Jennifer Eigenbrode
Planetary Geochemist
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Reading Mars’ Story

By Kristen O’Neill

Jennifer Eigenbrode was going to be an artist.

“I was discouraged by my parents,” she said. “They didn’t think I had a good chance of getting a constant salary.”
And then she saw the mountains.

“When you haven’t spent much time in the mountains and you see them for the first time it really kind of takes you by surprise,” said Eigenbrode. “It’s a sense of awe.” After her first look at the mountains of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Eigenbrode wanted to know how they got there. She knew the story of how life progressed, one organism at a time, but how had the earth factored into the equation?

“Life didn’t just evolve on its own, it evolved with the environments of the earth, and rocks are the record of all that,” she said. “The rocks are really a storybook and I was interested in the story.”

So she became a geologist. Now, Eigenbrode is reading Mars’ story and trying to find anywhere life might’ve once been—or one day could be.

“Life is opportunistic,” she said. “And if there’s no opportunity, it makes one.”

On RIS4E, Eigenbrode works with X-ray diffraction, a process of determining what minerals are in a sample of rock or soil that might one day be used by astronauts on Mars.

Eigenbrode already had some experience with spacework through her involvement in NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory and its Curiosity rover, which launched in 2011 and continues today. She uses her knowledge of organic geochemistry to interpret data the rover has collected on organic chemicals found on Mars as well as new ways to detect them.

Though most of this work happens in the lab, she says it feels as if she’s in the field when she looks at rover images with the rest of the geologist team to decide what they want the rover to do next. “In every sense of the word it feels like I’m doing field geology,” she said. “We just have limited hands on the ground.”

Still, Eigenbrode tries to get out to the field as often as she can. “I decided that if I could have a job that paid for me to be outside for one week a year in some really cool place,it would be a good job.”

“So far so good,” she added.

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