To the red planet and back: UAlberta scientist lands spot on NASA Mars 2020 rover mission

Mission will be the first to attempt collection of samples from Mars for potential return to Earth.

Katie Willis - 20 February 2020

A University of Alberta scientist has been chosen for a key role in the NASA’s Mars 2020 mission. The mission, slated to launch in summer 2020, marks the first time that samples will be collected and stored in hopes of being returned to Earth through future missions to the red planet.

Chris Herd’s participation in the mission as a returned sample scientist is funded by the Canadian Space Agency. A professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and curator of the University of Alberta Meteorite Collection, Herd will lend his expertise in the analysis of Martian meteorites and other rocks to select samples that are most likely to provide key information about Mars’s geological history. 

Herd was also chosen to serve as one of two returned sample scientist representatives on the mission’s Project Science Group. In this role, he will be part of the team responsible for making critical operational and scientific decisions for the mission.

“Mars 2020 will let us choose where to collect samples and will allow us to get context for the rocks that are collected—their location, surrounding features, and more,” explained Herd. “Returning samples with that context is the holy grail of Mars exploration. That’s the reason why it's so important to collect these with an eye to bringing them back.”

Chris Herd, professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, joins the Mars 2020 rover mission as a returned sample scientist.

Chris Herd, professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, joins the Mars 2020 rover mission as a returned sample scientist. Photo credit: John Ulan

In fact, scientists believe evidence of past life could be locked inside rocks on Mars that are different in make-up from the meteorites that have landed here on Earth. By using the Mars 2020 rover to choose, collect and store samples from specific areas on Mars’s surface for possible return to Earth, scientists are paving the way for a new understanding of our planetary neighbour.

“This is a dream come true for me. I will be helping select which rocks might someday be analyzed in labs on Earth,” said Herd. 

Herd was selected by NASA as one of 10 experts and the only Canadian to help ensure the samples collected by the rover will be as useful and provide as much valuable scientific information as possible. The rover will be operating in Jezero Crater, a location just north of Mars’s equator that was at one time home to a river delta. The different types of rock there will help scientists meet their mission objectives.

The objectives of the mission are searching for signs of past microbial life, learning more about the geology and climate, and preparing for human exploration on future missions. The Mars 2020 mission will also address fundamental questions about the potential for life on Mars.

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