A NASA rover landed on Mars on Thursday, accomplishing the riskiest step yet in a quest to bring back rocks that could answer whether life ever existed on the planet.
“It’s incredibly exciting. We’ve been travelling there for seven months,” said Farah Alibay, a Quebec-born engineer from Joliette who is part of the NASA team landing Percy, as the rover is nicknamed.
The landing marks the third visit to Mars in just over a week. Two spacecrafts from the United Arab Emirates and China swung into orbit around Mars on successive days last week.
All three missions lifted off in July to take advantage of the close alignment of Earth and Mars, journeying some 300 million miles in nearly seven months.
Perseverance, the biggest, most advanced rover ever sent by NASA, is the ninth spacecraft since the 1970s to successfully land on Mars, every one of them from the U.S.
Alibay was born in Montreal to parents who immigrated from Madagascar and was raise in Joliette. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in aerospace and aerothermal engineering from the University of Cambridge and then completed her PhD in space systems engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She is now based in Los Angeles.
She said she’s happy to see her story being shared, and hopes it can inspire a new generation of kids to follow their dreams. As child she said she was inspired by movies like “Apollo 13” and by pioneering women astronauts, like Canada’s Julie Payette.
She told Global News on Thursday morning ahead of the successful landing that of all aspects of the mission, she’s most excited about when they will “attempt to make that first flight” with the small robotic helicopter that was carried to Mars aboard Perseverance.
“We’ve only been flying on Earth for about 100 years,” she said. “And now we’re going to fly on another planet.”
The systems engineer, who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said the next steps of the project include the daunting task of helping guide the rover as it searches for signs of ancient life on Mars.
“That question of, ‘Are we alone,’ is something that I think people have asked themselves for hundreds of years, if not thousands of years,” she said.
Over the next two years, Perseverance will use its seven-foot (two-metre) arm to drill down and collect rock samples with possible signs of bygone microscopic life and get the samples back to Earth as early as 2031, where it will be analyzed for ancient microbes.
— With files from Alessia Maratta, Global News