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Wash U scientists to continue Mars research with $11.8 million NASA contract renewal

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Sean Garcia
Washington University in St. Louis
Ray Arvidson's team meets in the remote sensing lab. From left: Jue Wang, Susan Slavney, Ray Arvidson, Ed Guinness, Thomas Stein, Dan Scholes, Dan Politte and Feng Zhou.

Since the ’90s, experts in earth and planetary sciences at Washington University have helped NASA archive its research on the Earth’s moon, Mars, Venus and Mercury.

“There was a National Academy study that basically concluded that we were losing the data from the various NASA missions,” Raymond Arvidson explained on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “So [there was] a big idea: ‘Why not put the data sets and locations and institutions where there are people scientists are actually using the data?’ And that led to the idea of distributed archives.”

Arvidson is a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University, and was involved in that initial study. Last month, NASA renewed its contract with the St. Louis-based university, awarding Wash U an additional $11.8 million to continue its work with managing the Geosciences Node of NASA’s Planetary Data System. 

“It's always a relief, because what happens every five years, we have to write a full proposal, and that proposal is reviewed by a panel of peers,” he said. “We got really good reviews and full funding, so we're good for another five years to do this important archiving work.”

Arvidson joined host Sarah Fenske on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air to delve into what his department hopes to accomplish in the years to come and update listeners on how the Perseverance rover is doing on Mars.

See also: Why St. Louis scientists have their eyes on Mars

Wash U scientists to continue Mars research with $11.8 million NASA contract renewal
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The rover landed on the Red Planet last February, bringing back “oodles of information” to local scientists. Since April, a helicopter accompanying the rover, called Ingenuity, has been exploring regions for the rover to drill into the Martian rocks. Eventually, the goal is to get those core samples up onto the surface.

“And then in the next few years, there'll be a rover, called a [Sample] Fetch Rover, to go get them, and then put them into an ascent rocket, rendezvous with an orbital spacecraft and return those things to Earth,” Arvidson said.

The samples will allow researchers to search for evidence of ancient life.

“The more we look down on the surface with the two active rovers, Curiosity and Perseverance, it's clear from the ancient rocks that Mars was once warm and wet, and had extended lakes and rivers and steam-charged volcanoes,” he said.

“So those rovers and the orbiters looking down are all kind of focused on, ‘Was the planet habitable?’ And eventually, [they’ll be] searching for ancient life or extended life. So we're right in the middle of it, which is pretty exciting.”

Anyone aiming to experience a day in the life of a rover can access the missions' data and contextual details in the Analyst’s Notebook, which is available through the PDS website.

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. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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