Nina Lanza wears her Mars mission on her left ring finger. While many brides protect the token of their marriage vows, she shot hers with a high-powered laser—the same one that she uses to explode tiny chunks of rock on the surface of the red planet. To be fair, the ring is made of space-grade titanium, so the laser left a practically indistinguishable divet. It’s there, though, evidence of her dream come true.

When I first met Lanza, she was beaming with excitement at just having crossed over from the long trek of academia. Rather than being a post-doc or a temporary researcher, the 35-year-old is now a full-time staff member at Los Alamos National Laboratory. She's not signing up for the one-way trip to Mars that's grabbed headlines lately. She's already there.

"I still think it is like the greatest thing that's ever happened to me," she says when we meet at a coffee shop on the hill—outside of which there's a television screen showing rotating images of Mars 24 hours a day. "It's super fun."

While many of her colleagues at LANL aren't allowed to talk about their work because it's on weapons development and other top-secret stuff, the space program is mostly available for public discussion all the time. Although it's notable that most people don't even know what a big role our little lab plays.

A team from LANL headed by Roger Wiens developed an instrument that is among 10 tools on a rover called Curiosity, currently cruising around on Mars helping scientists on Earth learn about geology there. Now, NASA has picked the team to build a new and improved version of the ChemCam for the rover that is slated to land on Mars in 2020. Its name? SuperCam.

Super fun.

SFR: There is some confusion about NASA and whether it is still even a thing. What's with that?

Nina Lanza: I have no idea how the story of the shuttle mission ending became kind of related with 'NASA is shutting its doors.' I can only imagine that it was misinterpreted by a few trendsetters online somewhere and then picked up. Because NASA never stopped doing what it does, which is space exploration. That is what NASA was founded to do and we're still doing it. The shuttle mission, like all missions, it came to an end. It started in the early '80s and went way past its lifetime. So it really was an incredible program and went really well. But that technology's old now, and we can do better. We need the next generation of lift vehicles and spacecraft to carry people around, so that is what NASA is working on now.

And that is not the only thing that NASA does. The vast majority of NASA missions are unmanned. They are autonomous or semiautonomous. Think about when you go to weather.com and you know what the weather is going to do. Those data came from satellites that were launched by NASA.

Nina Lanza’s car, like others on the team, bears a bumper sticker reading, “My other vehicle zaps rocks on Mars.” She poses in here the lab near the business end of the laser.
Nina Lanza’s car, like others on the team, bears a bumper sticker reading, “My other vehicle zaps rocks on Mars.” She poses in here the lab near the business end of the laser. | Anson Stevens-Bollen

You first studied astronomy, thinking that was your key to being a space scientist. Were you one of those kids who wanted to be an astronaut?

My dreams of doing space science started in, I guess, it was 1986 when Halley's Comet was visible, and so I was 7, and my parents took me to an outreach event at a local university with a lecture beforehand and then we went to the roof and looked through the telescope. You know, it wasn't a great time to see Halley's Comet in Boston—we don't have great skies, with the light pollution there, it's not that great. We had sort of poor visibility. But it blew my mind. I was like, 'That is a thing that we were just talking about. That is a big thing in space that is moving,' and it was the first time that I ever thought of the sky as something other than a dome. I was like, 'I'm looking out at the window to the universe and it's filled with stuff and that stuff is doing things.' I knew I needed to learn more. I did not know how I was going to do that, not even a little bit.

So when the first Mars rover from NASA landed on Mars, it was 1997 and that was the Pathfinder mission. That rover was the size of a Tonka truck, and it was tethered actually to its base. We finally got these pictures from the surface, and it was amazing. That was in my lifetime. I was in high school and I was just about to graduate, and I said, 'I don't know how I'm going to do this, but I need to work on a space mission to Mars.' And I had no idea how that was going to happen. I am still amazed. It's like the greatest thing that I've managed to do. That is how it started, and I was just really fascinated by what was out there. There really is this frontier.

Did you want to go to Space Camp?

Yeah!

Did you go?

No, 'cause it's expensive. My parents [said], 'You can like space from right here.'

I subscribed to a magazine called Odyssey, which is an astronomy magazine, and it had all of these little astronomy projects that you could do at home…I totally did it all.

What is your role in the mission to Mars now?

I am a geologist. So I don't build instruments, but I use them to understand Mars in a geologic context, to learn geologic facts about Mars. I use a ChemCam engineering model in the laboratory and do a lot of lab experiments. Part of my job is to understand what materials on Mars would look like if we shot them with ChemCam.

Who is deciding where the Curiosity rover goes?

We have telecoms every day (with our partners at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California). And I am missing one right now to plan for the next two sols—those are martian days—so I could call in right now, and I could say, 'I want to shoot this thing,' or 'I want to take a picture of that thing.' We have a strategic plan of where we're going and how long it should take us and we know how much time we can linger somewhere and we know how much power we have on a particular sol and what the bandwidth is.

