Rock star geologist gives Exeter a tour of Mars

Sarah Milkovich '96 is part of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab rover mission studying the Red Planet.

Patrick Garrity
January 10, 2022

Sarah Milkovich ’96 has remote learning down.

It’s not that the Exeter grad embraces the Zoom life. It’s that her area of expertise — and her focus for most of the past 15 years — is 200 million miles away.

Milkovich is part of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the lead science systems engineer for the Mars 2020 rover mission that includes the rover Perseverance and the robotic helicopter Ingenuity. A planetary geologist by training, she is part of the team zig-zagging the Red Planet from Earth, scraping rocks, scooping soil and collecting samples for immediate and future study.

>> Watch Dr. Milkovich's full assembly address

Milkovich shifted her virtual focus closer to home last week, addressing the Academy’s assembly over Zoom. She gave Exeter students a tour of Mars courtesy of Perseverance’s imagery and an overview of what she does and what the mission hopes to accomplish.

The Mars of today is extremely inhospitable. An early January day — late summer in the planet’s northern hemisphere, where Perseverance roams — ranges from a high temperature of 21°F to a low of -115°F. The Martian atmosphere consists almost entirely of carbon dioxide and is so thin so as to prohibit the existence of liquid water at the surface.

But Milkovich told her audience that Mars of about 3.6 billion years ago is believed to have been a far different place, one very similar to Earth in the same period. “The idea is, that if ancient Mars and ancient Earth were so similar to each other and on ancient Earth, the conditions were right to start life, why couldn't it have started on Mars as well? And that's what Perseverance is all about; trying to answer that question.”

Milkovich’s curiosity of the heavens began while still a student at Exeter. A native of Ithaca, New York, she spent summer breaks at home interning at Cornell University and working on a project that designed a spacecraft that could orbit an asteroid and record its findings. She received her bachelor's degree in planetary science from California Institute of Technology and her master’s and doctorate from Brown University in planetary geology, with studies of ice on Mars and volcanoes on Mercury. She started at NASA’s JPL in 2005.

Most of the past 15 years, she has worked on Mars projects, and the last year has been Perseverance. The second rover, after Curiosity, to scour the planet, Perseverance set down last February. 

You have to be ready to say, ‘Yes, that sounds terrifying, but I'm going to try it because it also sounds fascinating'."

“We're studying the rocks, and we find really compelling rocks that we think could tell us a lot about the history of Mars and the potential for past life on Mars,” Milkovich explained. “We have a drill, and we collect cores of rocks, seal them up for hopefully a future mission that will come pick up those cores and bring them back to Earth for analysis in laboratories. So, we are the first step of a Mars sample return campaign, which is hugely exciting to a planetary geologist!”

Milkovich fielded questions after her presentation, helping would-be space explorers to imagine a future in the field — and offering advice that extends to any pursuit.

“A lot what happens is that something comes by and you have to be ready to say, ‘Yes, that sounds terrifying, but I'm going to try it because it also sounds fascinating,’” she said, “and just leap wholeheartedly in.”

For the record, she is hopeful that there is life elsewhere in the universe, she does not believe aliens have visited Earth and that any future habitation of Mars will be limited to the hardiest of souls.

“Long-term settlements, like in buildings or underground, that psychologically will be very difficult,” Milkovich said. “If you think about the difficulties that we've all had in the last couple years, wearing masks and staying indoors ... Think about Mars. If you're ever not in a room, you're going to be wearing a spacesuit. You will never feel the breeze on your face. So, I think it's only going to be a very rare small group of people who are going to want to live like that. I think that's when of the things that people don't take into account when they get really excited about long-term human presence on Mars.”

A couple hundred million miles away isn’t so bad.

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