Meet the astrobiologist and her students who are searching for life on Mars

A small helicopter sits on the ground on Mars

Ingenuity, the helicopter that arrived on the Red Planet on the Mars Perseverance rover, has made more than 20 flights on Mars. Photo Credit: NASA.

Welcome to From Florida, a podcast where you’ll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovations become a reality because of the University of Florida. 

As a child, Amy Williams gazed at the skies and had the same thought many of us do: Is there life out there? Now, as an astrobiologist at the University of Florida, Williams and her students are actively working on NASA’s Curiosity and Perseverance missions to find out if ancient life forms ever existed on Mars. In this episode of From Florida, Williams describes the research taking place that hopes to answer that question. Produced by Nicci Brown, Brooke Adams and James L. Sullivan. Original music by Daniel Townsend, a doctoral candidate in music composition in the College of the Arts.

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Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where we share stories about the people, research and innovations taking place at the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown. 

There is a lot of exciting news about space these days, from the successful launch of the James Webb Telescope to the ongoing explorations of the Mars Perseverance and Curiosity rovers. 

Today, we’re going to talk to a researcher who has a front row seat to Mars research. Amy Williams is an assistant professor of geology, and an astrobiologist at UF. Amy worked at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center as a postdoctoral research associate, and then at Towson University, before coming to UF. 

She has been a member of the Curiosity Rover Science Team since 2009, and also now was a participating scientist on the Perseverance Rover Science Team. I'll let Amy tell us more. Welcome, Amy.

Amy Williams: Thank you so much, Nicci.

Nicci Brown: Amy, first of all, what exactly is astrobiology and what drew you to this field?

Amy Williams: Those are excellent questions. So, astrobiology is really the study of the search for life beyond Earth. And when we think about life beyond Earth, we are thinking maybe less specifically of Martians, you know Marvin the Martian kind of idea, and more so of microbial life, sort of like today's bacteria. And so, my interest has always been in whether there's life beyond Earth. Even as a little kid watching meteor showers with my family, I wondered if there was someone out there in the stars looking back at Earth and wondering if there were anyone else out there in the universe. So, it's been a passion of mine my whole career, and now, it's the most amazing opportunity to serve on both of the active Mars rover missions today.

Nicci Brown: And can you tell us a little bit more about specifically what your research focuses on?

Amy Williams: Absolutely. As an astrobiologist and geobiologist, my interest is in how life can be preserved in basically rocks on Earth, on Mars, how life might be preserved, and we might be able to detect it even in outer worlds, like ocean worlds like Enceladus and Europa. So as an astrobiologist and geobiologist, I leverage techniques from geology, microbiology, and chemistry in order to address those questions and to try to understand, what kind of signatures of life does life leave behind, even if it's gone now?

Amu Williams bio photo for podcast

Amy Williams, an astrobiologist at the University of Florida, is a partcipating scientist on NASA's Mars missions. Photo Credit: Univeristy of Florida

Nicci Brown: How did you become involved with NASA? I imagine this has got to be highly competitive.

Amy Williams: It is an extraordinary opportunity. I was able to join the Curiosity mission as a Ph.D. student at the University of California at Davis. My research advisor was a CO-I on the mission. And, so, she had funding to bring in one graduate student. She said, "Do you want to work on Mars?" And I was like, "Is that even a legitimate question? Of course, I want to work on Mars." So, I was able to join the mission as a graduate student, stayed on as a postdoctoral researcher at Goddard Space Flight Center, and then was able to stay on Curiosity as a collaborator with the SAM instrument team, which is the instrument on Curiosity with which I work. And from there, I've had the opportunity to join the Perseverance mission now, as of 2021, as a participating scientist. And actually, just recently changed my role with Curiosity also as a participating scientist. Both of these are competitive grant applications to join the mission in this capacity.

Nicci Brown: Can you tell us a little bit more about what that actually means to be a participating scientist?

Amy Williams: Absolutely. So, on these missions, I mean, it's hundreds of people—scientists and engineers—and many people are on the mission from its inception. They come on as either PIs, principal investigators of instruments, CO-Is who contribute to the instruments and the mission, and then the people who help run it. So, these two missions are run out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. And one of the opportunities to bring in effectively new people who have not been on the mission from the beginning is this competitive participating scientist grant system, which allows people to propose the best science that they can, and it is competed within NASA's system. And those that are selected are able to join the mission.

Nicci Brown: And what does that actually entail? Do you have regular meetings? Or what is your day-to-day if there is such a thing?

Amy Williams: There certainly is. So, with a participating scientist role, there's actually more flexibility and more autonomy than there is necessarily when you're serving on one of the instrument teams, which I'm able to do on Curiosity as a member of the SAM instrument team. So, a lot of what I do is actually day-to-day rover operations. We all sign in from effectively around the world, and we coordinate to look at the data collected from the day before from the rovers, make decisions about what we want to look at with the cameras, what basically chemical data we want to get from the rocks around us with some of our remote sensing instruments, and we write the scripts that up link to the rover, and we tell the rover what to do every day. So, you can wake up to images from Mars every single day, which is just one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.

