Will the Curiosity Rover Support NAU Professor’s Research?


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.”  Professor 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 (NAU), 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 NAU’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.”

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Professor Nadine Barlow holding a replica of Mars

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. 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.  

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This image shows the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on NASA's Curiosity rover, with the Martian landscape in the background--enhanced as it would appear under Earth's lighting conditions. The image was taken by Curiosity's Mast Camera on the 32nd Martian day, or sol, of operations on Sept. 7, 2012, PDT. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

 “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.”