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UC Professor Will Advise Mars Rover On What Rocks To Collect

This rendering of Perserverance on Mars gives you an idea of what the rover will face when it gets to the Red Planet in February. It is tasked with looking for signs of ancient life and collecting samples for future study.

A UC astrobiologist is now playing an important role in  NASA's Mars 2020 Mission. The launch could come as early as Thursday and its payload - the Perseverance Rover - will look for signs of ancient life and collect rock samples for future study.

Because of COVID-19, Dr. Andy Czaja watch the launch from his house instead of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He can't wait for lift-off. Patience is key because Perseverance won't arrive on Mars until February 2021.

Czaja has been part of a NASA advisory board for the last five years, answering such questions as:

  • What are the best rock samples to collect?
  • From what part of the Red Planet should they be collected?
  • How should these samples be handled to avoid contamination?
Credit Dr. Andrew Czaja
Dr. Andrew Czaja (on the right) with a student at the Jet Propulsion Lab in front of another rover-Curiosity.

As a member of the science team, Czaja will be involved on a day-to-day basis once Perseverance lands on Mars. "It'll get to Mars ... and then the fun really begins to actually start exploring," he says.

The rover will drill out little samples of rock and store them into tubes. Czaja describes them as the size of his pinky and says there are only so many tubes so the team will have to choose carefully.

While the collection process will be exciting, Czaja is really looking forward to actually studying the samples when they return to earth in about 2030. He says he and others will likely be using tools that haven't been invented yet.

Czaja says evidence points to ancient life on Mars and even though the planet is now cold and dry he believes there is proof of life trapped in rocks in the form of microscopic bacteria.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.