Nicci Brown: It sounds like it. So, can you tell us about the graduate students who are working with you?

Amy Williams: Oh, the graduate students. Number one, the students at UF are just fantastic. And the graduate students who I've had the opportunity to work with have just been extraordinary. I have had the opportunity to have several of the graduate students working in my lab group join the mission, and actually also participate in daily rover operations. Much of their hope is that, after their Ph.D.s, they are able to stay on missions of some kind, and maybe Mars missions, maybe we'll be ready at that point to explore Titan, or Enceladus, or Europa, and they're very excited to take this experience and be able to transform it into future mission opportunities. But at this stage, the graduate students I'm working with work on daily rover operations, work on research related to the science of how life is preserved in rocks and how we can look for it on Mars.

Nicci Brown: It sounds like this is a kind of pay it forward moment for you.

Amy Williams: It truly is. This has been one of the most satisfying, personally and professionally, satisfying moments to know that my career was launched by someone giving me the opportunity to join a Mars rover mission. And I now have the opportunity to offer that to graduate students working in my lab group, not only on NASA's newest Mars mission, Perseverance, but also on the mission that my career started with, on Curiosity. This is just the best way to pay it forward and to help other nascent scientists, early career women, really reach all of their potential.

Nicci Brown: And are you seeing more women become involved? It must be really heartening for you.

Amy Williams: It's very exciting to see more women and persons of color be able to be represented in these extraordinary experiences working on planetary missions. It is personally very important to me to support women, and underrepresented groups, and persons of color in my lab group and in helping them be represented on the mission. And so, I focused on that in recruiting students and encouraging them to join the mission whenever possible. So, it is really heartening to see this increase in participation from all stakeholders.

Nicci Brown: I've got to imagine that the publicity that is happening around these missions also helps when we've got young children, even at the elementary age, seeing this on the news on the television. And like you were as a little girl, crafting this narrative of what they're going to be.

Amy Williams: Yeah. One of the best things about this opportunity is the outreach, the ability to engage with the public and, especially, to engage with the younger demographics. There's actually a friend of my elementary and middle school science teacher, and her granddaughter actually interacts with me on social media. And so, we just send these messages, and she's, you know, elementary school age, quite young, and she just asks me questions about Mars, and "Can I be a scientist?" And it's just that personal connection, a woman and her granddaughter I've never met in person before, but these beautiful connections we're able to make. And I, it's really heartening to think about the upcoming generations of scientists who are going to take my place at some point.

Nicci Brown: You gave us the note of waking up and seeing new photographs from Mars, which not photographs, images, I should say, to be on point. But it blows your mind thinking about that. Can you tell us a brief timeline for each rover mission, how it starts, how it evolves?

Amy Williams: Oh, absolutely. So, as a preface to what's happening with Curiosity and Perseverance, I like to point out that the previous rover missions were the Mars Exploration rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Their nominal mission timelines were three months. And I think Opportunity went up to 14 years, something really extraordinary. So, we have this mindset that these missions last for a very long time, and we've been developing them so that they can. So, Curiosity and Perseverance, unlike the Mars Exploration rovers, both have basically plutonium battery packs that allow them to operate for quite a long period of time.

Now, Curiosity landed in 2012. Perseverance just landed in 2021. Curiosity is still going very strong. We're actually entering into our extended mission for Curiosity. And we are exploring these reaches of this huge mountain in Gale Crater called Mount Sharp. And we've been climbing this mountain almost the entire mission and exploring these changes in the chemistry and the sediments that we see in this mountain. And it's effectively like reading pages of a book. As geologists, we can deconvolve what's going on in Mars's history and in its climate based on what's present in these rock layers.

So, we have so much more that we want to explore with Curiosity. We're still climbing the mountain. We're still asking all of these great questions about how Mars evolved from a wet planet early in its history to the dry and cold world that we know today. And then for Perseverance, you know, we just landed about a year ago, and we are completing our crater floor campaign where we landed and getting ready to rapidly traverse to the delta.

The delta is a geologic deposit that's formed when water from a river flows into a lake, so we know there was a lot of water in this crater in its past, and that's why it's so intriguing to us. We want to search for evidence of ancient life on Mars, and we want to go to habitable environments, places where life would want to live if it were present. And so, a delta environment is just a fabulous place for us to conduct this exploration. One of the great opportunities that I now have is serving as a campaign science lead for the Delta Campaign. So effectively helping to select where are we going to collect samples for eventual return to Earth with the Mars sample-return architecture.

Nicci Brown: And how far apart are the two missions in terms of the geography, where they're located, and where they're doing their work?

Amy Williams: So many of our missions land close to the Martian mid-latitudes where it doesn't get so extraordinarily cold in the winter that it really is challenging for us to continue the operation of our missions. But Perseverance and Curiosity are hundreds of kilometers away. They're in completely different craters. I do have this, like a vision of them traversing and meeting up and saying "hi" to each other. But unfortunately, that is not really in the cards.

