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Nagin Cox, NASA mission lead, on working with the Mars Curiosity Rover

02/02/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 04/04/2015 05:59 EDT
Some space fans might say that Nagin Cox has a dream job exploring Mars from the lens of the Curiosity Rover. As a mission lead for the project, she eats, sleeps and dreams Mars.

Cox visisted Vancouver to speak at a visual effects conference.

She spoke with On the Coast about her work.

What is the Curiosity Rover up to these days?

She's been on Mars since 2012 and we've arrived at Mount Sharp, which was our final destination. We're exploring the foothills of the mountain and drilling and taking samples and continuing on our investigation of whether Mars might once have been habitable.

And what have we learned about that?

We actually learned when we were in Yellowknife Bay that there was water there. We're talking about in the distant past, billions of years ago.

And not only water at Gale Crater where we landed but it was potentially a rushing river. Like if you'd been standing there, you would have been knee deep or hip deep. It turned out that Mars was in fact once habitable.

That has such a visceral feel to think that Mars really must have been more Earth-like in order for the water to have been drinkable. And that raises questions about what happened.

We're busy conducting an uncontrolled experiment on climate change on our own planet, so the more we learn about change on a planetary scale the more we learn about how to be careful with this one.

What are the theories about what happened?

There are thoughts about the water having maybe gone under ground, escaped in the atmosphere.

We have other missions, one of which recently arrived, that is specifically looking in the atmosphere to try to figure out this story of where did it go, since that's so important for our understanding of the planet and of our planet.

What else do we need to be able to say that maybe there was life on Mars?

An important part was finding out that water was actually drinkable. If you had been there billions of years ago, you could have taken a drink. That tells us something about the water there being the right kind of Goldilocks water that would help us out.

However now we are in the quest for the other building block of life: the chase is on for organic carbon for the basics of life. That still doesn't mean that there would have been life, but that all the ingredients were there.

So does all of this set the scene for human travel to Mars?

We hope so. We have two types of objectives, one is the science objectives and the other is the exploration objectives, things we need to do before we can send people.

As an example, we carry an instrument that is specifically designed to detect radiation on Mars, so that we can design space suits for future astronauts.

Are you happy being on the ground sending instructions to a robot or would you like to do a little space travel of your own?

Space travel certainly has its appeal. I never really wanted to be an astronaut because the robots go before the people. If you really want to see a place that no one's ever seen before, that's the robotics space program.

This interview has been condensed for the web. To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Nagin Cox describes life with Mars

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