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To Mars and beyond: How a new Mars rover mission could unlock answers about Earth

How and why life began on Earth is still a mystery to scientists. A mystery they hope to solve by looking around our solar system.

Posted: Oct 1, 2018 10:17 PM

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) - How and why life began on Earth is still a mystery to scientists. A mystery they hope to solve by looking around our solar system.

One Purdue professor is getting behind the exploration.

“We really just have no idea where life comes from,” said Briony Horgan, Assistant Professor of Earth Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “All we have is us, all we have is the Earth."

So scientist are turning to Earth's neighbor to look for answers to some big questions.

"Is there life beyond the Earth? Even just microbial life would be an incredible find,” she said. “But beyond that, what kind of life was really common in the early parts of a planet's history?"

Horgan is also on the team of NASA scientists hoping to find the answers to these questions with a new Mars rover.

Just a short 140,000,000 miles trip from Earth sits Mars, a planet that scientists easily classify as the most similar to Earth. With habitable temperatures, clouds in its sky, one can see two tiny moons in the nighttime sky, and many scientists believe water once flowed across the planet’s now desert-like surface.

"That rover is going to launch in 2020 and we are going to be looking for signs of ancient life on Mars," she said. She added that they are still working on a name for the new rover that should be finalised shortly.

And when she says ancient, she means ancient.

"We mean something like three and half to four billion years ago," she said.

Right around the time Earth started showing early signs of life.

Rocks that are key to learning more about our planet's beginnings don't exist here anymore. But she said Mars is special in that it hasn’t had much geological change over those billions of years, meaning those rocks do exist there.

And they are hoping these rocks are the key to learning more about Earth, and more about the possibility of life on Mars and humans living on the red planet one day.

"Our only chance right now until we find another intelligent civilization is to try to look at other planets in our solar system," she said.

Something Horgan is ready to discover.
"It's a new frontier for us to get to go exploring to search for our roots to try to understand why is Earth special," she said.

Ten to 15 years from now, they hope to bring samples collected on that mission back to Earth. Until then, NASA’s rovers and orbiters will rely on cameras that take detailed photos and chemical data of minerals and textures to determine where signs of life might be hidden.

Click here to learn more about the NASA Mars 2020 rover mission.

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