Amy Williams was hired by the University of Florida last year as a geology professor, but of note this week is her work as a participating scientist on the Perseverance mission set to land on Mars on Thursday.
It’s actually Williams’ second Mars mission, as her first was on the Curiosity rover team in 2009 as a PhD student.
Williams recalled her passion for science, technology and engineering sparking at a young age. From wanting to be an astronaut to wondering how life can be studied in rocks in other planets, she has become an accomplished woman in the STEM field.
As an astrobiologist, Williams studies how life can be preserved in the geological units of a planet. Her subspecialty is organic geochemistry, meaning she specializes in the organic components that living things are made of and how they’re preserved in rocks. Her role on the Perseverance mission is to look for organic matter on Mars.
“One of the ways preserved life can be identified is through studying the organic chemicals that it was made of,” Williams said. “I will be searching for these organic chemicals with the Perseverance rover, using a different technique than is available on the Curiosity rover.”
While working on the Curiosity rover, Williams used a tool called SAM – short for Sample Analysis at Mars – and it was composed of three main instruments that would search for organic molecules. On the Perseverance rover, although this feature is not present, the sampling can be searched for through a technique called Raman spectroscopy.
“The way that things are different with the Perseverance rover is that although it does not have this GCMS instrument, we still have the ability to detect organic matter. The SHERLOC instrument and the SuperCam instrument, both on Perseverance, have this ability,” Williams said. “We are going to be able, for the first time, to truly rove up to a rock and basically take a very quick measurement either with SHERLOC or SuperCam and determine the organics load in these samples. This is going to be a much faster cadence than we’ve been able to perform.”
The Perseverance mission is unique because this is the first time that these samples are being brought back to Earth. Currently, there are no materials from the surface of another planet that was brought back since the Apollo samples from the moon in the 1960s and ’70s.
“Having direct samples is going to revolutionize the Mars planetary science community and our study… how we study Mars,” Williams said. “That is a few steps down the road from Perseverance. Perseverance is going to be the first step in this, in that it will collect these samples […] and future missions will be able to collect those samples, launch them off of Mars, for the first time launch them off of Mars, and then they will be sent back to Earth.”
Mars sample return, in Williams’ opinion, is “the most ambitious planetary architecture that we’ve engaged in since the Apollo mission.” This project is very long-term. While the samples will be collected with the Perseverance rover, it then has to go into orbit and then brought back to Earth; a process that will take many years. The second stage of Mars sample return will be potentially launching in 2026 or 2028.
Her proposal to NASA, “Seeking Organic and Textural Signs of Ancient Life in Jezero Crater with the Mars 2020 Rover Payload,” was one of 13 proposals chosen among 119 applicants. Its main objectives are to detect ecological habitability, search for materials with living potential and search for evidence of past life on Mars. The process began about a year ago with proposal applications due in March. Selections came back in the late Fall.
“When I saw ‘selected’ on the tab for this proposal… I really just had to sit there and process it and I kind of just kept logging back in and checking to make sure that I had read it correctly because I was just so excited because the opportunities this offers is beyond even a standard grant proposal […] because joining this mission, bringing students on to the mission, the networking that you do and the science opportunities that you have are just heads and shoulders above any opportunity that I have ever tried to participate in previously,” Williams said.
Williams and her husband Stephen Elardo, also a UF geology professor, have caused a buzz at UF. Students have applied to this program to work under both professors. Williams has gathered a few of her graduate students to work on her team for NASA.
“I’ll just preface by saying that being a woman in STEM, I think it is important for me to help pave the way for others to move forward in their careers and in the science. […] I’m really thrilled to have them join the mission. To have them have this experience is really fulfilling to me in knowing that this is going to help push their careers forward,” Williams said.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, Williams will watch the landing from home on NASA TV, where anyone can watch the livestream. Otherwise, Williams and husband Elardo would have been co-located in Pasadena, California. Due to her experience with remote operations and everyone cooperating from different time zones, Williams is confident it will all feel very familiar.
Living on Mars time this time around will be different than the last time she pushed through 90 Martian days, also known as Sols. A Sol consists of 24 hours and 37 minutes.
“The big thing I will really miss is the camaraderie that you really form when you’re living on Mars time, working on these extraordinary missions with a group of, you know, your 400 closest friends,” Williams said. “Unlike on Curiosity, I will not go full-on Mars time for 3 months. That’s just not going to be sustainable at home while I have a teaching schedule at UF and a toddler but I will be cycling my schedule so I can contribute as much as possible and potentially strange evening hours that I don’t normally keep.”
Despite having a busy schedule, Williams reminds us that she has a “normal” life of her own. On Perseverance landing day, her toddler turns 18 months old.
“Going from being a mom at home and cleaning up the toys before we run out the door to jumping on telecons and thinking of rover operations and the future of Mars science – it’s certainly an interesting mixture of responsibilities that I didn’t necessarily envision for myself when I started getting my PhD and started engaging in rover operations and now, of course, I can’t imagine it any other way,” Williams said.