Amy McAdam
Planetary Geochemist
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Searching For Life on the Red Planet

By Kristen O’Neill

When you hear about someone studying life, a biologist might be the first thing you think of. But what if a scientist is searching for life? On Mars. By looking at rocks on Earth.

That’s what Amy McAdam does. A planetary geochemist working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, she’s part of a far-flung endeavor among earthbound space scientists looking for signs of life on the Red Planet.

A little soft-spoken at first, McAdam brightens when she starts talking about her work, as if the science is simply too cool to hold her back. McAdam says she’s always been that way, especially about space. “I still have my first book about space that I got when I was five or four,” she said.

McAdam is the X-ray diffraction instrument team lead for Theme 2 of the RIS4E project. With the help of Jennifer Eigenbrode, an organic geochemist, she spent her time on the Kilauea lava flows trying to find critical information about the mineralogy of samples as fast as possible in the field. This work will help NASA decide which samples future astronauts traveling to Mars should gather and test.

Beyond this project, McAdam is also on the instrument team for a machine called SAM—for Sample Analysis at Mars—that is currently attached to the Mars rover Curiosity. SAM is an instrument suite that includes a technology called evolved gas analysis that helps scientists explore the mineralogy of a rock sample. McAdam works with evolved gas analysis in her lab at Goddard, simulating conditions SAM will encounter on Mars to mimic what it will measure, including studies that can reveal alterations they’ve undergone. It’s these alterations that are McAdam’s passion.

“I spend a lot of my time thinking about how rocks and soils on Mars might have recorded past or present environments on Mars,” she said. Scientists first found water on Mars in 2013, but are still unsure just how suitable for life it was. From the data, McAdam hopes scientists can find out whether water that may have been on Mars in the past was too acidic, too salty or, perhaps, just right.

Her work with the RIS4E team in Hawaii is good practice for that – here she can observe changes in basalt, the volcanic rock that covers the lava fields of both Mars and Hawaii. The basalt of the Kilauea lava flows is not only exposed to desert-like conditions, but also acidic rain from the sulfur plume of the still-active volcano. Though Mars is still drier than the lava fields in Hawaii, geologists can study the effect neutral water and acidic water have on the basalt, and compare it to the alterations happening on Mars, to find out if the water it used to have was suitable for life.

There is, of course, the added bonus of basalt being her favorite type of rock.

“I haven’t been to a place so dominated by basalt,” she said after her first day out in the field. “And I’ve never seen such fresh lava flows in my life, it was beautiful.”

Between working in Hawaii’s lava fields as a NASA scientist and her involvement with Curiosity, McAdam is closer to Mars than most people will ever get. But she wants to get even closer, in a space suit – though she admits she hasn’t really looked into actually applying to the space program.

“If someone asked me, I would do it. Whatever they want,” she said, laughing. “If they want me to survive out in the desert with duct tape and a paperclip I’d give it a try.”

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