ExecInsights Podcast

ExecInsights – David Flannery on the Search for Life on Mars

David Flannery QUT Search for life on Mars

In this episode of QUT ExecInsights, I speak to QUT geologist and biologist Adjunct Professor David Flannery about how Australian rock formations assist the search for lifeforms on Mars. Along the way we talk about the history of space exploration, Australians helping the space effort at NASA and Elon Musk.

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00:00:08 Kate Joyner
Welcome to QUT ExecInsights, brought to you by QUTeX – professional and executive education for the real world. I’m your host, Kate Joyner.

00:00:17 Kate Joyner
Today we’re continuing our Cool QUT series where I speak to some of my QUT colleagues who are at the cutting edge of research with real world implications. With me is Adjunct Professor David Flannery from the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

00:00:32 Kate Joyner
David’s work has not only real world, but out of this world implications. David recently received a prestigious grant for the ‘Searching for Life on Mars on Earth’ project. This will deliver the most comprehensive investigation of Earth’s oldest known river/lake deposits in Western Australia, which are similar to the environment to be explored by NASA’s Mars 2020.

00:00:53 Kate Joyner
David came to QUT from NASA where he was a Caltech postdoctoral scholar and a research scientist based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He studied molecular evidence for ancient microbial metabolisms preserved in Earth’s oldest known fossils and worked on the development of instruments that were later selected to fly on NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover missions. All really exciting things, which we’ll get into in this conversation. They are really exciting things, David. It sounds like you’re living a boyhood adventure.

00:01:22 David Flannery
Every now and again, I have to pinch myself and yeah, I think I am living the dream.

00:01:26 Kate Joyner
Boy’s own adventure in Mars, yeah, so tell us about little bit about your last week, cause we were talking about the kind of, it’s great to get out and about so you’re doing a few things Mars related.

00:01:36 David Flannery
Yeah, it was really exciting to be on a plane for the first time since the beginning of the year. But I’m feeling a bit run down at the beginning of this week, had a really busy week last week. We were doing some filming in Far North Queensland with the ABC looking at analogue locations, or the sorts of environments humans might survive on Mars.

00:01:53 David Flannery
And at the same time, I was up really early on US time for an operational readiness test for the Perseverance Rover mission.

00:02:00 Kate Joyner
The Perseverance rover mission, yeah, so we’ll have a look at that a little bit later on. But yeah, so it does sound very boy’s own adventure when we’re talking about the, yeah, I suppose the endeavour to explore life on Mars.

00:02:14 David Flannery
Yeah, it really is, and you know I got into geology, I think, because I enjoy being outside and exploring. I was always interested in what was over the next hill or across the ocean or even behind the fence in the backyard.

00:02:30 David Flannery
So there’s that and that is still a really important component of the sort of work we do, to figure out what we do with these rovers on Mars. Earth is our only guide to the rocks on Mars.

00:02:39 Kate Joyner
Earth is our only guide, so you’ve decided that, well some of your research is focused on the West Australian desert as, I suppose, an analogue. So why do we search for life on Mars, either in Far North Queensland or in Western Australia? What does it tell us?

00:02:52 David Flannery
It may seem like a strange link but believe it or not, in Australia we’ve got most of the Earth’s oldest well preserved sedimentary rocks. And so when I say old, I mean, billions of years old. Back when the Earth was inhabited solely by microbes. And so, these are the sorts of rocks that we’re looking at on Mars as well. Similarly aged, and we’re looking for the same sorts of features. Microbial fossils and similar environments that we have recorded in Western Australia.

00:03:18 Kate Joyner
In Western Australia. So, are they the actual oldest, in Western Australia? Are there older places of Australia? Older and newer?

00:03:24 David Flannery
There are older rocks elsewhere on Earth, but a lot of them, because the Earth’s living planet and rocks get recycled in the process of plate tectonics, they get destroyed or at least heated up and cooked and changed. Metamorphosed. But for whatever reason, in Western Australia we have a chunk of the Earth’s crust that’s really been lucky to survive the last 3-4 billion years unscathed.

