Stars and distant worlds have fascinated Nina Lanza since she was a child, inspiring her to become a planetary scientist.
Lanza, 41, now plans to lead a seven-person team from Los Alamos National Laboratory on a two-week Arctic expedition to better understand Mars, including the type of life that might have thrived there eons ago.
To assist the endeavor, the Explorers Club and Discovery Channel awarded a $112,000 grant to the project, with the chief aim of developing new methods for probing Mars' geology.
The team will travel to the Haughton meteorite impact crater on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic in July, when snow is the thinnest, making it easier to work and more comfortable to camp.
Lanza is no stranger to extreme cold, having worked on a NASA project gleaning meteorites in Antarctica. She recalled sleeping on the ice for six weeks.
"I'm pretty good at that, but not everybody has that experience," she said. "I don't know if I want to subject people to icy camping quite yet."
The larger equipment must be flown into the remote region and then hauled to the site on ATVs, she said.
The Haughton crater is popular for Mars research, partly because it's comparable to the tens of thousands of impact craters that pock Mars' surface.
And it's embedded in permafrost, which is similar to the many ultra-frigid areas of Mars.
Using an earthbound place like the Arctic to study Mars is more practical than trying to do it all with a rover on that faraway planet, Lanza said. Here, you can test ideas and methods "before we send them on a one-way trip to Mars."
"We can actually refine our methods in terms of technology, but also science," she said.
At the site, they will look for ways to improve how a Mars drone searches for sites to take rock samples. That will include further developing a chemistry method called "gamma ray spectroscopy," Lanza said.
A device shoots neutrons into rocks, producing gamma rays. An instrument called a spectrometer creates a graph of these rays, giving scientists a clearer idea of the rocks' composition.
At the Arctic crater, the team will divide into smaller groups to look for places that can support life in the inhospitable realm.
One group will use a drone in an aerial search. The drone will capture images of spots where life might exist and then transmit them to scientists to analyze at the base camp.
Another group will walk around the same section of the crater and use the old-fashioned field method - eyes, rock hammers and lenses - to ferret out inhabitable spots, Lanza said.
The next day, a group will use gamma ray spectroscopy at all the chosen spots to see how much the drone's results differ from those of the field geologists, Lanza said.
This two-day exercise will be repeated three times, she said.
This project will be a step toward developing autonomous instruments on the Mars drones, which can make decisions about data they collect rather than receiving all guidance remotely from Earth.
Remote control works all right for Mars because it's relatively close, she said, but if a drone travels to the outer planets in the solar system, it takes considerable time to transmit a signal back and forth. "We want our machines to be as independent as they can be," she said, because lags in signaling delay the mission.
Lanza has done high-tech geological work at the Los Alamos lab for Mars projects since 2006.
She and other planetary scientists from around the world work with an all-women engineering team to help guide the Perseverance rover, which NASA launched for a Mars mission in late July.
One of the rover's key tasks is to find organic matter and other traces of past life - known as bio-signatures - within the planet's rocky terrain.
The engineers send commands to an instrument on the rover called a ChemCam, which shoots lasers into Martian rocks to determine their chemical makeup. The planetary scientists identify which rocks to zap and analyze.
Data gathered during the Arctic expedition won't be used in this current Mars rover but perhaps could be incorporated in future missions, Lanza said.
Lanza said she has been "obsessed with space" since she was 7 years old, when her parents took her to a science outreach event in Boston. There she viewed Halley's Comet through a telescope.
"It really made this huge impression on me, and I realized that there was nothing I wanted to know more about than what was out in space," she said.