Purdue Scientist Discusses Role in NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover | Briony Horgan
Kate Young: Hi, I'm Kate Young and you're listening to This is Purdue, the official podcast for Purdue University. As a Purdue alum and Indiana native, I know firsthand about the family of students and professors who are in it together, persistently pursuing and relentlessly rethinking. Who are the next game- changers, difference- makers, ceiling- breakers, innovators? Who are these boiler- makers? Join me as we feature students, faculty, and alumni taking small steps toward their giant leaps and inspiring others to do the same.
Dr. Briony Horgan: Purdue is a such a fantastic place to be a woman in exploration. We have a great heritage here from Amelia Earhart and people like that. It's great to be at a place with such a fantastic engineering program and aerospace program. We're really excited about the kinds of things that we can do going forward, and maybe even proposing running NASA missions out of Purdue, which is really great.
Kate Young: When the NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover landed on February 18th this year, Dr. Briony Horgan couldn't contain her excitement.
Dr. Briony Horgan: It's a huge relief that we're down on the surface, safe and sound, and in a great spot to do some amazing science.
Kate Young: An associate professor of planetary science at Purdue University, Dr. Horgan is also one of the tactical science leads for the Rover Project. She's examining the Mars landscape through a Rover camera called Mastcam- Z, which she helped design for this mission. Talk about a boiler- maker who is taking giant leaps. Since Dr. Horgan was a young girl, she's been interested in rocks. She even grew up with volcanoes right outside of her bedroom windows in Portland, Oregon.
Dr. Briony Horgan: The Northwest is great because you're a stone's throw from the ocean, but also from a huge line of volcanoes. I grew up with volcanoes out of my window every morning, and that definitely influenced me. I grew up with geology all around. I actually ended up going to undergrad in physics because I had a great AP physics teacher in high school. But then I found out after doing a physics degree that it wasn't really what I wanted to do and I still really, really loved rocks. I also loved space and so for grad school, I did a total change of degree and went on and did a degree in astronomy and space science, so planetary sciences and yeah, now I study rocks.
Kate Young: I have to admit, I was a bit nervous to interview a Mars scientist. I mean, this is NASA we're talking about here. Dr. Horgan has been featured in National Geographic and the Smithsonian Magazine, just to name a few. Not to mention, I haven't taken a science class since I was about 19. Let's break it all down. What exactly is the Perseverance Rover and what does Mastcam- Z, the eyes for the Rover, do?
Dr. Briony Horgan: The Perseverance Rover landed just a little over six weeks ago, I think, it's been a month and half or so, but it's been really exciting. We're on the ground, we've been checking out the Rover, getting all the instruments up and working, but the big thing that's happening right now with the Rover is the ingenuity helicopter, which we refer to as Ginny, that's the nickname. We just dropped off. This is a technology demonstration that NASA added onto the mission. It's basically showing for the first time that we can actually have powered flight on another planet in the very, very thin atmosphere of Mars. The atmosphere of Mars is a thousand times less dense than the earth, where we live. That means the helicopter has to be very specially designed to operate in that really thin atmosphere, but we've dropped it off. It's sitting on the surface, it's waiting to go. We're planning our first flight in the next couple of days, NASA saying no earlier than Sunday, but perhaps even just shortly after that. And so we're really excited to take videos of the helicopter on Mastcam- Z on the cameras. These are kind of the science cameras for the mission they take most of the beautiful color photos you'll see coming back in the news. We'll also be taking the videos of the helicopter as it flies around and does all of its tests over the course of the next month. It's a really exciting time to be on the mission.
Kate Young: The two square lenses of Mastcam- Z have a set of corkscrew motors inside the camera's giving it zoom capabilities strong enough to view a housefly at the far end of a soccer field. The camera's dual lenses can record images in color 3D and video. If you've been following this mission, you may remember seeing a photo in early April that resembled a rainbow. Except rainbows aren't possible on Mars. Dr. Horgan explains the importance of color when it comes to researching rocks on the red planet.
