one step closer to answering that.
 
And for the first time in a long time, you know, scientists at NASA are starting to there's a sense of excitement about it. But this is the first mission with the actually stated aim of looking for signs of ancient life. And I also think it's important to stress ancient life because they're not looking for little green men. But I mean, hey, if that happens, fantastic. 
 
But no, they're actually trying to find, you know, microscopic signs of life that existed billions and billions of years ago. 
I got to spend some time with the lead investigator on the mission. Her name's Abigail Allwood. She's the first Australian, and she's the first woman to hold that kind of lead position on a NASA project like this. So it’s all very exciting.
 
##RUBY:
Mmm! I want to know more about her, about Abigail Allwood. But before we get into it, you said this is the first time we’ve seen a Mars mission specifically that’s looking for signs of life. But this research it’s building on decades of other missions isn’t it? So can you tell me a bit about attempts in the past to work out what's actually on Mars and what has already been uncovered? 
 
##WILL:
Yeah, I mean, it's quite a journey. You know, NASA's had multiple previous missions to the Red Planet since 1964. The number's actually being 22. Eight of those missions were to the surface. 14 were missions to orbit the planet. And of the eight missions that landed, four have had rovers, which is what the Perseverance is. You know, they're sort of like robotic geologists. 
 
But, yeah, to give you a little history of the search so far, between 1962 and 1973, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory designed and built ten spacecraft named Mariner to explore the inner solar system. 
 
##Archival tape -- Archival Mars Documentary (1969):
“Robots built by man that can endure the deep cold of space exist in a vacuum, withstand the unshielded radiation of the sun designed to travel hundreds of millions of miles in space, equipped with cameras to give them eyes sharper than man, and with instruments that can see where man cannot.”
 
##WILL:
So they were visiting the planets Venus, Mars, Mercury, the close observations and collecting some of the first, you know, really beautiful, close up photographs of another planet in our solar system.
 
##Archival tape -- Archival Mars Documentary (1969):
“Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 continue to tell us more and more about the planet Mars. Those canals we thought were there are not. And the little green men that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about in his books don't exist…”
 
##WILL:
And then in 1996. So we’re jumping forward a little bit. Pathfinder came about the first rover to operate on another planet. It lasted about 84 days on Mars and captured 550 images. 
 
##Archival tape -- News Reporter:
“These spectacular colour pictures are the second batch of images transmitted from the Mars Pathfinder. They show in brilliant detail the Martian soil and hundreds of rocks and hills…”
 
##WILL:
And it also completed some chemical analysis of rocks and soils, gathering extensive data on winds and other weather factors too. 
 
##Archival tape -- NASA Mission Control:
“Spacecraft reporting lander has separated. We expect that radar will lock on the ground in approximately 5 seconds from now…” 
 
##WILL:
Then in the early 2000s, Mars Rover, Spirit and Opportunity landed on the planet. 
 
##Archival tape - [cheering]
 
##Archival tape -- NASA Mission Control:
“The signal indicates that we are bouncing on the surface of Mars. This is a very good sign…”
 
##WILL:
And the findings of the two suggested that liquid water once flowed on the surface of the planet. 
 
##Archival tape -- NASA press conference:
“And what they showed was evidence that there had been liquid water below the surface. Liquid water that had come to the surface trickled across the ground-...” 
 
##Archival tape -- NASA press conference:
“That's the kind of water we could drink. And that's the kind of water that we think life could have gotten started…”
 
##WILL:
In 2012, Mars rover Curiosity landed on the planet and began its mission to find further evidence of microbial life. 
 
##Archival tape -- NASA press conference:
“Curiosity is a different vehicle. Instead of being a roving geologist, it's a roving biologist. Its job is to look for past places on Mars that could have sustained life…”
 
##WILL:
It's actually still operational and approaching ten years of service this August. 
 
##Archival tape -- NASA press conference:
“From the Curiosity rover. We now know that Mars once was a planet very much like Earth, with warm, salty seas, with fresh water lakes, probably snow-capped peaks…”
 
##WILL:
So yeah, there's been a lot of programmes to Mars and they've all contributed to slowly painting this picture of the planet. And that brings us up to perseverance. And what really sets this mission apart is that the rover actually has some incredible tech on board. It's able to drill and collect core samples of these Martian rocks and soils. And the idea is to bring them back to Earth at a later date for detailed analysis here. 
 
