The First Woman to be a Principal Scientist for NASA'S Next Mars Mission 2020

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By Merlyn D'costa | August 25, 2014 1:58 PM EST

NASA's next mission to Mars will be lead by an Australian scientist who will be instrumental in choosing what could be termed as the first samples brought to Earth from the Red Planet.

Reuters
A man looks at a model of a Marsokhod mars rover in the exhibition hall of the Institute of Space Research in Moscow October 4, 2007. Russia and the United States, the world's great space powers, celebrated the eve of the first satellite launch 50 years ago with a pact to use Russian technology on NASA missions to seek water on the moon and Mars. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin (RUSSIA)

 The first woman to be a principal scientist on the rover mission in 2020 is Dr. Abigail Allwood.

In the future Mars mission Allwood and her team will be responsible to investigate the chemistry of the rocks and samples that will be transported to Earth to find life on Mars.

"Part of our objective with 2020 is to very carefully understand the geology and identify the best samples to bring back to give us the best chance of identifying past life if it existed," Dr Allwood said.

Allwood said that if the rocks are going to be transported back to Earth they need to be selected with much care as it's a very expensive exercise to bring them back. She went on to add that at the moment there is no commitment; but if the samples are compelling enough, every effort would be made to bring them back to Earth.

Mark Rigby the curator of the Brisbane Planetarium said that it was a challenging task to get the materials to Earth from Mars.

"Mars is much further off than the moon and its gravity is also much stronger," Mr Rigby said. "So you've not only got to land successfully, which is quite a feat in itself, but you've also got to get off again. It really will require multiple space craft to achieve that," he added.

The success of the Curiosity which just completed two years on Mars will be the inspiration behind the technology employed in the 2020 rover. But it will be equipped with more hi-tech hardware and instruments for geological surveys.

Allwood and her team will be responsible in designing, delivering and operating a "planetary instrument for X-ray lithochemistry", called PIXL.

The imaging equipment in the spectrometer will carry out a detailed detection and analysis of chemical elements on Mars than ever before.

Dr Allwood lived in Brisbane as a child and graduated from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She worked in the coal industry in Western Australia and completed her PhD with Macquarie University."Ever since I was very young, planetary science was something I would have loved to do but never saw a pathway," she said.

She used to examine ancient life on Earth that would lead to the discovery of life on Mars. It was one of her discoveries in the Pilabara of the oldest evidence of life on earth that lead her to NASA's Mars program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

She explained that life on Mars was more habitable than previously thought to be. She aims at meeting the target and delivering the instruments much before 2020, when the mission is set to launch.

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(Photo: Reuters / )
A man looks at a model of a Marsokhod mars rover in the exhibition hall of the Institute of Space Research in Moscow October 4, 2007. Russia and the United States, the world's great space powers, celebrated the eve of the first satellite launch 50 years ago with a pact to use Russian technology on NASA missions to seek water on the moon and Mars. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin (RUSSIA)
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