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TOURING MARS IN FEBRUARY: AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH FARAH ALIBAY

February 10 2021 | Valérie Demers

As part of the Women and Girls in Science event, presented by UQAM virtually from February 1 - 11, we are ending our portraits of inspirational women in science and technology with Farah Alibay, a NASA aerospace engineer at the forefront of science. 

Has there ever been life on Mars? That is the question that the Perseverance rover will try to answer when it lands on the Red Planet on February 18. Astrobiology, the search for traces of past life on a planet, is central to the career of Farah Alibay, a NASA aerospace engineer who will be one of the people "driving" the rover charged with this mission.  

A whole greater than the sum of its parts 

You might think that Perseverance is a simple, remote-controlled vehicle. But actually, it takes a team of 50 people to guide the rover. “That's the beauty of engineering. Working as a team, we can do more than we could individually," explains Farah. 

Raise your hand if you want to go to Mars!

Equipped with microphones, radar to see under the surface, and a weather station, the Perseverance rover ("Percy" for short) will scout the terrain in preparation for human exploration of the Red Planet. 

perseverance

This illustration shows Percy using its drill to collect a rock sample on Mars. Perseverance will land on the Red Planet on February 18, 2021. NASA/JPL-Caltech. 

The mission will also test MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), a tool used to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen on Mars. Eliminating the need to transport this vital gas on human missions in the future. 

The child is father of the man … or woman  

As a child, Farah was already getting ready for robotic exploration: “I didn't really know what engineering was, but I was the one who would help my dad build the pool deck or change a tire on the car," she said. Watching Apollo 13 when she was 10 was a turning point in the life of the little girl from Joliette. 

Women in space exploration 

But the percentage of women in engineering is barely 30%. 

“Society doesn't tell girls, 'You could be an astronaut or an engineer'; it steers them towards typically female occupations. But we need the number of women in science and technology to reach 50%," said the woman who, as a child, had to choose her toys in the boys' section. 

For a long time, Farah suffered from feeling different (growing up in the only immigrant family in Joliette, or being a woman in a male environment). But all that changed when she decided to embrace her difference.  

“I had a great education, a doctorate from MIT… I belong!". 

Farah now cultivates her difference, which gets her noticed for her work and enables her to approach problems from another angle. 

Searching for life in the solar system 

In the future, Farah would like to be on the team that analyzes the Martian samples. She would like to learn about other environments as well, such as the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, whose oceans also show indications of life. 

“If we find that there has been life on Mars, it will completely change our understanding of humanity. And learning more about that lifeform from the samples that Perseverance brings back to Earth, that's exciting!"  

Girls, are you interested? Farah would love to have you as a colleague!

Valérie Demers
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