From the blue to the red planet, Hong Kong-based Nasa astrobiologist Angélica Anglés hunts for life in outer space
Against a starry backdrop, her fingers a blur over the keys, Angélica Anglés likes to illustrate her lectures on cosmic exploration with elaborate piano compositions that bring our solar system to life in another dimension. Not only an accomplished concert pianist, Anglés, a planetary scientist, astrobiologist and astrophysicist based in Hong Kong, is one of the researchers whose work influenced where Nasa’s Perseverance rover will touch down on Mars after it leaves the Earth’s orbit in July.
Dreams of outer space have draped Anglés’ life for as long as she can remember. When she was a small child, her grandfather, a chemist who was fascinated by the cosmos, would take her to the roof of their family’s summer home in mountainous Spain to stargaze. “He always believed that there were planets that had aliens. I always wanted to know if what he was saying was true,” the 36-year-old says.
On her journey to the top of her field, Anglés studied space engineering all over Europe, where the gender balance among students was always heavily skewed towards men. “People always asked if I was in the right class,” she says. “There is a stereotype that only men study these subjects. As a female astrobiologist, I have been doubted or taken as a joke many times.”
However, casual sexism has never stopped Anglés from reaching for the stars. After being offered a full scholarship for a doctorate in astrobiology at the University of Hong Kong, she brought her studies to Asia. In April she was also appointed as the first female chair of the Hong Kong chapter of The Explorers Club, a prestigious society founded in New York in 1905 to promote scientific exploration worldwide, and whose members are responsible for such achievements as being the first to reach the North and South Poles, to land on the moon and climb Mount Everest.
“I like challenging stereotypes,” says Anglés. “I like telling girls, ‘Don’t listen to what other people say about what a woman is, or can do.’ Along the way, people said I wasn’t good enough or didn’t even speak English, and there was no way I could do what I set out to. If I listened to them, I would not be here today. Now, I’m happy to see more and more women working in the field of astrobiology.”
Human exploration of Mars began in the 1960s with Soviet flybys before Nasa’s Viking 1 performed the first successful landing in 1976. Since then, multiple projects and rover landings have built on our knowledge of the planet and sparked debate over whether our closest neighbour could be habitable for humans someday—or could have even once supported life itself. With seven scientific instruments and 23 cameras, Perseverance is kitted out to seek signs of habitable conditions and past microbial life on Mars, and collect rock samples for scientists to study back on Earth.
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For the last six years, Anglés’ work has compared the geological history of a Tibetan mountain basin—similar to Mars in its cold and dry conditions—to the topography of the red planet itself in search of evidence of the most basic molecule required for living organisms to exist. “On Earth, wherever water in any form is, we find life,” she explains. “So it looks promising to find evidence of past life in those areas where we know liquid water persisted for a few million years, enough time for life to develop.”
Rather than keep her music separate from her career in science, Anglés blends the two, having appeared onstage at TedxTinHau last year to close a lecture about her research with a space-inspired performance on piano. “Music and space exploration are the heart and soul of my life,” she told the audience. After wrapping her academic studies for the day, her routine involves playing the piano for hours each night. “People told me music and science have nothing to do with each other, but they complement each other perfectly,” she adds.
When Perseverance touches down on that ochre landscape next year, it will be the result of years of meticulous preparation by thousands of scientists across the globe. For Anglés, her most audacious dream moves closer into focus; the culmination of a life’s dedication to two passions: “One day, I hope I will be able to play the piano on Mars.” Knowing Anglés, she’ll make it happen.
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