John Underwood/Purdue University

Briony Horgan, associate professor of planetary science, stands in front of the VOSS Model. Horgan is working to determine whether we are alone in the universe, or if life once existed on other planets such as Mars.

WEST LAFAYETTE — Briony Horgan grew up in Portland, Ore., where, enjoying the mountains and volcanoes that surrounded the region, she developed a love of geology.

A long-standing interest in space made Horgan realize she wasn’t confined to study rocks on Earth.

Horgan, now an associate professor of planetary science at Purdue, soon will have an opportunity to let her imagination dive into the geology of Mars as part of the NASA Mars rover Perseverance mission, which is more than halfway to Mars and will land Feb. 18, 2021.

The rover will land in Jezero Crater, just north of the planet’s equator. The site used to be a lake and large river delta on the planet. She has played a key role in the mission, including leading mineralogy research. Her team came up with an important finding on the location that contributed to Jezero Crater’s selection, and she helped design the camera that will be the scientific eyes for Perseverance.

“Geology was something I absolutely loved because it explains how the world around us came to be over millions and billions of years,” Horgan said. “Doing that in space is even more interesting because the time scales are even more crazy. On Mars, we’re talking about 4 billion years of evolution that produced the rocks we see.”

It was the 2003 landing of the Mars rover Spirit that has driven Horgan’s imagination and her career for the last 17 years.

“Seeing those images come back from the surface was absolutely incredible, and that’s what inspired me to pursue planetary science,” she said.

The NASA rover Perseverance is expected to touch down on Mars in mid-February. It launched July 30 from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

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