ScienceMatters - Season 2, episode 7: Searching for Life on Mars and Beyond

February 26, 2019
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Kennda Lynch studies ancient lakes on Earth that serve as stand-ins for Mars’ formerly-flooded craters. The School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences postdoctoral researcher helps NASA look for potential landing sites on the planet, while also helping to build Georgia Tech’s astrobiology community. 

(Upbeat music)

Hello, and welcome to ScienceMatters, the podcast of the Georgia Tech College of Sciences. I’m Renay San Miguel.

(Star Wars theme)

Renay San Miguel: Kennda Lynch’s earliest memories are of science – science fiction, that is.

The Chicago native remembers seeing The Empire Strikes Back in a theater with her parents.  The birthday party that followed featured a Star Wars-themed cake, but her hunger for outer space, and movies about it, was just beginning.

Kennda Lynch: And then I got to see Return of the Jedi in the theatre. And then, you know, of course also seeing Star Trek, the major motion pictures. And my mother is a big Trekker, so I got to watch some of the old shows with her. And then growing up seeing those movies and then seeing like, you know, like Space Camp and there was another movie with Ethan Hawke, Explorers.”

(Explorers theme)

Kennda Lynch: Explorers were these kids who built like a space ship, you know, in their garage and then went exploring the universe. And, you know, I was like the same age as these kids and I was like, I want to do that. And so that—you know it was just always this dream that it was like, I’m going to do that.”

Renay San Miguel: For Lynch, realizing that dream first meant researching ways to help humans live and work in space. That started in the mid-1990s when she was an undergraduate with a dual major in general engineering and biology at the University of Illinois. She also interned at NASA, and worked on International Space Station projects as a cooperative education student with Boeing.  

Along the way, she found her calling in astrobiology, the study of life on Earth and in the cosmos.

Her timing couldn’t have been better. Her journey from science fiction to science fact brought her to Georgia Tech in 2016, at about the same time that astrobiology research was heating up in the institute. Lynch, a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and the School of Biological Sciences, is a member of the Georgia Tech astrobiology community. She’s also on the NASA Astrobiology Institute (or NAI) team based on campus.

Lynch’s research of a paleolake, or ancient lake, in the Pilot Valley Basin in Utah could help NASA determine a landing site for its Mars 2020 robotic Rover mission. And she’s working on a possible landing site for the first human-led mission to Mars, slated for 2035

(Upbeat music)

Renay San Miguel: From light sabers to landing sites; Lynch’s curiosity about life’s origins on this planet and others has clearly gotten the best of her. It also helped that during her undergraduate years, she met NASA principal investigators, or P.I.’s, during internships. Among them was David McKay. He was the NASA P.I. on a controversial Martian meteorite, called Allen Hills, found in Antarctica. In 1996, a group of scientists claimed they identified Martian bacterial fossils within the meteorite. That led then-President Bill Clinton to announce the findings, but the claims have since been walked back, thanks to more thorough investigations of the meteorite.

Yet the controversy played a key role in the beginnings of astrobiology as a separate, compelling discipline. And McKay did his part to help steer Lynch towards that part of science.

Kennda Lynch: So I got introduced to him and I asked him if I could do some, you know, like a project or something because I was doing night school and I had some research projects to do.

And he came back with “Well, you know, I’ve got funding for an engineer for four months to do some bio-technology development. You want the job?”

And I was like, “Sure.”

And four months turned in to four years, and then they convinced me to go back to grad school and it just went downhill from there.

Renay San Miguel: McKay and his research paper on the Allen Hills meteorite sparked NASA to create the NAI. McKay would later be NASA’s chief astrobiology scientist.

Ten NAI teams at universities, labs, and NASA research centers around the country work across scientific disciplines to study how life on Earth formed, and how it might develop elsewhere in space.

Lynch was part of those early NASA Astrobiology days. And she has seen how Georgia Tech has built a strong presence in the field.

Kennda Lynch: You have all these people that have NASA money to do astrobiology, but funded in different areas.

And so what Georgia Tech did was all these P.I.’s came together and said, “Well, we’ve got this critical mass, let’s put it together, and let’s be truly cohesive as Georgia Tech astrobiology.” So all these different centers came together and tried to figure out a way to truly make us integrated because this is an interdisciplinary science. So they’re like, “Well let’s truly be interdisciplinary. Let’s communicate with each other. Let’s integrate with each other. Let’s make sure that we are optimizing our science the best way by making sure that we’re all talking to each other.”

