The first Australian, and first woman, to lead a NASA team to search for life on Mars has criticised the country’s limited involvement in space exploration.
Dr Abigail Allwood says Australia is losing some of its brightest minds because there isn’t enough funding or research opportunities in the field.
The principal investigator of the Mars 2020 rover mission believes her homeland is capable of being more involved in the space race and needs to get off the sidelines.
“There are just some incredible Australian scientists overseas that would come work back here if they had similar opportunities … I’d be one of them,” she said on Thursday.
Dr Allwood, who studied at the Queensland University of Technology but is now based in California, developed one of seven sophisticated scientific instruments NASA will use for its Mars 2020 rover robot, which will search for signs of past life on the red planet.
Her instrument, operated remotely from Earth, will analyse the chemistry of rocks in fine detail, which could provide clues about past life – including if, and when, there was water on the red planet.
Dr Allwood said any evidence of life would spark another mission to bring the samples back to Earth for further analysis.
It’s this type of exciting missions she fears Australians will miss out on if the country fails to step up to the intergalactic plate.
She said greater involvement in space exploration would also help get more young people interested in science generally and abolish the “lab coat” stereotype.
“The image we have of science as a potential career doesn’t do it justice,” she said.
The Mars 2020 rover mission is due to be launch in mid-2020.