Sanford Asher: 'Researchers understand a lot of how life works and how molecules are used on Earth. But it’s pretty clear that life would have evolved differently on Mars.'

By: KDKA-TV News Staff

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — A University of Pittsburgh professor is playing an integral role in NASA and the Perseverance Rover’s search for life on Mars.

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Professor Sanford Asher, of Pitt’s chemistry department, is involved in research “that uses ultraviolet laser technology to examine objects at a molecular level,” says the university.

That technology is attached to Perseverance in the form of what’s called “SHERLOC.”

SHERLOC stands for “Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals.”

Asher says it is an instrument that can “determine the chemical composition of rocks.” In this case, the rocks on the surface of Mars.

“It’s looking for particular molecules that are suggestive of the existence of life,” Asher says.

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So how does it work?

Pitt says SHERLOC, armed with its laser technology, will shine “a tiny dot of ultraviolet laser light” at a target. That laser light technology, says Pitt, causes “glow” from molecules containing carbon atoms and the ability to identify certain minerals.

Perseverance then sends back those scans for study by Professor Asher and his research team.

In a news release from Pitt, Asher says he’s sure the results will be surprising.

“I’m sure [what we find] will be surprising and we will try to uncover a deeper understanding of what Mars is actually like,” Asher said. “Researchers understand a lot of how life works and how molecules are used on Earth. But it’s pretty clear that life would have evolved differently on Mars. We’ll see. That’s why we went there and that’s why we’re asking these questions.”

For more information on Professor Asher, visit Pitt’s website here.