Dr. Briony Horgan: We do all kinds of fun processing to these beautiful images we get back. We take 360 degree mosaics. We take all kinds of beautiful images like that, but we want to use them for science. And so for science, we really want to bring out any kind of differences that exist. And it turns out color is a really important parameter. It tells you about the history of a rock, what its minerals are, all of that. So we do a lot of work to stretch the colors, that's what we say, stretching. And basically to make the colors pop and to see how colors change across the scene. And that can tell us about really red rocks might have more oxidized iron and really blue rocks have less things like that. A lot of the work I do is trying to take those images and process them so we can really tell where the differences in mineralogy and things are across the scenes so that we can tell other Rover instruments to go up and look at them in more detail.
Kate Young: But what exactly is this team of scientists looking for on Mars? Dr. Horgan discusses, why the team chose the specific landing site of Jezero crater. Spoiler alert. Yes. They're looking for signs of life. No, it's not aliens.
Dr. Briony Horgan: The goal of this mission of the Mars 2020 mission is to look for signs of ancient microbial life on Mars. And I say microbial, because, we're looking for signs of life, but we're talking about rocks that are billions of years old, on the order of three and a half to 4 billion years old. So really the dawn of the solar system. And at that period of time earth was, we think we know had life. We have signs of life from them, but it's all microbial. So We're looking for life on Mars. It also has to be microbial. Where do you go to look for signs of ancient microbial life on another planet? Well, you go for places that have water, that have habitable environments that could have supported microbes. And so Jezero crater is a great spot for that because it's this crater, that's about 45 kilometers across, and it has a huge river channel leading into it. And the river channel goes through the rim cuts through the rim, and then there's this huge fan shape Delta where that river hits the crater. And that, we think, formed when that river entered a lake and dropped out everything it was carrying, including hopefully organic material from microbes, living in the watershed that were washed down into the lake. And so the delta in Jezero crater, if we go to the base, we think we can actually dig into ancient lake bottom muds that we think will preserve organic material produced by microbes in the lake and in the watershed around the crater. We also see all kinds of amazing mineral deposits in the crater that we could also help preserve signs of ancient microbes. We see what we think are beach deposits, minerals that precipitated along these beautiful white sandy beaches that could have trapped microbes that were living just under the water there. And so it's a really great place for us to look for signs of ancient life.
Kate Young: This is the first mission expected to collect samples of rock and dust from Mars.
Dr. Briony Horgan: Right now, the thing we're trying to work out is what did we land on? The actual rocks we landed on, what are they, because from orbit the middle of the crater, it looks like it's been covered up by some kind of flow. There's kind of this, it looks like this kind of dark material that oozed over the surface. And so people in the past, it's like, oh, it's a lava flow. And that would be great for us too, because one of our other goals is to collect a sample of a rock that we can use to figure out how old everything in the crater and on Mars is. And lava flows are really great. You can get a sample and take them to your lab and use isotopes to date them and figure out how old they are. And so that would be great if we can land on that and get a sample of it right away. But it turns out when you land on it, it's really not obvious that it's a lava flow or not. These rocks, we can't tell right now with our data we have, is it a lava flow or is it a sandstone or something? And that makes a big difference in terms of, do we sample it? What does it mean for the history of the crater? We're still trying to work that out and that's kind of our first big project that we're working on while the helicopter is doing its flights. What are these rocks that we're standing on right now? And the cameras have been incredibly helpful for that. We've collected tons of great data all around the Rover. We've hit the ground running with these instruments. And it's been, I think, really helpful for the team that we have such a great set of cameras on the Rover.
Kate Young: Okay. Now that we know more about the Perseverance Rover, let's go back to how one of Purdue's very own was inspired by NASA.
Dr. Briony Horgan: That was right around the time I was in college and I was doing my physics major and still trying to figure out what I wanted to do. And those Rover pictures came back and definitely, I think were a huge inspiration to me because prior to that I hadn't really seen any other active space missions. I didn't really know that there was a whole field, that are called planetary science that you could study, even as a science student. And so seeing those pictures come back, saying, oh, you could do geology in space. How cool is that? That's really what prompted me to start looking into space science and looking into planetary science. And so that was, I don't think I even watched the landing, but just seeing the pictures afterward was just definitely a huge impact on my life. But it's really incredible now to actually be on a Rover mission, the new Rover mission and watching landing. We have such incredible, incredible footage from landing from this Rover. We have dozens of cameras that were taking high definition video the entire time during landing. And so now we can actually, I can go back and watch what was happening while I was listening with all the audio feed from NASA. NASA saying, oh, we've done this and we've done this. And now the Rover's going this way. Oh, now we're on the ground it's touchdown, but now you can actually go back and see what the Rover saw at every moment during that descent. And it is absolutely incredible. These videos are what it looks like to land on the surface of another planet. If you're an astronaut in a spaceship, this is what it would look like. And it's really amazing to see the geology and the landing site that we're in now just getting closer and closer and bigger and bigger and really becoming true to life.
