Canada

NASA chooses Canadian scientist for a critical role in the 2020 Mars rover mission

The NASA Mars 2020 Rover is scheduled to launch this July, and a Canadian will take on an incredibly important role in the mission.

Chris Herd is a planetary geologist and professor at the University of Alberta. He is one of only 10 people, as well as the only Canadian, to be chosen by NASA for a role as a returned sample scientist on the first-ever mission to bring Mars rock samples back to Earth.

The Mars 2020 Rover is seen in the spacecraft assembly area clean room, December 27, 2019 during a media tour at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Once the rover makes landing on Feb. 18, 2021, it will be used to drill into rocks and collect rock samples on the red planet. The job of Herd and his colleagues will be to examine the surface in the area of Mars where the rover lands, and to choose where the rover drills.

“We want to be able to choose the exact spot where we take a sample, and where that sample is going to have the maximum scientific value when it comes back to earth,” Herd said in a phone interview.

Herd was chosen for the mission, in part, because he has spent his career analyzing meteorites that originated from Mars.

Fans and deltas formed by water and sediment are seen in the Jezero Crater on Mars, identified as a potential landing site for the Mars 2020 Rover, in this false colour image taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, published May 15, 2019 and obtained November 15, 2019. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via REUTERS

The rover will land on Mars in the Jezero Crater. Three-and-a-half to four billion years ago, the crater was likely filled with water. If there was life on Mars at the time, evidence of life could be concentrated there.

“The best possible thing that we could imagine is that we find evidence for life having existed on Mars,” Herd said. “It’s a fundamental question for humanity: has life ever developed outside of the Earth?”

If everything goes according to plan, the samples will come to Earth in 2031. Herd says he hopes to analyze some of the prospective samples.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is funding Herd’s participation in the mission.

Tim Haltigin is the planetary senior mission scientist at the CSA. He stresses that the mission is important for both Canada, and the scientific community as a whole.

“We’re on the cusp of starting the first steps to achieve something that has been truly the holy grail of planetary exploration for many decades,” Haltigin said in a phone interview. “To have a Canadian on a mission of this profile really highlights Canadian expertise on the international stage.”

On top of being chosen for the project, Herd was also chosen to be a representative on the project science group, the scientific managing group for the whole mission.

“It’s a huge honour,” Herd says.