00:03:46 Kate Joyner
So, in those rocks we’re looking for things that would, to form a protocol so that we can replicate that in with the exploration on Mars? Is that, have I got that roughly right?

00:04:00 David Flannery
Yep! That would describe my own work, it would be trying to come up with exploration strategies…

00:04:05 Kate Joyner
Strategies, right.

00:04:06 David Flannery
…to inform what happens with Mars Rovers, particularly this upcoming mission. But there are a lot of other things we can learn from studying old rocks on Earth and many other pathways for Australians, who end up working on the exploration of Mars and other things after studying our old rocks in Australia.

00:04:21 Kate Joyner
Our old rocks in Australia. And is it the same in Far North Queensland? Those similar kinds of rocks?

00:04:26 David Flannery
Far North Queensland actually is quite young geologically speaking. Australia’s put together from West to East with the oldest rocks in the West and the youngest in the East. But we have in Far North Queensland, a huge lava province. So, an area where lots of magma has erupted onto the Earth’s surface and flowed across the surface, and in some places we have features called lava tubes. They’re huge cathedral-like caves that stretch for tens of kilometres underground and we have seen similar features on Mars and also the moon.

00:04:52 David Flannery
And one of the hopes of international space agencies is that we might use them to help us explore those locations. Maybe humans could take refuge in them for example.

00:05:02 Kate Joyner
Maybe humans could take refuge. I think sometimes in Far North Queensland not even humans can stand living in Far North Queensland.

00:05:09 David Flannery
Not to mention the other issues, it was pretty hot out there. It was about 42 degrees.

00:05:12 Kate Joyner
Yeah we’re going through a heat wave, yeah. As we as we record, which is late November in 2020.

00:05:18 David Flannery
And it was, fittingly, much nicer down in the lava tube. Much cooler.

00:05:23 Kate Joyner
Oh, there you go. So, what is needed to be able to work on a question like looking for evidence of life on Mars? So, I imagine a huge amount of capability is required to, for that limited time when we’ve got a space rover? Yeah, so what kinds of capabilities need to go into that exercise?

00:05:42 David Flannery
I guess first we need to understand the science question. So, science drives the whole thing. And at a place like NASA, science is in the front row seat of all of this. But the science can only be done through the efforts of a huge team of really talented engineers and people who manage people and the bureaucracy that holds it all together.

00:06:00 David Flannery
But you need, obviously it’s very challenging to build the hardware and operate the hardware and the science is really important as well.

00:06:09 Kate Joyner
So, we’ve got lots of different countries involved in that particular question. So obviously Australia and we’ve heard the US, through the Mars Rover. So is it other countries involved in this quest as well, for space?

00:06:24 David Flannery
Yes, and NASA is obviously at the forefront and they’re the only space agency that’s really been able to consistently land objects on the surface of Mars. Unfortunately, as an Australian really the only option if you wanted to get into the exploration of space or building your own hardware and operating it somewhere beyond the Earth, you had to leave Australia. Hopefully, that will change in the near future, but you’ll find a lot of Australians at NASA and other space agencies doing this sort of work.

00:06:48 Kate Joyner
So yeah, and obviously we’ve got another graduate as well, so her name is Abigail, isn’t it? Abigail Allwood.

00:06:56 David Flannery
Yes, yeah, I used to work with Abby at NASA JPL Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

00:07:00 Kate Joyner
She’s also a geology graduate, is that right?

00:07:02 David Flannery
Yep, she arrived at NASA through almost the same pathway that I did. Looking at old rocks we have on Earth as analogues for the sorts of rocks we’re exploring on Mars and believe it or not, that skill set’s really in high demand at NASA and elsewhere.

00:07:16 Kate Joyner
I can imagine. So, as well as the NASA Mars Rover exploratory initiative, there’s quite a lot of resources sort of directed to the space industry at the moment in Australia and internationally. So, when I was, I guess researching for this particular interview I saw quite a lot of different kinds of initiatives and Commonwealth money going into space exploration, so what’s fueling that particular interest at the moment?