##RUBY:
Mm, and you said - the mission is being led by an Australian - and she’s the first Australian and the first woman to do a job like this. So what has she said to you about the mission then Will? How is it going? 
 
##Archival tape -- Abigail Allwood:
“You know, I never thought I’d…you know, before I came to JPL that I'd ever be doing anything like this. I thought maybe I'd be lucky enough to be one of those scientists who gets to play with the data coming back…” 
 
##WILL:
You know, NASA scientists can be quite tight lipped, but the beauty of talking to Abby was she's actually quite excited by everything she was telling me about perseverance. 
 
##Archival tape -- Abigail Allwood:
“To build an instrument and put it on the launch pad and send it to another planet and then to watch it scanning its little beam across the surface of the rocks and helping us answer some of the grandest questions ever asked. I never thought that would happen…”
 
##WILL:
Abby and many of her colleagues are upbeat about everything that they've been finding with Perseverance because they're finding new pieces to this, you know, Mars jigsaw puzzle. 
 
##Archival tape -- NASA Mission Control:
“Perseverance has slowed to subsonic speeds, and the heat shield has been separated. This allows both the radar and the cameras to get their first look at the surface…”
 
##WILL:
And it's one that's been worked on for, what, half a century now or more. 
 
##Archival tape -- NASA Mission Control:
“Current velocity is 83 metres per second at about 2.6 kilometres from the surface of Mars…”
 
##WILL:
And the pieces are starting to tell a story.
 
##Archival tape -- NASA Mission Control:
“Touchdown confirmed. Perseverance safely on the surface of Mars, ready to begin seeking the signs of past life!”
 
##Archival tape - [cheering]
 
##RUBY:
We'll be back in a moment. 
 
[Advertisement]
 
##RUBY:
Will, you've been speaking to one of the lead investigators on this mission to Mars that's currently underway. Her name is Abigail Allwood and she's actually an Australian scientist. Can you tell me a bit more about what she said to you about what's being discovered on this mission? 
 
##Archival tape -- Abigail Allwood:
“So are we alone in the universe? It's one of the most fundamental ‘core of what it is to be human’ questions that we can ask. And Mars has always been a tantalising target in the search for evidence of life beyond Earth.”
 
##WILL:
So Perseverance arrived on Mars in mid-February in 2021, and it's been examining rock samples in an ancient river delta bed that formed billions of years ago. 
 
##Archival tape -- Abigail Allwood:
“A whole bunch of evidence for water throughout Martian history, but particularly spectacular are these deltaic deposits, so deltas formed three and a half billion years or so ago…”
 
##WILL:
On Earth, river sediment is usually teeming with life. So it makes sense that this is an excellent place to hunt for signs of ancient life on Mars.
 
##Archival tape -- Abigail Allwood:
“Not only did you have deltas forming where rivers flowed out into lakes, but these-...the chemistry of the water in these lakes was so benign you could have drunk it. And that was kind of the final clincher showing that most definitely had habitable environments as we understand them…” 
 
##WILL:
And in terms of examining the rocks, it's been using an instrument that Allwood invented called the Planetary Instrument for X-ray litho-chemistry, or PIXL for short.
 
##Archival tape -- Abigail Allwood:
“It's an instrument that looks at the chemistry of rocks, the elemental chemistry of the rocks, and then looks at it in very fine detail. So it analyses individual points that are about 100 microns across…”
 
##WILL:
Alwood modelled PIXL on a similar tool that she used when she was working in Australia. She did some groundbreaking work in Australia's Pilbara. 
 
##Archival tape -- Abigail Allwood:
“It was based on my experience in my Ph.D. studies, looking at ancient rocks in Australia, 3.5 billion year old rocks from the Pilbara in Western Australia and trying to work out whether the features in those were actual evidence of life…” 
 
##WILL:
It was the early 2000s, she was a young PhD student, and basically she found evidence of the world's oldest fossilised life within the region's rocks.
 
##RUBY:
Hmm. Because I suppose there would be in some ways, quite a similarity between the desert in WA and Mars?
 
##WILL:
Yeah, absolutely. NASA says it's the closest thing on earth that we've got to a martian landscape. What she uncovered is known as 'fossilised stromatolites', and they're basically deposits formed by microorganisms. 
 
##Archival tape -- Abigail Allwood:
“Stromatolites can form by microbes interacting with sediment as it's deposited on the sea or lake floor. But I tell you, if you saw something like that on Mars, you'd be pretty excited.”
 