Kate Young: And speaking of that Rover landing back in February, which you heard Dr. Horton's reaction to at the beginning of this episode, why exactly was this such an incredible accomplishment?
Dr. Briony Horgan: Landing on Mars is incredibly tough. It's destroyed so many missions. Mars has this thin atmosphere that you have to deal with, you can burn up in the martian atmosphere, but it's not thick enough that you can slow down as easily as you can landing on earth. And so it's really dangerous. Even though the engineers out of Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working for NASA have done so much work testing the landing system, you just never know, right? Mars is tricky. Mars is tough. And so just getting on the ground safely, it was just a huge, huge feeling of relief. Because it's eight years of work putting together the Rover and the instruments and working on the landing site. And it's like, okay, now we can actually start to do science. It wasn't all just time wasted. So really a huge relief and huge excitement to really see the rocks up close and personal.
Kate Young: If working for NASA along with her day job as a professor here at Purdue University, wasn't enough, Dr. Horgan is also a mom to her one- year- old son. And is one of the tactical science leads for this project. Dr. Horgan works with the engineering lead to plan the next day's activities for the Rover from beginning to end. This means she's working on Mars time. I had to laugh a bit before I met you because people were saying, well, Dr. Horgan works on Mars time. So we need to be very delicate about her schedule. Can you tell us what exactly is Mars time and describe what that's like for us?
Dr. Briony Horgan: Yeah, Mars time is pretty rough. It can be fun, but it can be rough. Mars time, what we mean when we say that it's basically the schedule that we have to live on in order to send commands to the Rover on time. And so the Rover it's doing its thing day to day and it collects all this data. It drives and ends up in a place. And then it sends all of that data back to us. At the end of this day, we get it back and then we immediately have to start working on planning for the next day for the Rover. Mars is far enough away, we can't just command the Rover in real time. We can't drive it like a remote control car or something. It takes between seven and 20 minutes for the radio signal to go between earth and Mars. What we do is we actually put together a whole set of commands for a whole day to the Rover, and then it executes them, sort of on its own as a kind of, what we call a semi- autonomous robot basically. So that means in order to get that whole series of, a day's worth of work to the Rover, we have to basically start working as soon as we get the data down from the previous day. And right now it takes us on the order of 12 hours or so to do that, a team of 100s of people working together on Webex remotely. Basically we have to start as soon as we can, so we can get to the Rover before the next day starts, but that data might come down at 11:00 PM. And the last couple of days it's been coming down at about 10 or 11:00 PM Eastern time. That means if I'm on shift, which I have been the last couple of days, I'm working from midnight to 8: 00 AM and then trying to either sleep or get up and go to my normal professor meetings and things. It's definitely, it's a big challenge.
Kate Young: And obviously, as you just described, you don't have a typical nine to five job. Nobody would say your job is typical. What does your family think about your work and everything that you're doing with this mission?
Dr. Briony Horgan: Well, they've been incredibly supportive. I have a one- year- old son and that's definitely tough trying to work on Mars time with a one year old. My husband has been really, really helpful. He's been really just taking charge of everything and really supportive.
Kate Young: I saw a recent tweet from Dr. Horgan that highlighted another Purdue University woman in exploration, Amelia Earhart. The first woman's a fly solo across the Atlantic ocean and a champion of the advancement of Women in Aviation. Dr. Horgan shares what being a part of Purdue community means to her.
Dr. Briony Horgan: Purdue is such a fantastic place to be a woman in expiration. We have a great heritage here from Amelia Earhart and people like that. It's great to be at a place with such a fantastic engineering program and aerospace program. We're really excited about the kinds of things that we can do going forward and actually running, maybe even proposing running NASA missions out of Purdue, which is really great. But I think being a woman here is especially exciting. I think it's really great to be able to mentor the next generation of women. Something we've seen in planetary science is that it's a really great way. Because it's a new and kind of different major. We get a lot of women in it. We actually almost have gender parody in the major. And that's definitely not true when you look at other majors that are related like physics or engineering. And so I think it's a great place to be to help send the next generation of women off to do amazing things in science.
