biogeochemist Liane Benning is the only European
scientist chosen to be part of the NASA science
team looking for life on Mars. She is one
of 21 geologists, astrobiologists and engineers
developing scientific concepts and rover design
for the astrobiology field laboratory mission
to Mars in 2013.
combination of scientific credentials, networking
and good fortune has brought about this fantastic
opportunity,” she said.
her selection, Dr Benning was invited to witness
the landing on Mars of the Opportunity rover
in January at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
in California. “Being at the Opportunity
landing was an unforgettable experience,”
she said. “To be present at the early
stages of a similar mission with the thought
of seeing that through to its landing on Mars
is a fantastic and unique opportunity.”
Benning was selected for the AFL team after
collaborating with NASA scientists on an expedition
to Spitzbergen, Norway, last year. The expedition
went to a Mars analogue site – a place
on Earth which closely matches the Martian
environment and where equipment and concepts
to be applied on a Mars mission can be tested.
site has volcanic rocks and hot spring rocks
that support life in layers just beneath the
surface – similar to those which may
be found on the red planet.
of the main goals of the current Mars missions
is to prove the presence of water. The goal
of the 2013 mission will be to discover whether
and where organic carbon is present –
a vital building block for living organisms.
said: “During the Spitzbergen expedition
I met scientists from NASA and had long discussions
about Martian analogues and life. Following
this I was contacted and asked to join the
present the 2013 mission is at the planning
stage. Within constraints given by the spacecraft
engineers the team must define a way to prove
the scientific questions, where to land, what
methods – such as drilling – to
use to collect samples and what analytical
tests to do, once there.