NASA scientist speaks about Mars mission

Valario Johnson
Staff Writer

Students got the opportunity to learn about NASA’s next Martian exploration at a lecture by Luther Beegle, a research scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, last Thursday.

The Mars 2020 rover is set to launch in 2020 and have an initial touchdown on Mars in 2021.

With Beegle and his team’s efforts, the SHERLOC instrument will be included in the build of this rover.

SHERLOC, or Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals, is a spectrometer that will provide fine-scale imaging and uses an ultraviolet laser to determine fine-scale mineralogy and to detect organic compounds.

Beegle stressed that even if scientists locate organic materials, it is not necessarily discovery of life.

“Everywhere on Earth we go to look, we find life,” he said. “There is life everywhere. If life started on Mars, why can’t we see it?”

Luther said that Mars is of importance to scientists because it is the most Earth-like planet in the solar system.

He said that because science has confirmed that Mars was once warm and contained large pools of water, researchers hypothesize that Mars’ surface was habitable more than 4 billion years ago and that this may be why there is residue of organic materials present on the red planet.

“We don’t just go to Mars to just look for stuff,” Beegle said at the lecture. “There is a very specific reason for traveling abroad in space.”

Though this project is of great importance to Beegle, he said that planetary science is only 1 percent of NASA’s budget, supporting missions that deal with discovery and new frontiers.
Beegle said that his team’s project started with a survey administered by NASA.

“NASA gets 40 or 50 scientists from around the world and asks them if they had $2 million, what would they do with it,” he said.

Beegle and his team responded by proposing SHERLOC, which was accepted and approved by NASA.

With the SHERLOC instrument, Beegle will be able to study geological features and potential bio-signature identification; however, this information will not be scanned until a decade after the landing of the rover in 2021.

Ultimately, Beegle’s goal is to confirm whether conditions are hospitable on Mars.

“We want to start thinking about how we are going to start sending humans to Mars,” he said.

Scanning of samples, through spectroscopy and SHERLOC, will allow Beegle and his team to determine the type of matter present on Mars’ surface.

By shining a laser at a sample, usually a rock-like structure, the team will be able to observe interactions with the surface that are otherwise difficult to see.

“By taking this sample, we will determine whether life could have been present,” he said.

“We hope that there are organic molecules. Organic molecules can be everywhere, but life tends to want to concentrate. If there are clumps of organic matter, there may very well be life in that sample.”

“I wanted to go to the presentation because the information sounded interesting,” said Samantha Johnson, a senior biomedical sciences major from Smiths Station. “Also, I learned about a program that is being formed that is planning to send people to live on Mars. This lecture confirmed that this was something in the works.”

Beegle’s progress and participation with the Mission to Mars can be kept up with by following
@lutherbeegle on Twitter.

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