And so that’s what I’ve seen, and it’s been really great to kind of see that all come together because that’s what NASA wants to see -- the breadth of the different types of research, the integrative research that it takes to do astrobiology, and having the engineers that are doing the mission development talking to the scientists. Having the scientists who are doing evolution talking to the scientists who are doing origin of life and pre-biotic chemistry, talking to the sciences who are doing extreme environments, and microbe mineral interactions, and metals, and methane, and understanding how microbes live in the deep sea sediments and in these crazy environments, because all those pieces are interconnected to understanding the origin, evolution, and extent of life in our universe.

How did life evolve here on Earth and in the solar system? How do all the right pieces come together to make a habitable planet starting from, you know, solar system creation? How did life evolve on the planet? How did complex systems evolve from simple systems? And then how did those systems learn to adapt to extreme -- what we consider extreme environments here on Earth, but would be normal environments on another planet. And how do things get left behind that we can go and find on missions with, you know, technology? So that’s fundamentally what astrobiology is. And so having all these pieces talking to each other is what you need to do. And what I’ve found great about Georgia Tech is they really have set up Georgia Tech astrobiology to really try to make sure that we have that integrative cohesive communication so the left hand and the right hand both know what each other’s doing.

Renay San Miguel: Meanwhile, Mars is in NASA’s sights for new missions. Also, Jupiter’s moon, Europa, and Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, may get some attention from the space agency thanks to the presence of water, a key ingredient in the recipe for life. Enceladas’ hydrothermal vents shoot plumes of water vapor and ice particles high above its surface. Add the mysteries that may lie beneath Europa’s ice caps, and you have an exciting time for astrobiologists.

Kennda Lynch: It really is. And it’s hard when you’re only working in one area and another area is really interesting, like Europa. Even more so exciting is Enceladus because it’s got, you know, these hydrothermal systems shooting jets out in to the E-ring of Saturn. Whereas Europa, you kind of got to land and try to drill and maybe try to get under some of the ice cap and maybe get some shallow pools that are in the upper layers of the ice cap. Whereas Enceladus, we’ve just got to build an instrument that can fly through and collect some of this water being shot out in to space all the time.

Renay San Miguel: The plumes that are going on.

Kennda Lynch: Right, the plumes. It’s just so exciting the technology and the possibilities of what could be happening. It’s a very, very, very exciting time.

(Upbeat music)

Renay San Miguel: Lynch is also part of a team that’s looking for potential landing sites for NASA’s Mars 2020 probe. That research occasionally takes her to that ancient lake in Utah’s Pilot Valley Basin. The site was chosen because it may have had the same kind of water-based flows and features that Mars had when water was much more   abundant.

The sediments in the Pilot Valley Basin consist of clays and carbonate muds, which are good at preserving organic material. What researchers are learning is that they also support microbial ecosystems. Could the same be true in the ancient lakes of Mars?

Lynch thinks a paleo lake in Mars’ Jezero Crater is the closest the Red Planet has to what she sees in Utah. She hopes the Mars 2020 probe will find fossil evidence of microbial ecosystems there.

Kennda Lynch: So we’re trying to understand what gets preserved and where in the sedimentary layers. Because you have a lake layer, you can have very, very different—the geology and the mineralogy and the geochemistry can change from layer to layer to layer. So what we’re trying to understand how, you know, what gets preserved in what layers, and where to kind of help Mars 2020 look if it goes to this paleo lake basin that we want it to, called Jezero Crater, it’s one of the last three landing sites. I’m on team Jezero, so to speak, to this lake system that has a delta in it. And we’re interested in studying not only the delta, but we also want to study some of the lower sediments past the delta to look for bio-signatures of life.

Renay San Miguel:  Lynch may soon find out if those bio-signatures are there, since the Mars 2020 probe is scheduled to reach the planet in 2021.

That’s not the extent of her research on Mars. She is also part of a planning group for a human-led mission to the planet set for 2035.

Kennda Lynch: When it was very clear that we were marching down towards the road for our first human Mars mission and they actually set a date of 2035, NASA said well great, you know we have these orbital assets, we don’t know where to go, we need to talk to the Mars community who knows where to go. And so they decided to start the conversation with the planetary scientists and the engineers, you know, who are designing all the habitation systems and the planetary scientists who know Mars and know where things are, like well, let’s start coming together and seeing what are going to be good places that meet our science goals and have the operational capabilities for what we need to keep a human crew alive. And because it’s such a big deal, it’s something you do have to start really early because it’s such a much more complex question than a robot mission, you know, where we start landing site meetings about four to five years.

For human missions, we’re starting 20 years early because it’s such a complex question. We need to do a lot of data analysis.


At this point in our conversation, Lynch mentions Georgia Tech associate professor James Wray. He advised the Georgia Tech team that announced in 2015 the strongest evidence yet that now and then, water may flow on Mars.

Some of that water may be underneath the paleolake in Columbus Crater, which Wray has researched. That water could be extracted to help sustain a human crew exploring the planet. Lynch also believes the crater’s geochemical conditions, and its terrain, make for a tempting landing site.