00:07:44 David Flannery
I think there’s definitely a commercial interest in space that there’s an increasing understanding that having assets in space allow us to do everyday things on Earth. There’s also, because it’s becoming easier. It’s more efficient to explore space with better technology. Things get smaller and lighter and more capable and we have more autonomy and so on. We’re seeing a lot of smaller missions to interesting locations in the solar system.

00:08:06 David Flannery
We’re seeing smaller players—nations smaller than Australia in terms of our sort of capacity and economic footprint—contributing instruments and participating in the exploration of deep space in cooperation with our much larger partners, NASA for example.

00:08:22 Kate Joyner
So, that kind of, I think you answered that question for me, which is why the small countries as well as large countries want to be involved. So there is a significant commercial gain to be had.

00:08:33 David Flannery
Potentially. Particularly Earth observation satellites, but when it comes to exploration of deep space where science drives everything—there is no economic case to go to Mars or anywhere else beyond the Earth Moon System—it’s really driven by the science and if a smaller player like Australia wants to get involved, we have to partner with our much larger friends overseas who have the experience, particularly because we’re starting from almost scratch. We have, we haven’t had a space agency or any space industry for such a long time.

00:09:00 David Flannery
We need to partner with those larger agencies, bring the talent back, learn how we can contribute. Most other nations that are of our size contribute in a specific way. They’re really good at something. Like, think Canada’s space agency with the logistics and the Canada arm or Denmark with their space-based cameras. Norway for example, is contributing a ground penetrating radar to the Perseverance mission because they’re great looking through ice with those instruments in their home country and smaller agencies really learn how to do something well and then participate by contributing that capability.

00:09:30 Kate Joyner
So, we know famously Elon Musk has got it, a bit of a, I suppose an urge to going to Mars, so is that, is that science-based do you think, or purely commercial?

00:09:44 David Flannery
I don’t think it’s either to be honest. I’m a bit of a skeptic. I can’t think of any economic or political, religious or scientific reason to have a human colony on Mars. It would be tremendously expensive. I can think of a lot of reasons why it’s unlikely to happen, but Elon’s probably quite clever because he’s in the market or in the business of making very large launch vehicles that have few applications other than sending things to Mars, for example. It’s definitely in his interest to drum up interest.

00:10:13 Kate Joyner
Interest, yeah, so we’ll just watch this space with a bit of interest and a bit of skepticism.

00:10:16 David Flannery
Yes, and meanwhile, there’s lots of interesting missions happening robotically and probably we’ll have some human missions to Mars in the next few decades to get that science done. But that would be very expensive and challenging and it’s really a different question and approach to the idea of having a permanent human presence for whatever reason.

00:10:33 Kate Joyner
And there are significant Defence applications as well, so that was a big part of the strategic update 2020, I think. So, what interest does Defence have so that’s the Defence satellites and all those, like, speaking as a complete layperson here.

00:10:51 David Flannery
Yes, definitely. We’re all familiar with missiles that travel outside the Earth’s atmosphere and observation capabilities that exist in the in the space realm. That’s sort of closer to Earth, though. But obviously there are reasons you’d want to have capability to be able to put an asset on the moon or on Mars or perform complex activities in deep space. Definitely there’s a strong interest from Defence.

00:11:14 Kate Joyner
Yes, so we’ll watch that also with interest. And so, you said that your interest, I suppose in the research that you’re conducting at the moment started when you were quite young, as a geologist you were interested in rocks. I suppose, is that right? So how do you become interested in geology, but also biology isn’t that right? Yeah, and then space exploration, so tell us your trajectory through all that.

00:11:38 David Flannery
Space exploration was definitely an accident. I’ve always been interested in the natural world, and what was outside and geology and biology were interesting to me because once you start to understand how to interpret the rocks and the living things around you, you can read the Earth like a book really, and a whole new world of knowledge is opened up to you. In terms of my own trajectory, I can’t really offer any advice because I studied the things, I guess I was lucky enough to study the things that interested me as an undergraduate and that serendipitous path that was focused purely on, or driven purely by curiosity, ended up doing something interesting and satisfying like working on a similar problem on a different planet, but it was totally an accident.

