While the Curiosity rover continues to interrogate Gale Crater on Mars, planning is well under way for its successor—another rover that is currently referred to as Mars 2020. The new robotic explorer, scheduled to launch in 2020, will use much of the same technology (even some of the spare parts Curiosity left behind on Earth) to get to the Red Planet. Once there, it will pursue a new set of scientific objectives including the careful collection and storage (referred to as "caching") of compelling samples that might one day be returned to Earth by a future mission. Today, NASA announced the selection of seven scientific instruments that Mars 2020 will carry with it to Mars.
Ken Farley, Caltech's W.M. Keck Foundation Professor of Geochemistry and chair of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, is serving as project scientist for Mars 2020. We recently sat down with him to talk about the mission and his new role.
Congratulations on being selected project scientist for this exciting mission. For those of us who do not know exactly what a project scientist does, can you give us a little overview of the job?
Sure. Conveniently, NASA has a definition, which says that the project scientist is responsible for the overall scientific success of the mission. That's a pretty concise explanation, but it encompasses a lot. My main duty thus far has been helping to define the science needs for equipment that we are going to send to Mars. So while we haven't actually done any science yet, we have had to make a lot of design decisions that are related to the science.
The easiest place to illustrate this is in the discussion of what is necessary, from the science point of view, in terms of the samples that we will cache. We have to consider things like how much mass we need to bring back, what kind of magnetic fields and temperatures the samples are going to be exposed to, and how much contamination of different chemical constituents we can allow. Every one of those questions drives a design decision in how you build the drilling system and the caching system. And if you get those wrong, there's nothing you can do. So there's a lot of thought that has to be put into that, and I convey a lot of that information to the engineers.
Now that we have a science team, I will be helping to facilitate all of its investigations and helping the members to work as a team. MSL [the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity's mission] is demonstrating how you have to operate when you have a complex tool (a rover) and a bunch of sensors, and every day you have to figure out what you're going to do to further science. The team has to pull together, pool all of its information, and come up with a plan, so an important part of my job will be figuring out how to manage the team dynamics to keep everybody moving forward and not fragmenting.
What aspects of the job were particularly appealing to you?
One of the parts of being a division chair that I have really enjoyed is being engaged with something that's bigger than my own research. And there's definitely a lot of that on 2020. It's a huge undertaking. There are not many science projects of this scale to be associated closely with, so this just seemed like a really good opportunity.
The kinds of questions that 2020 is going after—they're really big questions. You could never answer them on your own. The key objective is about life—is there or was there ever life on Mars, and more broadly what does its presence or absence mean about the frequency and evolution of life within the universe? There's no way you could answer these questions on Earth. The simple reason for that is that Mars is covered by rocks that are of the era in which, at least on our planet, we believe life was evolving. There are almost no rocks left of that age on the earth, and the ones that are left have been really badly beaten up. So Mars is a place where you really stand a chance of answering these questions in a way that you probably can't anywhere else.
It's not the kind of science I'm usually associated with, but the mission is trying to address truly profound scientific questions.
As you said, space has not been the focus of your research for most of your career. Can you talk a bit about how a terrestrial geochemist like yourself wound up in this role on a Mars mission?
Several years ago, I participated in a workshop about quantifying martian stratigraphy, which was hosted by the Keck Institute for Space Studies [KISS]. One of the topics that was discussed was geochronology—the dating of rocks and other materials—on other planetary bodies, like Mars. This is important for establishing the history of a planet and is particularly challenging because it requires such exacting measurements. After interacting with some people who are now my JPL collaborators at the workshop, it seemed like we might be able to do something special that would help solve this problem. And we got support from KISS to do a follow-on study.
As I was getting deeper and deeper into thinking about how we could do this on Mars, John Grotzinger (the Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology at Caltech and project scientist for MSL) was conducting the landing-site workshops for MSL. He would say things like, "Oh, it would be really great if we could date this." And we'd agree. Then there was a call for participating scientists on MSL. I had no background whatsoever in this, but I knew there was a mass spectrometer on Curiosity. That's one of the analytical instruments we need to make these dating measurements because it allows us to determine the relative abundances of various isotopes in a sample. Since those isotopes are produced at known rates, their abundances tell us something about the age of the sample. So I wrote a proposal basically saying let's see if we can make Curiosity's mass spectrometer work for this purpose. And it did.
What do you think led to your selection as project scientist?
Although I don't have a long track record in studying Mars, this mission is possibly the first step in bringing samples back to Earth. In order to do that, you have to answer a lot of questions related to geochemistry, which is my specialty. The geochemistry community is not ordinarily thinking about rocks coming back from Mars. I happen to have enough crossover between what I know about Mars from the work I just described and my background from working in geochemistry labs, especially those working with the type of very small samples we might get back from Mars, to be a good fit.
Given Curiosity's success on Mars, why is it important and exciting for us to be sending another rover to the Red Planet?
One thing to realize is that the surface of Mars is more or less equivalent in size to the entire continental surface area of the earth, and we've been to just a few points. It's naturally tempting to look at the few places we have been on Mars and draw grand conclusions from them, but you could imagine if you landed in the middle of the Sahara Desert and studied the earth, you would come up with different answers than if you landed in the Amazon, for example. So that's part of it.
But the big thing that distinguishes Mars 2020 is the fact that we are preparing this cache, which is the first step in a process that will hopefully bring samples back to Earth some day. It's very clear that from the science community's point of view, this is a critical motivation for this mission.
How has the experience been working on the mission thus far?
I enjoy it very much. It's extremely different to go from a lab group of two or three people to a project that, at the end of the day, is going to have spent $1.5 billion over the next seven or eight years. It's a completely different scale of operation.
I find it really fascinating to see how everything works. I've spent my entire career among scientists. Suddenly transitioning and working with engineers is interesting because their approach and style is completely different. But they're all extremely good at what they do.
It's a lot of fun to work with these people and to face completely new and unexpected challenges. You never know what new thing is going to pop up.