U of W team to document search for life on red planet

Stephanie Connell never grew out of her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut.
While the 29-year-old student has a long way to go before venturing into outer space, she came one step closer last week — when the Perseverance rover landed on Mars.
“I was watching it from my living room, on my laptop … sweating,” she recalls of the moments Thursday, leading up to the successful spacecraft parachute.
Connell, a fourth-year environmental sciences student, is part of the University of Winnipeg team at the Centre for Terrestrial and Planetary Exploration involved with NASA’s latest probe.
“If you would’ve told eight-year-old Steph I’d be doing this, I would be ecstatic,” she said.
Led by centre director Ed Cloutis, the Winnipeg team is working with international scientists who are scanning the Red Planet’s surface geology for signs of life to record findings during the expedition.
Last week’s landing was eight years in the making for Cloutis, who has been supporting the development of the rover’s cameras since 2013.
He recruited students to take part in the latest project in the summertime, at which point, Connell and Nathalie Turenne began to train for Mars exploration through shadowing experts in pre-mission operations.
“This is a very high-profile mission and I’m proud of the fact we can contribute,” said Cloutis, a geography professor at U of W.
Throughout his quarter-century of doing planetary exploration work, Cloutis has been a part of five missions, including Curiosity, in which a rover landed on Mars in 2012.
He got involved with Perseverance after NASA scientists inquired about his interest in the project, given U of W’s unique facilities and expertise to support missions to Mars.
The Centre for Terrestrial and Planetary Exploration is home to a chamber that can mimic the surface of Mars, in terms of atmospheric pressure, temperature and its carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere.
Before Perseverance launched, Cloutis’ team used the dishwasher-sized device to test calibration targets — equipment that was mounted onto the rover to help cameras collect images and scientific data — to ensure the pictures taken on Mars are in true colour.
Two rock samples from the Winnipeg lab’s collection were also installed on the rover as part of its SuperCam instrument’s calibration pane, Cloutis said.
Now that Perseverance has landed, the team is supporting the search for signs of life by taking part in “rover shifts.”
Turenne, a recent U of W graduate who wants to pursue a thesis involving planetary science, had her second shift as a documentarian late Monday night, when it was daytime on Mars.
The 25-year-old observed a panorama taken by cameras aboard the rover and took notes about what the mission’s science support team learned from the imagery.
“It’s incredible seeing images,” she said. “It’s a great feeling to just be in awe.”
When asked whether he suspects there were once living creatures on Mars, Cloutis said his answer to the question changes daily. “But if we’re going to find signs of life on Mars, they will be signs of past, microbial life.”
NASA plans to explore the rover’s landing site in the Jezero Crater region for at least one Mars year, which is the equivalent of two years on Earth.
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