The Reporter
Issue 495, 26 January 2004
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Leeds academic goes searching for Martians

Leeds 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.

“A combination of scientific credentials, networking and good fortune has brought about this fantastic opportunity,” she said.

Following 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.”

Dr 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.

The 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.

One 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.

She 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 AFL team.”

At 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.

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