00:12:20 Kate Joyner
How did that accident happen?

00:12:23 David Flannery
Well, I was studying some old rocks in Western Australia. The rocks we’ve just been talking about,

00:12:28 Kate Joyner
Yeah, those billion-year-old rocks.

00:12:30 David Flannery
Yeah, these 2 and a half billion-year-old lake and river environments, and trying to piece together the history of life on a really early, almost an alien planet that we had at the time, and that was a PhD project I was doing in Australia. And towards the end of that someone gave me a call early one morning and said, “Hey, heard from a friend that you’re studying these old rocks and we’ve got this new mission to Mars that’s coming up. Would you be interested in coming over to help us plan it as a postdoc?”

00:13:00 David Flannery
And of course, I said “Yes!”

00:13:01 Kate Joyner
And how did they know to contact you? Because this would be of interest to other researchers, so how do you, how do people know that you’re studying rocks in Western Australia?

00:13:09 David Flannery
It’s a pretty small world, science in general.

00:13:11 Kate Joyner
In the rock business?

00:13:12 David Flannery
Particularly in the rock business, particularly something as esoteric as looking at microbial fossils.

00:13:15 Kate Joyner
So, everyone knows what everyone else is doing is that right?

00:13:18 David Flannery
Yeah, you could say that, but definitely there’s a small number of big names in the field. And a really small pool of students. And obviously very few people are studying it to make money through resource exploration, or extraction and so it’s quite a small pool to choose from. Once your name’s out there for, you know looking maybe for a postdoc position or something, you might get snapped up.

00:13:41 Kate Joyner
‘Cause geology traditionally has been supplied to the mining industry for the most part hasn’t it?

00:13:47 David Flannery
Australia generates lots of really good geologists and some of them pivot, to or from the paleobiology side of things, the academic fossil side of things and we’ve had a lot of Australians actually reach NASA through not just the fossil side of old rocks on Earth, but also through remote sensing capabilities.

00:14:07 Kate Joyner
So, there’s a lot of capabilities around.

00:14:09 David Flannery
A lot of overlap. If you’re good at figuring out what rocks are made of, from space or from an aircraft in Western Australia because you’re looking for a certain mineral to exploit, you can also participate or help contribute something to the exploration of Mars using similar technologies.

00:14:23 Kate Joyner
Similar, so all the technologies that surround that exploration are of interest in and of themselves.

00:14:27 David Flannery
The same technologies that we use to figure out what rocks are made of remotely and in situ, when we’re looking at them, we use them on Earth. we use them on Mars, or use them on the moon for the same concepts and capabilities.

00:14:40 Kate Joyner
So, have you had a desire yourself to actually go on one of those space explorations, or is that a whole different set of capabilities?

00:14:47 David Flannery
As an astronaut?

00:14:48 Kate Joyner
As an astronaut, yeah.

00:14:49 David Flannery
Well, a few of my colleagues talk about such things.

00:14:52 Kate Joyner
Yeah, because they do bring researchers along…

00:14:55 David Flannery
They do… there was actually only one astronaut who traveled to the Moon, who had any experience in, any background in science at all, was a geologist on the last mission. But I think that will change in the near future. That said, if you became an astronaut or graduated as an astronaut 10 or 20 years ago it would have been a very boring career. There’s been no space shuttle there’s…

00:15:14 Kate Joyner
Yes that’s right, it’s been very slow hasn’t it? Since the Challenger disaster. Was that really one of the things that sort of halted the…

00:15:21 David Flannery
There were two big catastrophes with space shuttle, but it was also just, we had the International Space Station which was very successful but there hasn’t been a follow-on, and there hasn’t been a lot of interest in expanding that and just really insufficient funding, particularly from NASA. Every new administration likes to announce a grand plan to go back to the moon or Mars. But they don’t follow it up with enough funding to get the job done.

00:15:47 Kate Joyner
And we’re talking about major funding, aren’t we?