Kennda Lynch: And when I started looking at a lot of the human mission requirements and the science requirements for the human missions, and I said, “James, hey, we should take a look at Columbus.” I mean it was too high of elevation for robot missions because you need—because robots use retro jets and a lot of parachutes, so they need a lot of space to slow down, but a human landing’s going to be a powered descent all the way. So they have a little bit more flexibility in the elevation of places they can land so it put Columbus Crater, you know, back in the game. And I said, we should— let’s do this. Columbus Crater is interesting. It’s got the operational resources that they would need to support a human crew, and there’s so much interesting science to be done, let’s throw it up there. And so we did when we presented it the first meeting. We had what’s called a “digital train model” made for us which allows us to look at the topography of the basin, because one of the big questions we got for our landing site was “This is all great, you know, your science is great but, you know, you’re in a crater. You’re in a crater lake. So what about all the surrounding regions? Can you guys actually get out of the craters where a human crew can go someplace else?”

So one of the things that we’re doing is what we call a traverseability analysis to make sure that we can, yes, indeed, get out of the crater, get up to higher terrain where there’s interesting science, and eventually get out of the crater to go to other places with the human crews. So that’s one of the things that we’ve been working on. And then we’ve been kind of doing some more detailed science analysis in Columbus Crater. So that’s what we’ve been working on.

(Upbeat music)

Renay San Miguel: Take me back to when you were reading science fiction as a child or as a student and were even thinking about what we now call the STEM classes—science, technology, engineering, math—and wondering what you wanted to do with your life. I mean does any of this—did any of that spark, you know, what you’re doing now when you were a kid?

Kennda Lynch: Oh totally. I totally—the way my mom’s explained it she’s like, “You were an alien from the beginning.” That’s what my mom says. She’s like, “You were just into it from day 1, and we just kept feeding it, and you just kept taking it, so we just kept feeding it.”

And so I was always, whenever we would go to the museums I wanted to go see the space exhibits. I wanted to, you know, do the exploration stuff. I wanted to learn about rockets. I wanted to learn about fighter jets. You know, so I was just always interested in it. I know I remember I was always wanting to watch the space launches, and both my parents worked at Sundstrand which, at the time, built some of the parts for space shuttle. So they would bring stuff home that they would get from NASA, you know, some of the pictures and things of the early shuttle program. And I was just always into it.

Renay San Miguel: But they encouraged it. They let you ride with that.

Kennda Lynch: Yeah. Well, my dad was about—anything I wanted to do, my dad was like, “You do it.” And my mom was—she was a zoology major who wanted to be a veterinarian and instead became a CEO of Girl Scouts, but you know.

Renay San Miguel: OK.

Kennda Lynch: But was still very much about education and science. And in her mind, and she will claim it’s self-defense because I was a very inquisitive child and always asking why. And so she was like, “I just did it because it was self-defense,” because I was very energetic. You know, she just kind of supported it and, yeah and just kind of stoked the fire, and added fuel to it.

Renay San Miguel: For any parents out there who are listening and think that they have a young Kennda Lynch on their hands, what’s your advice even if they don’t come from a science background but they realize they have somebody who’s interested?

Kennda Lynch: It doesn’t take much to help feed that fire, to support your kids in their interests. Whenever you get an opportunity even, like I said, it doesn’t take money, if there’s just a free exhibit or a lecture, take your kid to the lecture; they’ll love it.

I have done several lectures, and we just had one in the spring. Half the crowd was parents with their kids, and there were these little girls that were just asking these phenomenal questions, and their parents are like, “She’s the one who wanted to come. I’m just here with her,” you know. And so that’s the kind of thing to do is just like take your kid to that free museum day. Take your, you know, take your kid to that you know model rocket exhibit or take your kid to the airshow. Whatever they’re interested in, just kind of feed it. Just support their interests and help feed that fire whether they’re a boy, a girl, black, purple, pink, blue -- doesn’t matter, just support the fire.

(Upbeat music)

Renay San Miguel: Lynch received her M.S. in aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and her Ph.D. in environmental science and engineering at the Colorado School of Mines.

My thanks to Kennda Lynch, post-doctoral researcher with the School of Earth and Atmospheric Science, and the School of Biological Sciences. Also thanks to the Walt Disney Studios, Lucasfilm, and Paramount Pictures for use of the music from Star Wars and Explorers.

Siyan Zhou, a former research associate with the School of Psychology, composed our theme music.

If you liked hearing Kennda’s story and want to hear more, please subscribe to ScienceMatters on Apple or SoundCloud.

This has been ScienceMatters, the podcast of the Georgia Tech College of Sciences. I’m Renay San Miguel. Thanks for listening.

(Upbeat music)