Leading Mars expert reflects on the Curiosity rover

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Curiosity, NASA’s latest space rover to land on Mars, is on a mission to discover if carbon, water, and other life forms ever existed on the “Red Planet.” Nadine Barlow, who is one of the world’s leading Mars scholars as well as the Associate Department Chair for physics and astronomy at Northern Arizona University, says that Curiosity’s findings could lead to other important discoveries in space.

“If we find that there’s more than one place in our solar system where life exists, or has existed, it would bode well for life forms elsewhere in the universe,” says Barlow, who is also the director of Northern Arizona University’s NASA Space Grant Program. “It is searching for mineral evidence that could be indicative of past life. If such evidence is found, it would indicate that the conditions supporting life are pretty common throughout the universe and that we very likely are not the only life forms around.”

An expert’s opinion

Barlow is well established as an expert on the red planet. She wrote an introductory text for graduate students – Mars, an Introduction to its Interior, Surface, and Atmosphere – and her research focuses on impact craters and what they tell us about the subsurface structure of the planet. But her interest in the planetary science has been life-long: Barlow was inspired to become an astronomer at an early age after a field trip to a planetarium. And, as a graduate student, she was one of the first astronomers to hypothesize that Mars once encompassed a very water-rich environment, and possibly life itself. 

“I started looking at the actual appearances of craters on Mars and what they can tell us,” Barlow says. “They have very different appearances, and that was probably tied in to subsurface ice, maybe liquid water, and so forth. By measuring their diameter, you can actually estimate how deep down they’re going and how deep down reservoirs might actually be.” 

Now, Barlow theorizes that Curiosity will help provide first-hand evidence that supports her research, and will help her better identify the features indicative of subsurface water within impact craters across Mars and in similar environments around the solar system. 

Life on Mars? 

Curiosity will survey Mars’ layout and search for the best, most carbon-rich areas where life might once have existed. Barlow says the planetary science community is not particularly large, and that she anticipates having a variety of interesting discussions with Curiosity’s mission team at scientific conferences. She notes how this could eventually lead to joint research investigations and other projects depending on what the rover finds.

Going forward, Barlow plans to use the information gathered by Curiosity to keep her classes up-to-date and her students educated on our ever-changing knowledge of the solar system.

“I definitely will be incorporating the new results from Curiosity into my classes, as I have done in the past with results from other missions,” Barlow says. “My students see how rapidly our knowledge about astronomy and planetary science can change based on new discoveries from these types of missions. Every new mission and its associated discoveries lead to new avenues of research, in which many students will have the opportunity to participate.”