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Way Cool Scientist!

Nathalie Cabrol One morning as Dr. Nathalie Cabrol was just about to sit down at her desk, the phone rang. It was a call from NASA headquarters--she had been selected as a team member on a NASA mission. It was a defining moment in her career. Dr. Cabrol was among the group of 28 scientists chosen by NASA for participation in the 2003 Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Mission. Cabrol, a planetary geologist, studies images of the Martian landscape to better understand the history of the Red Planet and also to learn more about what is happening there now.

As a child Nathalie was either looking up at the stars or down at the rocks. "I believe that I was born a naturalist," says Cabrol. "Pebbles in lakes kept me busy for hours at the time--and believe it or not, my expertise today is on the ancient Martian lakes." Since she was a child, Nathalie was fascinated by the universe... and then, on July 20th, 1969, along with the rest of the world, she saw Armstrong and Aldrin setting foot on the Moon. At that very moment, she knew that wherever her life took her, it would involve space exploration, planets, and NASA.

As Principal Investigator, Dr. Cabrol leads research projects and expeditions here on Earth while developing exploration strategies to collect more information with the rovers on Mars. Cabrol's expertise is in aqueous environments, namely, places where water was once active. The presence of water near the surface in warmer regions of the planet would be a remarkable discovery and would have broad implications in the search for extraterrestrial life and for the possibility of human exploration of Mars. "The two landing sites that still need to be selected have evidence that water was there at some point in history. My task, along with the other team members," explains Cabrol, "will be to track down the evidence from the data taken from the surface by the rovers." Cabrol will study large-scale evidence like ancient shorelines and terraces, but she'll also be looking at small-scale evidence, like particles that can be as small as a grain of sand or as big as a block of several meters. "If water was there, these grains and blocks will have specific characteristics of shape, texture, and size." As a team, Cabrol and her colleagues will begin to piece together this intriguing puzzle, and attempt to understand the story behind the landscape.

Mars and the Earth were formed through the same processes and with similar materials; so as we learn more about Mars, we, in turn, learn about our own planet. The forces of geology that have shaped the world over the aeons talk to us by leaving their memories in what Cabrol calls the "book of stone." "Almost all our history," Cabrol explains, "is recorded in the rocks. We just have to learn how to decipher them." The only part that is missing is the very early history of the Earth. These ancient rocks have been recycled through the movement of continents, but Mars did not have plate tectonics, so the very old rocks were not destroyed. They are still there; and they can teach us about our own past history. "This is one reason I find it fascinating to study the geology of other planets in the solar system," says Cabrol.

Laguna Verde, Bolivia
Landscape at Laguna Verde, Bolivia.

Cabrol uses an analogy to describe the process of learning about the Earth through discovery on Mars: "Imagine that you are an orphan and you know nothing about your origins, but your mom and dad happened to have sisters and brothers. If you want to know more about the parents you never knew, what could you do? You could visit your parents' sisters and brothers, ask them millions of questions, and take pictures to scrutinize later in search of family resemblance. This is exactly what we do with the planets."

While research on Mars has the potential to reveal mysterious aspects of the Earth's very ancient past, it's not the only reason we want to know more about the Red Planet. Mars has an engaging history and a very dynamic geology on its own, complete with volcanoes, channels, lakes, dunes, and dust devils. "Maybe the conditions were good enough so that life got started there too," says Cabrol. "We will search for it." If life is there, it is likely to be under a micro organic form. Moreover, it will have a tendency to hide because the surface conditions are tough. The UV rays from the sun will kill any life exposed at the surface. And it is also very cold. "Therefore," says Cabrol, "if life ever appeared--and survived--we will have to be smart to find it."

What Cabrol loves most about her profession is that she never thinks of it as a "job". "My work gives me a sense of renewed interest and curiosity every day of my life." She faces each new day with a commitment to devise more refined strategies to reconstruct the past of a planet. "We are a bit like archeologists and police investigators: we try to understand what happened with what is left of the evidence and hopefully we'll end up with the real story."

Nathalie and her husband Edmond exploring at Lassen.

When asked why she became a scientist, Dr. Cabrol's answer is plain: "This is a life of excitement--a life of curiosity, investigation and discovery. This is the antidote to boredom!"