Melissa Rice’s career revolves around answering a question that continues to entice the human imagination: Can life evolve elsewhere in the universe?
Rice, an assistant professor at Western Washington University, thinks the answer may be found on Mars.
“We can’t travel to other solar systems. We can’t even see the surfaces of planets around other stars,” Rice said. “And so, if we want to answer this question — can life evolve on other planets — the best way to do that is right here in our own neighborhood.”
Rice, 32, is part of a team of NASA scientists making discoveries on Mars that hint the planet was once habitable to life. In her first year teaching at WWU, her research is inspiring a group of students who, like her, hope to one day find an answer to the same question she has been chasing.
For a couple days each month, Rice helps with rover operations that help NASA decide where the Curiosity rover will explore minute by minute. She analyzes images taken from the rover, then discusses a new plan for the rover’s next-day activities via teleconference with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Then she helps fellow scientists come up with a sequence of commands detailing where the rover will drive, stop or take pictures.
“We tell the rover every detail of what it’s going to do throughout its day,” Rice said.
The pictures taken by Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, offer scientists a glimpse into the history of the planet. Curiosity currently is ascending from the base of Mount Sharp, a mountain 3 1/2 miles high of rocks formed billions of years ago in Gale Crater. The pictures taken by Curiosity help scientists analyze minerals at the base of the rock that reveal vital clues about whether the planet was once habitable.
Just this week, calculations made on the Curiosity mission indicated that conditions in the Gale Crater location were favorable for small quantities of brine to form at night.
The most profound discovery made by Curiosity, Rice said, were rocks found at the bottom of Gale Crater that could only have been formed by an ancient lake with water that would have been good enough to drink, Rice said. It was the first definitive evidence for an environment on Mars where life as we know it on Earth could have thrived.
Rice, from Sammamish, has wanted to study Mars since she was an undergraduate studying astrophysics at Wellesley College near Boston. The college already had a strong astronomy program while she was there, and one of her professors focused his research on the rings of Saturn. Rice, though, knew that wasn’t the area of research she wanted to study.
“I already knew that Mars was the place I wanted to be,” Rice said.
She pursued opportunities outside of her college, one of which was a summer research project at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, where she studied the surface of Mercury. She earned her Ph.D in astronomy at Cornell University in 2012, with minor concentrations in geology and science communication. As a planetary geologist, her research specialty is imaging spectroscopy, meaning she works with images taken in many wavelengths of light.
This school year, she came to Western eager for the opportunity to pioneer a planetary studies program. She said she wanted to build a new program in a place interested in going that direction.
Thanks to her presence, students at WWU interested in researching planetary science can now do so in Bellingham. Winter quarter marked the first year Western has offered a planetary geology course. Rice said some WWU students sought her out as soon as they heard the “Mars lady” was coming.
Michael Reynolds, a WWU junior, is one of the students using Rice as a mentor. He compiles images that were taken by the Spirit rover, which landed on Mars in 2004, and analyzes those images to determine how reflective the surface is. The pictures are taken in wavelengths that include those unseen to the human eye, and the process mostly involves data analysis. The results can help explain what types of materials are on the surface.
Reynolds said he was always interested in astronomy, but when he came to Western he didn’t have any intent to pursue that interest. He instead will earn a degree in geology. When he found out he could incorporate space with geology, he realized that is “truly where my passion lies.”
Genevieve Studer-Ellis, a junior, has just started doing similar work with images taken from the Opportunity rover, which also landed on Mars in 2004. She is majoring in geology, and it wasn’t until she took Rice’s planetary geology course that she decided she wanted to go after a Ph.D in that field.
“One of the neatest things is that when I compile the pan cam images, I am looking at something that only a handful of people have seen before,” Studer-Ellis said. “There are not a lot of places that let undergrads play with data from Mars.”
The Spirit rover stopped exploring in 2011, but the data analysis is far from complete, Rice said. The Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are still sending images.
The next Mars rover will be a sample-collecting one, Rice said. It’s name, for now, is Mars 2020, for the year it will launch. Instead of having a science laboratory on the rover that determines the mineralogy, like Curiosity, it will carry tubes to store extracted rock cores, leaving the tubes on the surface for another spacecraft to pick up.
The challenge is choosing where, on an entire planet, the best samples might be, Rice said. There are currently more than 20 candidate sites, and scientists will narrow it down to one site within two years. Rice’s graduate students will have the opportunity to study potential landing sites starting this summer.
Further down the road, the goal is to have humans explore the surface of Mars, Rice said. She is part of another NASA team, consisting of around two dozen scientists, defining science objectives for a human exploration of Mars.
“I think it’s going to take human explorers on the surface of Mars — astronauts who are able to explore the surface in detail to catch interesting things out of the corners of their eyes — to serendipitously make new discoveries on the surface of Mars,” Rice said. “I think that’s where the next really big leaps are going to happen.”
To see more photos from the Curiosity rover on Mars, click here.