Kate Young: And what's her advice to young, inspiring scientists and geologists out there? Remember it wasn't so long ago that she was the one watching the Mars Spirit Rover land.
Dr. Briony Horgan: Just to keep at it. I think the key to success in science is you have to keep trying. Science is really hard. It's a career that requires a lot of rejection. Everything from getting rejected from college, from grad school, getting papers and grants rejected, but you have to realize that the key is just perseverance. Which is not an accident as the name of our Rover Perseverance, because I think doing science, especially during the time of COVID has required a lot of that. And I think that's really what I look for grad students, for example, it's resilience and perseverance are some of the key characteristics that I look for. And so those are the kinds of things you want to just really commit yourself to the science and get it done.
Kate Young: Perseverance, what a perfect way to tie in Dr. Horgan's exceptional work to the NASA mission itself.
Dr. Briony Horgan: This is incredible to go from being a 19 year old, seeing those pictures coming back from Mars and saying, oh, that's cool. And actually being here on the team and helping to really help figure out what happened with ancient Mars. And day to day, telling a Rover what to do on the surface. It's really exciting. I love seeing new places. I love exploring. And that's really what we're doing. We're seeing new places on Mars with robot eyes, but also with human eyes for the first time. And it's so exciting to me. We're getting a whole new window into a period of the solar system we don't have a great record of here on earth because those rocks have all been destroyed. So we're really getting our first glance into what the solar system and Mars and even earth looked like billions of years ago. And those timescales just totally blow my mind. That we're, right now, the Rover is roving over probably 4 billion year old rocks. And that's just completely crazy to me. And it's really exciting to try to do the science and figure out what that might tell us about the origin and evolution of life on earth and what the earth looked like at that time. I think what I love most about this job, planetary science in particular, is being able to picture what ancient Mars looked like 4 billion years ago. Imagine walking along a white sandy beach on the shore of Jezero crater, watching some microbial mats, kind of gooey microbial mats growing just under the water. That's the part of this job I really like.
Kate Young: If you'd like to learn more about the Mars 2020 mission, Dr. Horgan recommends following NASA social media accounts.
Dr. Briony Horgan: There's so much amazing content you can follow on social media. You mentioned Twitter. NASA has every kind of social media account you can imagine. They're on TikTok, they're on everything. And you can get data coming back from this rover in real time. Or you can see it as soon as we do, basically through all the social media accounts with the internet. And you can actually be part of the exploration. There are whole teams of people out there who are actually processing the images and making images and making mosaics and things faster than we can on the team. And so if you really want to participate in this mission, you can, as a member of the public. And I think that's really exciting.
Kate Young: You can also follow @ nasapersevere on Twitter to see the latest updates and imagery directly from the Perseverance Rover. Well, boilermakers, we knew Purdue had a strong connection to space and a number of alumni working for NASA and in the space industry. Now we have a tie to both the moon and Mars. If you'd like to learn more about Dr. Horgan, please check out purdue. university/ horgan, that's H- O- R- G- A- N. Since Dr. Horgan and I talked earlier in April, the NASA Perseverance team has made history. On April 19th, NASA's ingenuity, Mars helicopter, or Ginny as Dr. Horgan affectionately referred to it, became the first aircraft in history to make a powered controlled flight on another planet. You can watch the full video of the helicopter takeoff, hover, turn and land on NASA's website. Thanks for listening to This is Purdue. For more information on this episode, visit our website at purdue. edu/ podcast. There you can head over to your favorite podcast app to subscribe and leave us a review. And as always boiler up.
An Associate Professor of Planetary Science at Purdue University, Briony Horgan is also one of the tactical science leads for NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover. She is examining the Mars landscape through a rover camera called Mastcam-Z - which she helped design for this mission.
Talk about a Boilermaker who is taking Giant Leaps!
Listen in as Briony discusses what the team of scientists on this mission is looking for on the Red Planet, and what being a part of Purdue’s community means to her.
To learn more about Briony, check out purdue.university/horgan.