LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Exploring Mars might be a dream for students interested in careers in space. For Libby Hausrath, it’s an exciting point on a career path she chose years ago.

Hausrath, a UNLV geoscientist, helps to decide what the Mars Perseverance rover examines as it pokes along its path through the Jezero Crater, where the rover landed on Feb. 18, 2021, after about seven months in space. She also has a voice in what Perseverance collects along the way — hard decisions when there are only 38 tubes to store the samples that will be brought back to Earth in 2033. And 18 of those tubes are already full.

“I really am so excited by different aspects of what I am lucky enough to get to do,” Hausrath said in a Wednesday interview. “It’s just a super thrill to — along with the other members of the science team — be able to point to a spot and say, ‘Oh, you know, I would like to measure that spot.’ “

Perseverance is currently getting ready to leave the crater to move on to other areas on the planet’s surface. “The goal is for the rover to drive up onto the delta pretty shortly, but we are still in Jezero crater studying it,” Hausrath said.

Hausrath, who is currently on sabbatical from UNLV as she devotes all her time to the exploration, is looking for biosignatures — signs of possible past microbial life on Mars. The crater is an ideal place to look for those signs.

The importance of water

“One of the things that has been really interesting is the different pieces of evidence indicating interactions with water,” she said. “Of course, water is necessary for a habitable environment. And so finding the different preserved signatures of past water is really interesting for understanding the past history of Mars in this location.”

Helping guide a mission on Mars is a long journey for a kid from Idaho, but Hausrath started along the path when she saw the work of another Mars exploration as a grad student.

“I was in grad school working on aqueous geochemistry — so, water-rock interactions — when the MER rovers landed and they sent back these data showing evidence of past liquid water on Mars,” she remembers. “And so my advisor and I got interested in this and we actually co-wrote a grant proposal to NASA that funded the rest of my Ph.D.”

Libby Hausrath, a UNLV geoscientist, is working on the team that’s making decisions about what to collect as the Mars rover Perseverance explores the surface. (KLAS-TV)

From there, she did her post-doctoral work at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

And if the 2004 MER project fueled her interest in a space career, Hausrath sees how Perseverance could inspire a new generation of scientists and engineers. She has shared her experience with UNLV students, who have been able to participate in the exploration. She has also been a Nevada STEM mentor.

UNLV students participating

“Students from UNLV are included on the mission, and so that’s a great opportunity for them,” she said. “And when the samples come back they’ll be available to people who are students now to work on.”

“It’s very exciting to be working on a project that is so forward-looking in terms of the return samples and what learning more about Mars and the samples can do to help us prepare for human exploration of Mars,” she said.

The biggest benefit from the space program is that it inspires students to go into science. I think the excitement of the space program can help students stay engaged in science. And even if not all of them become planetary scientists maybe they become engineers, and maybe they become doctors or maybe they go into biomedicine and they help to work on solving problems in our society. The space program has a lot of benefits to us here on Earth.

Libby Hausreth, UNLV geoscientist involved in the Mars Perseverance exploration

Biggest discovery

The biggest discovery through the first 647 solar days on the surface of Mars?

“There’s a lot of really interesting things,” Hausrath said. “I’m personally very interested in the evidence of past water. The evidence of organic molecules that’s been detected is also very exciting because of course terrestrial life is made up of organic carbon. To see that … to see the ability to detect organic carbon on another planet is very exciting. So yeah, water and organic carbon, evidence of past water and organic carbon are very interesting.”

‘Science is hard’

And Hausrath offers this advice to aspiring scientists:

“Perseverance is really well named. It takes a lot of perseverance to stay in science. Science is hard. And that’s why it’s so great that the space program can encourage students to stick with it because we need these students to stay in science and engineering to help solve the problems of the future. So I encourage students to persevere. Science is hard. It’s hard for everybody, and so if a student is feeling like it’s hard for them, it’s hard for everybody. So don’t be discouraged, persevere in science and help solve the problems and work on the exciting, interesting problems of tomorrow,” she said.

She’s among a group of UNLV faculty engaged in Mars research including Arya Udry, assistant professor of geoscience, Chris Adcock, assistant research professor of geochemistry, Aude Picard, assistant research professor in life sciences and Oliver Tschauner, research professor of geoscience.

A billboard near UNLV gives a shout-out to scientists involved in the exploration of Mars. (Greg Haas / 8NewsNow)

Along the way, these scientists are making the university proud. A billboard along Paradise Road at Tropicana Avenue trumpets, “Rebels make it happen: The road to Mars runs through Vegas. UNLV.” She’s also helping to answer some very important questions about the possibility of life on Mars, along with studies that will affect future missions when humans will travel to Mars.

Algae study

Hausrath and Dr. Leena Cycil have also studied algae and its potential uses in the formidable environment of Mars.

An article on UNLV’s website describes their work, which could play a role in long-term human exploration of the planet.

“The space program has a lot of spinoffs that can help solve problems at home. For example, understanding how snow algae grow,” Hausrath said. “And of course how algae grow on glaciers impacts the warming of the glaciers as we experience global warming. So there’s a lot of applications from work that’s relevant to space science that’s also relevant to concerns on Earth.”