Ancient signs of life: inspiring the next generation of scientists in the outback

As Perseverance prepares to launch for Mars, two UNSW PhD students look back on a field trip that gave Indigenous high school students a behind-the-scenes look at the rover’s upcoming mission.
Sherry Landow | UNSW Newsroom

“I want to be the first human on Mars!” says high school student Bethany after a day spent searching for fossils in Pilbara, Western Australia.

Bethany was one of 16 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander high school students from nearby Port Hedland who went on a camping field trip with scientists from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and UNSW Sydney last year. 

The international team – which included key scientists from NASA’s Perseverance mission – were visiting Pilbara for clues on how to search for ancient life on Mars.

“The Pilbara contains one of the oldest fossil sites in the world,” says astrobiologist Ms Bonnie Teece, who is completing her PhD at UNSW Science’s Australian Centre for Astrobiology. She organised the student field trip with fellow PhD candidate, Mr Luke Steller. 

“The rocks in Pilbara are three-and-a-half billion years old – roughly the same age as the rocks that might hold signs of life on Mars,” she says. “In many ways, the Pilbara is the closest place on Earth to that period in Mars’s history.”

NASA’s Perseverance is set to launch from Camp Canaveral today. If the conditions aren’t right, it will have a two-hour launch window each day until 15 August. 

The rover will look for signs of ancient life on Mars while collecting rock and soil samples to hopefully bring back to Earth.

Ms Teece and Mr Steller – who regularly visit Pilbara for their research – saw NASA and ESA’s visit to Western Australia as a special opportunity to engage with the local community.

“We don’t want to be scientists who just look at the fossils and then go back home,” says Ms Teece. “We want to connect with local kids and build a sustained and involved presence in the community.”

The duo organised for the vising NASA scientists to give local students a behind-the-scenes look at some of the tools used on the Perseverance mission, like replicas of the Mars sample tubes and a digital tour of what’s inside the rover.

“The scientists were showing us the insides of the rover and what’s going to happen on Mars,” says Bethany. “It was a really cool experience.”

Ms Sara Finn, a teacher from Hedland Senior High School, says the students had an incredible time meeting NASA and ESA scientists.

“The students were really excited to learn that their backyard is essential to scientists from all around the world,” she says.

“It was also special for them to see that their land, and their families’ land, is integral to these space programs.”

Stepping back in time 

The field trip wasn’t all about fossils, but also looking at the bigger picture of Earth’s 4.6 billion-year-old history.

To help the students visualise this amount of time, Ms Teece stretched a 46-metre-long piece of colour-coded fabric over the dirt. Each colour represented a new geological era in Earth’s history. 

Students were given soft toys, like dinosaurs, animals, humans and sponges, and asked to place them where they thought the organisms evolved.

“They were mind-boggled to see that humans evolved right at the very end of the timescale,” says Ms Teece.

“It really changed their perspective – especially when they considered how much impact humans have had on the Earth.”

One of the students, Lilly, was surprised to see how the planet changed over time. 

“The rocks and the mountains are kind of like our grandparents,” she says.

“Being an astrobiologist isn’t just about looking at rocks, but the whole experience of science,” says Mr Steller. “Sometimes this includes camping around the fire, sleeping in swags and meeting amazing land caretakers.

“We wanted to show the students that side of science, too.”

The group camped at a sandy billabong close to the fossil site. Like most camping trips, there were hiccups during the day – like getting bogged – followed by a night of stargazing and late-night chats by the campfire.

“The kids asked really insightful questions, like how big the universe is and what else is out there,” says Mr Steller. 

“It was good for the students to see that science doesn’t have all the answers, but we could try to understand those big, unknowable questions together.”

An astronomer from the Australian Indigenous Astronomy (AIA) network visited the group to discuss the rich history of Indigenous astronomy. Under the night sky, the students learnt how elders read the stars and how to spot certain constellations.

They also delved deeper into questions about the universe. 

“Learning is an ongoing thing – it doesn't get switched off after a 45-minute workshop,” says Mr Steller.

“It can emerge in the conversations that happen around the campfire, while looking up at the stars, or while making aliens out of clay.”

“In our National Science Week workshops, participants will get hands-on experience and learn the same way scientists do.” 

The workshops, in partnership with ANSTO and the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, will explore questions like ‘What do scientists look for when trying to find other planets suitable for life?’, ‘What can air pollution data tell us about the world around us?’, and ‘How do ecologists decide what bushland to protect?’

There will also be a version of the workshop aimed specifically at teachers.

“Out in the Pilbara we saw the real educational value of students studying fossils firsthand,” says Mr Steller.

“Actually doing science yourself – rather than just reading about it – can make such a difference.”