Nicci Brown: And when you talk about a huge mountain, can you put that into Earth terms? How large are we talking?

Amy Williams: Absolutely. So, in Gale Crater, Mount Sharp, which is formally known as Aeolis Mons, is like a five-kilometer-tall mountain. So that is pretty extraordinary.

Nicci Brown: What more do we know about Mars since you've started working in these missions? What are the kinds of things that we are learning or at least the highlights, because I'm sure there's a plethora of information?

Amy Williams: There is absolutely so much that we've learned since Curiosity landed. With the Mars Exploration missions, those rovers were meant to follow the water and search for evidence of water on Mars, which we now know was widespread early in Mars' history. And so it's almost a given at this point, yes, water impacted this area that we're exploring. Curiosity was sent to follow the carbon, to effectively search for organic molecules in addition to the different factors that go into a habitable environment. And now, Perseverance is taking that next step and searching for evidence of ancient life on Mars. So, as an astrobiologist, this is one of the most extraordinary missions I feel that I could serve on to attempt to answer that most profound question.

Nicci Brown: And one of the things about all of this work, and I think it was really highlighted with the Webb project, is the amount of time from start to finish. And in that case, it was decades, but this kind of work really does require a lot of patience, I imagine.

Amy Williams: Absolutely. We actually get data down on a daily or every other day basis from our orbital assets around Mars coming to the deep space network on Earth, which receives transmissions. And we're able to process those data pretty quickly. But on the grand scale of conception of a concept, we're going to send a rover to look for evidence of ancient life on Mars, to building the mission, to launch, to surviving landing, which we make look easy, but it certainly is challenging. We've spent the past over a year exploring the crater floor in Jezero with the Perseverance mission, and just now, we're finally ready to move towards the delta, that really extraordinary structure that we identified from orbit and said, "This is where we want to look for ancient life on Mars."

Nicci Brown: You speak with such affinity to all of these places. Do you have a favorite?

Amy Williams: Oh, oh this is like choosing children; I don't know if I'm able to do that. Curiosity will always have a special place in my heart as my very first Mars mission. I've had an opportunity to join the leadership of the Perseverance mission and so that has a different feel to me, but I would say that they are both extraordinary to me, and absolutely the best, most profound opportunities I've ever had in my life.

Nicci Brown: And what about the locations you've "visited?" Is there one that has surprised you more than the other?

Amy Williams: I would say that when we got to Jezero Crater, which is what Perseverance is exploring, we landed and we expected to be in a lake deposit, right? We know that river was flowing into a lake. And as we are exploring the area, we're starting to realize, "These aren't lake sediments. This is actually made of igneous rock, a rock that's made by magma or lava cooling.” And it's just not at all what we expected, which I think is such an important reminder that Mars is hard, that this exploration is hard and as much as we think we know about Mars or these other worlds, they are these dynamic and extraordinary environments. And it's really humbling to land somewhere and we were confident we knew what we were landing in, and things are not quite as we expected. So, it's always an adventure on Mars. I would say that landing there and realizing, "This is not what we expected, but let's see what there is to explore," is one of the great things about Jezero Crater.

Nicci Brown: And what's ahead for you and for NASA as far as additional missions go?

Amy Williams: So, the Perseverance mission specifically is the first of a three-part architecture to bring samples from Mars back to Earth for the first time. The only samples we have from Mars are from meteorites that are ejected from Mars' surface, circle in the solar system for a while, and happen to land on Earth. With a sample-return from Mars, this is going to be, I think, revolutionary. For planetary science, very broadly, not just Mars science. Because it's going to allow us to answer questions with our suite of instruments across the globe, with the best scientists, and the best technologies, to ask questions about the origins of these rocks and their minerals, what processes have affected them, and of course, the big question, is there evidence for life preserved in them? 

So, Mars sample-return is sort of a decades-long process with the Perseverance mission collecting samples as the first step. Beyond that, we are working, NASA's working on program to eventually send humans to Mars and really kick off our opportunities to become a multi-planetary species, to explore these other worlds, which is truly extraordinary.

Nicci Brown: And what kind of timeline are we talking about there?

Amy Williams: Oh, so NASA is looking in the many decades ahead in order to develop the technologies and the capability to send humans to other worlds and that first step is sending humans back to the moon. And so that those are our first steps as we prepare to eventually send humans to Mars. But in the meanwhile, these robots, these rovers that we send to the red planet, they are our proxy. And looking through the robot rover's eyes, the images that are returned to us, I recognize this is the closest I will ever be to standing on Mars and looking up at these beautiful geologic units, looking up at an alien world that's so familiar because the tenets of geology apply on Mars, the same as they do on Earth.

Nicci Brown: So perhaps that little girl that you interact with on Facebook may one day be stepping onto Mars or perhaps a child of hers?

Amy Williams: I have been encouraging her to consider being an astronaut.

Nicci Brown: Amy, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been a real pleasure.

Amy Williams: Thank you so much, Nicci.

Nicci Brown: Listeners. Thank you for joining us for another episode of From Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown, and I hope you'll tune in next week.

From Florida March 15, 2022