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Moersch on a previous expedition to the Atacama Desert of Chile, one of the most Mars-like places on Earth due to its extreme aridity. Photo credit: M. Wyatt.

Over the next five years, Jeffrey Moersch will be traveling to faraway places—from the Arctic to the Chilean desert—in a quest to learn more about a place even farther away—Mars.

The earth and planetary sciences professor is part of a new NASA-funded research team helping prepare for the Mars 2020 rover mission. The interdisciplinary team is a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute and is one of seven to receive a five-year grant of about $8 million.

Led by Nathalie Cabrol of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, the international team of twenty scientists and engineers will study places on Earth comparable to Mars to search for biosignatures— the fingerprints of life—like key elements, isotopes, or molecules. Their work will provide guiding principles to better understand where to search for life, what to search for, and how to recognize evidence of past or current life for the upcoming Mars mission.

“The goal is to develop a strategy the 2020 Mars rover can use to collect rock samples that are most likely to preserve evidence for Martian life, which can then be returned to Earth for detailed study by a follow-up mission,” said Moersch, who has worked on six missions to Mars including Curiosity, Spirit, and Opportunity.

Field work will be done at Yellowstone National Park, sites in California and Chile, Axel Heiberg Island in the high Arctic, and Western Australia. Each site is an analog to Mars with volcanic and hydrothermal features, lake sediments, evaporates, and perennial cold springs. Sites will be explored from satellites, air, ground, and at the microscopic level in the field and laboratory. Understanding how to integrate this multiscale information will help scientists learn how to select the best sites for discovering biosignatures on Mars.

Using spectral and image analysis, Moersch will examine satellite data to look for minerals that are indicative of rock-water interactions. Different minerals reflect different wavelengths, or colors, of sunlight. This allows for the mapping of the geologic composition of the surface. Moersch will verify and extend these results by visiting the sites on the ground and collecting spectra with a portable spectrometer and through images captured using a low-flying unmanned aerial vehicle.

“Minerals can preserve a record of a planet’s surface environment at the time they formed,” said Moersch. “For example, certain clays form when rocks are chemically altered through contact with neutral-pH water for extended periods of time, like in a lake. Other minerals might be deposited from saturated water in hot spring environments. These are just two examples of the types of places we would want the 2020 rover to look for evidence for life.”

For more information about the NASA’s astrobiology program, visit

The program website.

C O N T A C T:

Whitney Heins (865-974-5460,