Why does that matter?

There's not great bandwidth on Mars, it turns out. There's no high-speed Internet there and so we take data from the rover, and the rover relays it to orbiting spacecraft around Mars, and those spacecraft relay it to our deep space network here on Earth. So it can take awhile to get our data depending on how much bandwidth is available.

What is the most important thing that we have learned so far from this rover?

There are so many things that we have learned. Our goal, the goal of the mission, is to understand the past and present habitability of the martian environment. Habitability is not life, but rather a system where life as we understand it could exist. So we're looking for a watery place. Water is one of those key criteria for life as we know it. That is why we originally went to Gale Crater. It looked like there might be a lake in one part of it. We could see a little bit of a shoreline.

And so when we got there, all of our wildest dreams came true. You never know what Mars is going to give you, and this was amazing. We found all these sedimentary rocks that could clearly demonstrate that there has been persistent liquid water in this area all over everywhere we have looked. There are clay minerals and there are silicate minerals, just as we thought from orbit. Now we have confirmed them. This really was a lake environment. If this was a place on Earth, it would definitely be a place where life could live. I'm not saying there was life, but it is an environment in which life could exist.

What else?

We have recently seen that there are these puffs of methane; the amount of methane in the atmosphere is varying over time. And the great thing about methane is that, first of all, it has a really limited lifetime in an atmosphere of about 100 years, and after that it breaks down and essentially turns into carbon dioxide. If you see methane in the atmosphere, you know that something modern is producing it. Something right now is making that methane.

What makes methane, you might ask? Volcanoes certainly produce methane. But life makes methane as a byproduct. So on the Earth, we have changed our atmosphere considerably, and we have increased the methane by a huge factor because of commercial farming techniques. If you can see it in the atmosphere, we know that it is modern…We see these puffs of methane on Mars that we have been detecting for the last two years that we've been there. There are these bursts, these spikes, so there's something that is producing methane. And it seems to be producing methane in our general vicinity. We have not seen any [active] volcanoes. That does not mean it is not a volcano. But it is certainly telling us that Mars is much more active than we thought it might be. So that is a great discovery.

Scientists in a basement room at Los Alamos National Laboratory use an engineering model of the laser device that’s part of the Mars Curiosity rover and will be refined for the next rover, set to launch in 2020
Scientists in a basement room at Los Alamos National Laboratory use an engineering model of the laser device that’s part of the Mars Curiosity rover and will be refined for the next rover, set to launch in 2020 | Anson Stevens-Bollen

It seems like you all are going out of your way to not say you are looking for life on Mars. Are you?

First of all, it is really hard to say that you're going to prove or disprove that life is or has been present at a location. Given the payload of our rover, could we do it on Earth in the Atacama Desert? I would say no.

We know there is life there. It's this desert in Chile that is a great martian analog because it is so dry. It is an incredibly arid place with very little vegetation, and yet life is tenacious and it exists there. We know there are microbes in the soil.

Now let's say there isn't life in the soil, but there was in the past. How do you know when you see [evidence of past] life? I always give the example that if you were driving to an outcrop and saw, like, a trilobite fossil, we would all say that that is probably life. But what if we saw a fossilized stromatolite, one of the oldest forms of life on Earth? These still exist today because they are really successful. They're like algae mats that grow in these tufts. We can see them in the fossil record, and there are very distinct layers and there are sort of these round shapes. But there are rocks that look just like this that are actually just rocks. So how do you know? If we drove up to this on Mars, how would you know? There are things that we can look for, but usually to make the case that there was life requires extraordinary proof. We would need to do a sample return.

Is that what's next?

It turns out that NASA is tired of tiptoeing around the life question, and the next rover to be launched in 2020 is actually going to search for signs of life. So this rover, it doesn't have a name yet, we call it Mars 2020, but it will have a name—eventually. And its payload was just selected in the summer and excitingly enough, Los Alamos was selected for another instrument.

The next rover is going to be looking a lot more closely at biosignatures in the present day. Whereas, when we examine Gale Crater, we're sort of sleuthing into its past. We're trying to understand if life could have been there, if life could have existed there in the past, because, of course, today there's no life there. But we're going to be changing our focus to the present day.

I would be remiss in saying that we would ignore biosignatures that were old too. But [we're looking for] something like the methane, again, that is a present-day phenomenon. That is only happening now. That does not last millions or billions of years. It is something that is happening right now. I would like to know what that is.

How does the instrument work?

The ChemCam is actually short for chemistry and camera. So, as you might imagine, this is actually two instruments in one. We have a laser that can give us chemistry information.

This technique is called laser induced breakdown spectroscopy, or LIBS. The way this works is that we take a laser and we focus it on a sample. This laser is very high power density. And so even though it is a very small spot and it is not very high-powered, at that location we can heat that sample really hot, like, 9,000 Kelvins. It is like the surface of the Sun for the very brief period of time that we are pulsing the laser.