00:15:50 David Flannery
Major funding. The Perseverance rover for example, has a $2 Billion price tag, managed to stay on budget and on schedule. It’s a flagship mission, so the largest that NASA will send. The first human mission to Mars would cost probably at least $100 Billion. Probably more than that, so you could send 50 of these flagship missions for the price tag of a human mission.

00:16:10 Kate Joyner
Tell us a little bit about that, your School and the research from your School, so Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. So, what kind of research questions are lighting them up at the moment?

00:16:19 David Flannery
Well, at the moment our atmospheric science researchers are looking into how aerosol particles can transmit viruses.

00:16:26 Kate Joyner
Yeah, we’re all in the virus business.

00:16:30 David Flannery
But the atmosphere and the Earth are one system. They’re connected. And I work with the far end of the geological time scale, where we think about how the Earth has created the atmosphere and vice versa, and how all the important elements are cycled – carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and so on, to keep the planet habitable, and a lot of our researchers in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences look at the atmosphere today and try and figure out how that cycle is continuing and how we might be modifying it.

00:16:58 Kate Joyner
So is that where your, post-this particular research grant that you’ve been funded for, is that where your research interests will head as well?

00:17:05 David Flannery
We’ve had a couple of recent successes with grants. One of them involves studying river and lake environments in northwestern Australia during the Perseverance Rover mission, to help guide the mission, and come up with better exploration strategies to more efficiently use our time.

00:17:22 David Flannery
And we’re also looking into how we can project geologists in the field using virtual reality.

00:17:27 Kate Joyner
Ah, OK, so that lets you go out to those hot parts…

00:17:30 David Flannery
Well obviously, I can’t travel to Mars at the moment. Actually, I’m quite happy to have my robotic avatar do the work for me, but it’s also true that many parts of Australia as you said, are quite remote and it would be great to have the capability to project ourselves virtually in those environments and discuss the geology for example from our offices.

00:17:47 Kate Joyner
So, I can see you would have a lot of applications for mining as well as space exploration if you could explore remotely. Or virtually, I should say.

00:17:56 David Flannery
There is a huge and obvious and untapped crossover between space science and the hardware that goes to space and the sorts of things we do on Earth, particularly in Australia. Obviously, we have a lot of experience and interest in resource exploration and extraction. But there are many other crossovers and many examples that I’m sure, all of our listeners are familiar with, of technologies that were developed for space but which now we use on Earth. Teflon, for example, or Velcro and so on.

00:18:22 Kate Joyner
I did not know that! It was the Teflon that the astronauts used?

00:18:27 David Flannery
Yeah, I think DuPont developed Teflon for some space-based application and very quickly it was on everyone’s pots and pans.

00:18:33 Kate Joyner
Oh, excellent. Alright well, we’ll have to have you back when… Maybe we’ll have the avatar of you coming doing the podcast.

00:18:41 David Flannery
Yes, unfortunately, we can’t… it’s hard to show images. But perhaps after Perseverance lands, we could discuss what’s going on.

00:18:48 Kate Joyner
What’s going on. Yeah, absolutely. And what is actually some of the dates we could look forward to with Perseverance? What is its timeline?

00:18:54 David Flannery
So mid-February, Perseverance will land. It’s actually on its way, traveling about 100,000 kilometres an hour relative to the sun. So, it will land in February and operate for the next two years in a place called Jezero crater looking for life and caching samples.

00:19:09 David Flannery
And we’ve also got a lot of other interesting things happening. There’s a Chinese sample return mission to the moon. A Japanese mission to an asteroid, bringing samples back. Another Japanese mission bringing samples back from a moon around Mars all in the next couple of years, so watch this space.

00:19:22 Kate Joyner
So we’ve got a lot to look forward to. Well, that was fascinating. Thank you so much, David and good luck with all that… the study of rocks in Western Australia and elsewhere.

00:19:32 David Flannery
Thank you. Thanks for having me.


Dr Kate Joyner is the Interim Director, Corporate Programs and Learning Innovation in the Graduate School of Business, QUT. Kate provides academic leadership for the Public Sector Management Program and delivers executive education in the areas of leadership, systems thinking and strategy. Kate’s speciality is developing leaders and leadership groups for the challenges of the 21st century.

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