Homegrown NASA scientist wants Australia in the space race

Australian NASA astrobiologist Abigail Allwood, pictured at her alma mater QUT, wants Australia to invest more into space exploration. Photo: Michelle SmithThe Brisbane astrobiologist at the forefront of NASA’s next mission to Mars has one regret in her stellar career – that she could not lead the charge to discover evidence of extraterrestrial life from her own country.
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Abigail Allwood, the co-leader of the coming Mars 2020 rover mission, said Australia would continue to lose its best and brightest minds if it did not embrace one of the most awe-inspiring of scientific fields.

“It’s a little bit sad, for me, to see that when I finished my degree here in Australia, I couldn’t pursue the kind of things I wanted to do in Australia at all,” she said.

“There’s very little involvement in space exploration.

“We don’t have a formal space agency, which makes it very difficult for us to participate in opportunities like this and, to me, it belies our capability.

“We produce so many bright graduates. We have a fantastic education system producing engineering, science technology and mathematics graduates and the sorts of things that really inspire them, like space exploration, is not possible to do here in Australia.”

Dr Allwood, who was at the Queensland University of Technology on Thursday to accept an outstanding alumnus award from the science and engineering faculty, said Australia had the capability to be a leader in space exploration.

But the nation’s involvement in humanity’s great exploratory frontier was “less than it could be”.

“There are some incredible Australian scientists overseas who want to come back and work here, if they had the similar opportunities back here that they do overseas,” Dr Allwood said.

“I’d be one of them.”

Dr Allwood, who has been based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena since 2006, is the Mars 2020 mission’s principal investigator for the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry.

The sophisticated instrument was one of seven chosen by NASA to be packed on to the Mars 2020 rover, which was similar to the Curiosity rover already on the Martian surface.

“The difference between Curiosity and the Mars 2020 rover is the science payload and the science objective,” Dr Allwood said.

“This rover has a suite of seven instruments – PIXL is one of them; we’re out on the arm – and the payload is selected especially to achieve the science objective of the mission.

“The primary goal is to search for evidence of ancient life on Mars.”

PIXL will be able to check the chemistry of Martian rocks, to grains as tiny as 100 microns, or 100 millionths of a metre.

“If you’re going to look for microbial life, you have to look at the scale of microbes,” Dr Allwood said.

“And that’s what this instrument does.”

Ultimately, the Mars 2020 rover will collect targeted physical samples with the aim of bringing them back to Earth.

“Contrary to some popular belief, we’ve never returned samples from Mars,” Dr Allwood said.

“We’ve never returned samples from any planet.

“We’ve had samples from asteroids and solar wind particles, but we’ve never, ever gone anywhere and actually deliberately, intelligently, selected a suite of samples and brought them back to Earth.

“That’s really important and it’s very different to a grab-and-go situation, where you grab samples from whatever you happen to find, because the context around the samples we collect is absolutely critical.”

Dr Allwood said getting those samples back to Earth would not be easy.

“(Samples) will be deposited on the surface of Mars by this mission and, if it’s decided by the science community, the public and so forth that it’s compelling enough to bring these samples back, then another mission would go and collect them,” she said.

“They would send a fetch rover to pick up the samples, put them in what’s called a Mars Ascent Vehicle – a MAV – and then launch the cache into orbit around Mars.

“A separate mission will then need to then bring those samples back to Earth from Martian orbit.

“So, it’s a complex series of steps.”

Dr Allwood said that complexity demonstrated how difficult getting humans on to the surface of the red planet would actually be.

“The number of miracles needed to bring samples back is such that it’s too much to put into one mission – it’s divided into three missions – so the technology to get humans to Mars and get them back safely is much, much larger,” she said.

“There’s so many more miracles that will need to be achieved.”

But if the work discovered there was once life on Mars, Dr Allwood said the cost and the effort would all be worth it.

“Understanding whether or not we’re alone in the universe, understanding whether life ever arose separately somewhere else other than Earth, that’s culture-changing and mind-changing stuff,” she said.

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