Are earthlings alone in the universe? JPL’s new director wants to find out

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A model of NASA’s Perseverance rover is seen at JPL. The original rover landed on Mars on February 18, 2021. The rover is designed to better understand the geology of Mars and seek signs of ancient life. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for KCRW.

Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena jumped for joy in 2012 after guiding Curiosity to a safe landing on Mars. Space scientist and geochemist Laurie Leshin, who helped develop two of the rover’s instruments, watched the landing that day and remembers feeling equal parts excited and nervous.

“It's like you had a baby born on Mars, you gotta go and make sure that baby's healthy and take care of it and make sure it's okay,” Leshin recalls. “So immediately after jumping up and down for a couple of minutes, [we] went to work.”

A decade of work and another rover later, Mars is still on the JPL radar, as are many other NASA missions. These days, Leshin is tasked with overseeing all of it, as the organization's newly appointed director. 

Leshin says that the organization won’t soon be stopping its work on Mars, where it’s had a presence for more than a quarter century. Curiosity is still traversing the planet’s red soil, and Perseverance — another rover Leshin worked on that is roughly the size of a Mini Cooper — touched down on the planet last February during the pandemic. 

JPL’s new director Laurie Leshin next to a model of the Perseverance rover that is currently exploring Mars. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for KCRW.

Currently, Perseverance is exploring an ancient river delta where water flowed billions of years ago. The rock samples it’s collecting from that expedition could lead scientists closer to one of humanity’s most fundamental questions: Are we alone in the universe? 

“We think the rocks that form at the outflow of the water could be great at capturing evidence of ancient life on Mars,” Leshin tells KCRW’s Steve Chiotakis during a tour of the facility. “And that's what we're looking for.”

NASA and JPL are now working towards a return trip from Mars that would bring some of those rocks back to earth. While Mars rovers have been collecting samples for years, they’ve yet to cart any back for scientists to study.

“You think back to Apollo when humans went to the moon and brought thousands of pounds of moon rocks back,” Leshin recounts. “We have none of that from Mars. This is our opportunity. We're standing right on the precipice of that amazing moment when we're gonna get to bring things back.”

The surface of Mars isn’t the only frontier in JPL’s future, though. In two years, NASA will launch The Europa Clipper, which is covered in sensors and boasts solar panels as tall as the Statue of Liberty. The Clipper will explore Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

“It's going to go into an orbit such that it can do many, many close flybys of this fascinating, icy world, which we think has an ocean underneath the icy shell,” says Leshin. 

A new spacecraft, the Europa Clipper, is being completed in a high bay at JPL. It is scheduled to launch in 2024 and will orbit Jupiter to study its moon Europa. Scientists believe underneath Europa’s icy surface lies a salty ocean. “Where there is liquid water there is life,” says NASA’s director Laurie Leshin. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for KCRW.

Exploring the far realms of space isn’t the only thing Leshin hopes to achieve in her new job. As the first woman director in the organization’s 85-year history, she wants to help make room for people from all backgrounds to enter the historically male- and white-dominated world of NASA. 

“We've got to look at the systems that we have in place … and really understand: Are the systems that we have in place supporting all the brains, all the brilliant people … who are working to contribute to our mission? Or are there some changes that we need to make to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to do their best work here?” she says. 

Covered in scrubs, NASA scientists are constructing a new satellite that will orbit Earth. The Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite will measure surface water in an effort to provide information about how the earth’s climate is changing. The launch is scheduled for November. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for KCRW.

She is also excited to use JPL’s tools to address issues closer to home — namely, the climate crisis. Her teams are developing instruments that will help measure surface water levels from space and understand how atmospheric dust drives temperature changes. 

“Dust in the atmosphere is one of the things that we understand the least as a driver of climate change. It could heat up the atmosphere, or it can cool down the atmosphere, and so we need to understand that much better,” she says.

The NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) is designed to gather data while orbiting the earth to help scientists better understand the changing climate. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for KCRW.

These projects, on top of the many missions she will be overseeing, are sure to keep her busy. But that might not be such a bad thing, says Leshin. 

“We're very busy, which is a very good thing. It means that the U.S. is continuing to explore the unknown.” 

The Pulse reacts to live communications between 30-plus interplanetary spacecraft and the Deep Space Network. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez for KCRW.