Frances Rivera-Hernández Lands NASA and Scialog Grants for Planetary Research, Signatures of Life

Rivera-Hernández will help develop smarter autonomous rovers and robotics for the Moon and Mars, and hunt for chemical signs of life beyond Earth.

October 17, 2022

When samples of Mars’ soil and rocks are returned to Earth in the future, Frances Rivera-Hernandez will aid in the search for chemical signs of life within those samples.

The School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences assistant professor will also help develop a new generation of robots and rovers that can handle difficult terrain on the Moon, Mars, and other space destinations.

Those projects are made possible thanks to two new awards: a $2.9 million NASA Planetary Science and Technology from Analog Research (PSTAR) grant, and a 2022 Scialog “Signatures of Life in the Universe” Fellowship that’s part of an overall $1,045,000 award to eight interdisciplinary teams of scientists from the United States and Canada.

For the Scialog® research, Rivera-Hernández will team with Laurie Barge, research scientist in the Planetary Sciences division of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a project titled Mars Sample Return: Connecting Martian Environmental Geochemistry to Returned Samples.

The 2022 Scialog Collaborative Innovation Awards are funded by Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the Heising-Simons Foundation, The Kavli Foundation, and NASA.

The NASA PSTAR project, meanwhile, will have Rivera-Hernández collaborating with a Georgia Tech School of Physics and School of Electrical and Computer Engineering dual alumna and colleagues for their research into developing autonomous, legged robots that can handle challenging planetary terrains.

Better robotic design to serve science

“We are trying to figure out the most optimized ways to do science on the Moon and Mars,” Rivera-Hernández said. “The key is how to better design robots to do the science that we want — and to do the missions. Missions cost money, and the lifetime of missions is quite restrained, so we’re looking at how to design robots to help serve that endeavor — and how humans can interact with those robots to do science.”

Feifei Qian (M.S. PHYS '11, Ph.D. ECE '15), a WiSE Gabilan Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering, and former student of Daniel Goldman, Dunn Family Professor in the School of Physics, is leading the three-year PSTAR project.

The team’s ultimate goal is to create legged robots that could more easily glide through icy surfaces, crusted sand, and other difficult-to-navigate environments, significantly enhancing scientists’ abilities to gather information from planetary bodies.

Rivera-Hernández is co-investigator and one of the few researchers on the team with both fieldwork and rover mission experience.

The project employs “bio-inspired” robots with legs, meaning their form is modeled after animals’ unique abilities to move well on challenging surfaces like soft sand. Utilizing the latest “direct-drive” actuator technology, these robots can “feel” the terrain (e.g., sand softness, rock shapes) from their legs. This ability allows the legged robots to interact with the environment in the same manner as animals, adjusting their movement as needed.

Qian said these robots are modeled in a manner that allows them “to not just mimic how the animals look, but really understand what makes these animals successful on different terrains.”

“And of course there are the geology and science interests,” added Rivera-Hernández, who also leads The Planetary Laboratory Analyzing Environments, Terrains and Analogs (PLANETAS) research group at Georgia Tech.  

“We are interested in determining the geotechnical properties of regolith, like erodibility and cohesion, when it's cemented by ice or mineral crusts,” she explained.

“This will help us make better science and mobility decisions for imminent missions to the Moon, where icy regolith in steep terrains will be explored with limited knowledge of mobility on such mixtures — and to Mars, where changes in complex terrains that include crusts and unconsolidated sediment will constrain the planned rapid retrieval of samples collected during the current Mars 2020 Mission,” Rivera-Hernández added. “Four co-Investigators on the crew have geology field experience. So the engineers are making sure the robot is working correctly — and the scientists are focused on what we want it to do.”

Rivera-Hernández said the work will help with broader planetary exploration, such as robots eventually helping astronauts on the Moon. “Psychologists are on the team and will be helping study decision-making, and how we design robots and interact with them,” she said. “We’ll be optimizing everything.”

In addition to Qian and Rivera-Hernández, the research group consists of co-investigators from research universities including Texas A&M University, University of Pennsylvania, as well as the NASA Johnson Space Center. Much of the NASA funding supports the students who work on this project.

“This is the dream team and a very rare chance to bring a team with all the components into one project,” Qian said.

Research and science dialog

Rivera-Hernández’s second award is funded by Scialog®, short for “science + dialog.” Scialog® was formed in 2010 “to bring together early career scientists to advance basic science in areas of global importance, and to write proposals for high-risk, high-reward collaborative research projects.”

The Scialog: Signatures of Life in the Universe (SLU) program, sponsored by Research Corporation for Science Advancement, first met virtually in June of 2021 with the founding organizations providing facilitators from a variety of disciplines: Earth and planetary science, chemistry and physics, astronomy and astrobiology, microbiology and biochemistry, and data science.

Rivera-Hernández’s team project involves simulating samples of Mars’ soil and rocks returned to Earth by future probes, or possibly crewed missions. The project will not involve the actual gathering of those samples. “There are no field components, it’s mostly lab work-focused,” she said. “We’re simulating caching rock samples on Mars and seeing what happens to those samples — do their properties change? We’ll get them back and see what we can say about possible life on Mars.”

Rivera-Hernández acknowledges it may be 20 years before those samples are returned to Earth — but also that the project underscores the importance NASA places on the search for possible life on Mars. She also says a new age of exploration for the Moon could help set the stage for future astrobiological activities on Mars.

“The search for past evidence of microbial life on Mars is one of the main goals of Mars Sample Return and NASA’s Mars Exploration program,” she said. “By assessing the rate of microbial contamination by human activities on the Moon, we will get a better understanding of the potential impacts of biological contamination in our search for life on Mars.”

Rivera-Hernández joins the ranks of SLU Fellows that include four other Georgia Tech researchers: Jennifer Glass, associate professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences; Gongjie Li, assistant professor in the School of Physics; Chris Reinhard, associate professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences; and Amanda Stockton, assistant professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

For More Information Contact

Laurie E. Smith, Renay San Miguel (Georgia Tech College of Sciences)
Sara Kahn (USC Viterbi School of Engineering)

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Jess Hunt-Ralston
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