COVID may have scuppered planetary travel, but this month a robot will be propelled into space to explore Mars. We speak to astro-scientist Dr Angélica Anglés about finding life on Mars.
“I’ve been told many times that I look more like a hairstylist than a scientist,” laughs Dr Angélica Anglés. It’s true. With her long, blonde waves and boxfresh style, Anglés does not seem your average astro-scientist.
But her sense of identity has always been as strong as her desire to find evidence of extra-terrestrial life. It is a goal she made up her mind to achieve as a young girl, growing up in Valencia, Spain.
She was inspired by her scientist grandfather. Anglés recalls waking at 5am in the summer to see the sun rise from their terrace, when they would discuss aliens and life on other planets. Although he died when she was still young, it became her dream to discover life on Mars.
Anglés realised she would have to learn English to make it as an astro-scientist. So, without speaking a word of English, she left her family and enrolled in a university in Sweden to study astrobiology, and then did two further degrees overseas.
“It was not a field for the timid or the hesitant,” she recalls. “I am not the only child to dream about going into space, but I am one of the few girls to follow this career. It was quite common for us girls to be asked if we were in the right place.”
Later on, people accused Anglés of lying when she told them her profession; it was an almost exclusively male-dominated field and the few women were not very feminine. “I was the weird one. But I never changed. I was 100 percent confident that this was what I wanted to do; and I was also happy with the way I looked,” she says.
“People see a stereotype and they assume you will just be married to a rich husband. Once I met a guy and he simply didn’t believe I was an astro-scientist. But, in a way I like that, breaking the mold.”
The fight to prove herself as a woman has characterised her career – and she is trying to change it for others. As well as her day job, (and also being an exceptional pianist in her spare time) Anglés gives motivational talks at girls’ schools, hoping to show you can be feminine and still like ‘hard science’. She recalls feeling elated when Mattel, the toy producer, brought out a Barbie Mars Explorer doll. “It was a way for girls to dream about exploring space, too.”
Today her research is centred around the search for extra-terrestrial life on Mars. By travelling to and studying places on Earth that have similar conditions to Mars, such as the world’s highest desert in Tibet, the Pilbara in Australia or the hot springs of New Zealand, she finds important clues about the right place to land on Mars. Thanks to her research, Anglés was part of the landing-site selection team for the NASA Mars mission this year. She spent many months studying the terrain of the world’s highest desert in Tibet in order to figure out where NASA should land its Rover.
The Mars Perseverance Rover will launch at the end of this July, due to land on Mars in February 2021, where it will spend up to two years obtaining samples. It is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration on the Red Planet to ascertain whether there was past microbial life, and whether there is potential for future life.
The Perseverance Rover is car-sized, about 10-feet long with an extendable arm. It has a drill that can collect core samples of the most promising rocks and soils and set them aside in a ‘cache’ on the surface of Mars.
A future mission hopes to return these samples to Earth. That would help scientists study the samples in laboratories with special room-sized equipment that would be too large to take to Mars. The mission also provides opportunities to gather knowledge and demonstrate technologies that address the challenges of future human expeditions to Mars.
These include testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere; identifying other resources (such as subsurface water); improving landing techniques; and characterising weather, dust, and other potential environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars.
Anglés is certain that the Rover will find evidence of ancient microbial life as it already discovered water in the form of ice. “We know whenever we find water in any form, liquid, solid or gas, we find life.” In fact, she says that three billion years ago, Mars was very similar to Earth today. “It had an atmosphere; there is plenty of evidence it had rivers and lakes, it was a warm planet. All the conditions were there for life to exist. In fact, there are many theories that maybe life started on Mars and was transported here to Earth on a meteorite.”
The problem is, Anglés says, choosing the right spot for the Rover to land. “Imagine if you were an alien and you are trying to find out if there is life on Earth. On which side would you choose to land? If you landed in a desert, you would think there is no life.”
This article appeared in Billionaire's Exploration Issue, Summer 2020. To subscribe contact