##WILL:
And they provide this really fascinating record of life on earth dating back 2 to 3 billion years ago. You know, she described them as ancient windows to the past. 
 
##RUBY:
And so can you tell me a bit more, then, about what's actually being discovered now about the composition of Mars using this instrument that she's created? 
 
##WILL:
Abby relayed that they've found within some of the rock samples the presence of minerals like salt, you know, common table salt, that sort of stuff, and gypsum. And again, all of that forms when water evaporates in mineral rich environments. But the thing that Abby was most excited about was towards the end of last year, they discovered that the rocks contained organic molecules in the chemical sense. That's molecules that contain carbon and hydrogen, you know, the building blocks of life. 
 
##RUBY:
Right. Okay. So what does it mean to find organics, to find carbon and hydrogen on Mars? Because if the building blocks exist, can we kind of hypothesise that? I suppose in a manner of speaking, the building does as well. Life does or has existed on Mars?
 
##WILL:
So NASA isn't declaring just because, you know, there's carbon and hydrogen, they're not declaring that there's a discovery of life just yet. You know, having said that, Abby was really upbeat about it. She described it as a really compelling science because it's another indication, a suggestion of a previous life sustaining habitat on Mars. And to get any certainty on it, there's a lot more work that needs to be done. And Abby was pretty forthright with that. But that work will probably be done back here on Earth when they bring some of the samples back. And I think the due date for that…they said no later than 2031. So a bit of time. But that's where deeper analysis can take place.
 
##RUBY:
Right? Okay. And so what would it take for scientists to declare that there had been life on Mars? What would, I suppose, conclusive evidence of something like that actually look like? 
 
##WILL:
You know, it's funny because Abby really wanted me to ask that question: what does life on Mars look like? And for some reason, when I was chatting to her, I hadn't really asked the question so directly. So at the end of my chat with her, she asked me what I thought life on Mars would look like, and I gave a horrible answer that I won't repeat, but she had a really great one. 
 
Archival Mars Documentary (1979):
“The question of life on Mars is only one of the inexhaustible number of questions for which we continue to seek answers in space…” 
 
##WILL:
She basically told me that there's no smoking gun. You know, I think her words were, ‘people want “the fossil” or “the rock”, where you analyse…’ again, her words, ‘the bejesus out of it, and there's your answer.’
 
Archival Mars Documentary (1979):
“The search for answers is a goal of planetary exploration, and the journeys of our spacecraft to the near and far reaches of the solar system are beginning to provide some of the answers.”
 
##WILL:
But she told me that it won't come like that. And I sat with that for a bit, and I thought, that's good for us to hear, because I think as humans, we sometimes do want a big event or a big discovery and we overlook the accumulation of these more, you know, and these are my words here, but tame scientific discoveries, if you will. You know, that's a part of her whole message to the public.
 
##Archival tape -- Abigail Allwood:
“But, you know, I know plenty of people who've actually put their instruments or their missions on the launch pad. And the launch has failed or the landing has failed. The ExoMars Schiaparelli Lander smashed into the surface of Mars at 300 kilometres an hour. And those people are like, they've lost a child. They've put their whole career into this. But, if there's one little nugget of insight that I can leave you about JPL here today, which is that it's better to have tried and failed and not to have tried at all.”
 
##WILL:
A declaration that there was once life on Mars or even possibly still is, won't be because of one discovery alone. It'll be the sum of all these little discoveries which have been made so far and will continue to be made with each one. You know, we very much are watching the story of Mars and life on it unfold. 
 
##RUBY:
Will, thank you so much for talking to me. 
 
##WILL:
Yeah, no worries. Thank you for having me.
 
[Advertisement]
 
[Theme Music Starts]
 
##RUBY:
Also in the news today,
 
The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson could face fresh challenges to his leadership after two of his most senior cabinet ministers resigned over his handling of sexual harassment allegations against the conservative party’s deputy whip Chris Pincher.
 
Chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid have both resigned, after it emerged Johnson promoted Pincher to the post, despite knowing about prior allegations against Pincher.
 
And, the Commonwealth Bank, NAB and ANZ will pass on the Reserve Bank's latest interest rate rise in full to customers.
The rate rise will mean mortgage rates will rise on July 15 for customers of the three banks by 0.5%.
 
I’m Ruby Jones, this is *7am*. See you tomorrow.
 
[Theme Music Ends]

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