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Why St. Louis Scientists Have Their Eyes On Mars

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NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
This cropped image is part of a panorama visual taken by NASA's Curiosity Mars rover on Dec. 19, 2019.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into space. Sputnik 1 and the space race it set off sparked a Space Age — and a generation of scientists who would go on to lead space exploration.

Among them was Raymond Arvidson. He remembers the historic moment and clipped newspaper articles about Sputnik to hang on his bedroom wall. Decades later, Mars would become his playground.

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Raymond Arvidson is a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

Arvidson is a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, and he’s worked for NASA on numerous rover and lander launches. His main area of expertise is Mars.

“It's so exciting to come into work after a [rover] drive of maybe 50, 60, 70 yards, and you see brand-new terrain. It kind of gives you the goosebumps, because it looks just like the deserts on Earth. They're ancient river deposits, they're ancient lake beds, they’re volcanic deposits that have been eroded by wind,” Arvidson said.

“Mars was really active early on, but being a small planet, it lost its magnetic field. The core froze [and] the atmosphere was largely blown away. So all those terrains are kind of preserved, and it makes it look kind of like the Mojave Desert in California.”

Mars missions he’s worked on include Mars Viking Landers, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, Mars Exploration rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), Mars Phoenix Lander, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity rover) and the European Space Agency's Mars Express Orbiter. Usually these missions take place every two years.

The Perseverance rover launched on July 30 as part of the Mars 2020 mission. While Arvidson will not be a member of this project’s NASA science team, he’s still playing a vital role in ensuring this trip goes smoothly. The rover is scheduled to land on Mars in February 2021.

“The reason we're exploring Mars, if you think about it, is to understand us,” he said. “‘So did life get started and evolve on the red planet, and if so, how did it happen?’ It's going to play back to understanding life on the Earth.”

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Arvidson talked about his lab's participation with this year’s mission and how staffers there will archive the Perseverance data.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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