The laser hits the sample and it vaporizes it, and so what you have done is you have taken this material and you have excited those atoms, and they reach higher electronic states. As they come back down, as that plasma cools, they will emit photons—that is light. Depending on the color of light that they emit, we can figure what element is doing the emission. In order to put these chemistry data into a geologic context, we have a camera, a high-resolution camera that images the rock. So we can actually see exactly where we hit on the rock.

What's going to make the next cam "super"?

We have added a capability. So we have the LIBS, and we will also have Raman laser spectroscopy, in which you don't vaporize the material. It's actually much cooler in temperature. The Raman laser light interacts with the molecular bonds of a target and produces new photons that we can then collect with the same spectrometers as we use for the LIBS. Instead of getting chemistry information, we get mineralogy information, that is, information about the molecules present.

Those two instruments together, we will be able to tell so much about whatever we are shooting at. Raman, in particular, is very good at identifying organic molecules…And I think it is going to be an incredibly powerful instrument. We really are going to learn so much and the benefits are going to be the same as ChemCam; we have been able to get so much data and get it quickly.

We have so much data right now. We are like swimming in data. There are hundreds of PhD theses just waiting to be written from these data.

There's other stuff rolling around on Mars, right?

Well, everything we have ever sent to Mars is still on Mars, whether or not it is still powered on. Because we don't bring them home. It's sort of sad. The only other active mission on the surface is the Opportunity rover, which has far outlived its three-month lifespan. It was supposed to last for three months in 2004 and it is still going. That is pretty remarkable engineering.

Lanza holds a sample that’s been zapped by the beam.
Lanza holds a sample that’s been zapped by the beam. | Anson Stevens-Bollen

What is different about making a rover for Mars versus making an ATV for Earth?

First of all, your ATV has a human driver. That's nice. That makes it a lot easier. The rover has to make autonomous decisions. So we don't talk to it continuously because there is a lag. It is so far away. Depending on where it is in relation to the Earth, that delay could be quite long, like 40 minutes. So we don't drive this rover in real time. We come up with a plan and we uplink it.

It actually has to autonomously decide, 'How am I going to drive over this rock? Am I going to drive over this rock?' It does all these things to make these decisions.

We are giving it instructions, but it gets to make decisions. If we give it a command that breaks its flight rules, which I have done before, it will fault out your plan. It will be like, 'Nope, I'm not going to do that; that is breaking my rules.'

ChemCam project engineer Roger Weins published his Red Rover memoir in 2013, explaining his work at LANL in the evolution of robotics space exploration.

“We dream about life on Mars because it is the only planet so similar to Earth....If humans ever live on another planet,” he writes, “it will definitely be on Mars.”

OK, I'll bite. How did that happen?

I was part of that stellar crack team at the very beginning of the mission that accidentally targeted the rover arm with the laser, which is easier to do than it sounds if we're using the instruments on the arm and moving the arm around a lot...But the rover is smarter than we are. We got through all of our plan, and the rover says, 'My flight rule says that I am not allowed to shoot myself with the laser. Because that might hurt me.'

What happens is it gets rid of that entire routine and moves to the next one.

We changed our procedures as a result; we need to make sure that the arm is where we think it is [before targeting with ChemCam]. But that was the one and only time that happened because the rover is actually pretty smart.

I was tooling around the Internet and found a picture of a reclining Martian on a rock. Have you seen that?

Oh no. I have not seen that. I have not seen either a reclining Martian on a rock on Mars or on the Internet.

Clearly there is a set of interested folks who are looking at your work and images from the rover. How often do you get that question about little green men?

That is a totally valid question, because we're all looking for the aliens, too. I want to find aliens as much as the next person, right? I have dedicated my life to working on a spaceship on Mars for that purpose.

But you have to keep in mind that it is much harder to interpret our image data then you might imagine. Everyone feels like they can interpret it because we've all looked at pictures, right? But what I do see is that some people will see a rock in an image that was taken at a certain angle at a certain time of day, and they will say, 'There is the fossil that NASA does not want us to know about!'

I promise, we will totally tell you about the fossil. But that is just, we have seen that rock from different angles and we have seen that rock in different images, and it is just a rock. It is just a weird-looking rock.

If there were ever Martians, I want to know that too. That is what we want to know. That is why we're there. Because that is going to fundamentally change our understanding of our place as humans in the universe...I want to make clear that I love that people are so interested, but we haven't found anything that is like a fossil or living creature.

But that is OK. That is still interesting. Mars still has something to tell us. And we will keep you posted and let you know should we encounter the alien.

This interview was edited for clarity and space.

Anson Stevens-Bollen
Anson Stevens-Bollen | Anson Stevens-Bollen