Curious About Life: Interview with Felipe Gómez

Felipe Gómez, of the Centro de Astrobiologia in Spain, is one of the scientists working with the REMS instrument on Curiosity to attempt to determine the habitability of the red planet. Credit: Copyright Dr Felipe Gómez/Europlanet RI

The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover has 10 science instruments, and each will be used in the coming weeks and months to help characterize the environment of Mars and determine if the planet ever had the potential for life.

Provided by the Spanish government, the Rover Environmental Monitoring System (REMS) will monitor the daily weather on Mars to help determine habitability at the planet’s surface. Felipe Gómez, of the Centro de Astrobiologia in Spain, is one of the scientists working with REMS.

What kind of research do you generally do?

I’m a biochemist working with extreme environments, or extremophiles, and developing an automated tool for the identification of life. I’m working on habitability studies on Earth as a way to try to understand how to recognize life if we see it on another planet, specifically on Mars. I’ve been using extreme environments worldwide during the last few years to develop a "Habitability Index," which is being applied to the special case of Mars during the MSL mission. I’ve studied the limits of life on Earth to try to understand the particular physico-chemical process which is life, which is necessary if we want to recognize such a process on other planets.

There are three main components to developing a habitability index. They are energy inputs, water available in liquid state, and other important ingredients for life—carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous and sulfur (known generally as CHONPS). All of these elements, integrated, make up the whole model of the habitability potential measurement. CHONPS are available in low quantities on Mars’ surface but they are available. Energy input is calculated as potential metabolic energy which is also available in some surface components. The biggest problem is the water availability. This last point (water) is what I am more involved in with the MSL mission, because it is the most important and controversial part for this habitability potential.

Dust storms, such as this one captured by Mars Global Surveyor in 1999, cross the Martian surface, driven by the wind. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS

My other research line—the development of an automated system for identification of life—is focused on the idea of developing a system which would look for the signatures that are particular for life. I mean, for example, the biosignatures that only life can produce, or just following the energy input or the modifications of environmental parameters by life when life is evolving and reproducing.

The automated system for life detection in which I’m working on is not included in the rover. It is something I’m developing for future missions, to Mars or beyond. It is based on a metabolic detection system, focused in environmental parameter modification only promoted by life for life identification.

What do you do specifically for MSL?

My main scientific interest on the MSL mission is to adapt the "Habitability Index" to Mars using the MSL data. For example, I will use the REMS data, environmental information, and others instruments for implementing the habitability potential of the environment where Curiosity is located. Other instruments can help me to go further and to identify particular niches around Curiosity where life could be settled, special "hot spots" located by Curiosity but difficult for the rover to get to, which could be of high potential for life to exist on Mars. REMS has the ability to measure pressure, air and ground temperature, UV radiation at the Martian surface, water in the atmosphere, and wind speed and direction. All of these are very important. Inputs from other instruments are also necessary. For example, I need to know the mineralogy of Gale Crater and specifically of some of the layered materials on Mount Sharp in order to evaluate other important components of the model. I’m also very interested in the water cycle of Mars, other important questions to be approached in the MSL mission, and the direct relationship of the habitability potential.

How could your work help us to answer astrobiology questions?

My work can help us to answer one of the main scientific objectives of the MSL mission which is the "habitability" of Mars.

How did you feel when the rover touched down?

It was really an exciting moment for me. Since childhood, I have been passionate about NASA space missions, and I followed all of them with great emotion. Being part of one of them, especially a mission as big and challenging as Curiosity, is a dream come true for me. When the rover landed, dream became a reality. It was also a special moment because all of the hard work we did to prepare for the operations on the Mars surface was transformed in that moment into happiness and good emotions.

Have you received preliminary data from REMS, and, if so, how did you feel knowing that the instrument is working on the surface of Mars?

We are receiving data on a daily basis. Each Sol [Martian day], we have the weather data from Mars. Working with an instrument, with a rover, which is located on the surface of Mars is something very exciting and a scientific challenge. To be part of a science team for such a mission, working on Mars and sending data back to Earth from the surface of Mars, is really a challenge for me.

The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station contains two booms protruding from Curiosity’s mast. It will monitor a number of conditions on Mars, including air pressure, wind speed, UV radiation, water in the atmosphere, and temperature. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/INTA (Instituto Nacional de Tecnica Aeroespacial)