The brilliant scientist who led the team which has found near-conclusive evidence of water on Mars has been revealed as a Kathmandu-born sci-fi geek who plays guitar in a “death metal” band.
Lujendra “Luju” Ojha, a 25-year-old PhD candidate in Planetary Science at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is the lead author of a study which found that dark streaks seen on the surface of the Red Planet are period flows of liquid water.
Mr Ojha led the way by devising a new technique which better analyzed photographs of the surface of Mars taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and found evidence of water.
Although the source and the chemistry of the water is unknown, the discovery will change scientists’ thinking about whether the planet that is most like Earth in the solar system hosts microbial life beneath its radiation-blasted crust.
The findings are published in the journal Nature Geoscience and according to experts, suggest that it would be possible for life to be on Mars “today”.
It’s a fantastic coup for Ojha, who has always been fascinated by science fiction and mountains – unsurprising, given his country of birth – but who had not really thought about taking up science as a career path not too long ago.
The home page of his personal website shows Ojha as a mysterious rocker, full hair, beard and guitar in hand.
He told CNET: “Yeah, that was an old life. I was kind of in poverty with music. I wasn’t making enough money so I said screw music, let’s go to science, maybe there’s more money in it. But there isn’t money in science either.”
Ojha moved to the US with his family when he was a teenager, settling in Tuscon Arizona.
In high school, Ojha was fascinated by time travel and string theory. He first posited the theory of water on Mars back in 2011 when, as a 21-year-old, he co-authored a study in the journal Science suggesting that there is liquid water during warmer seasons on Mars.
The Mars discovery came out of an independent project he was doing with professor Alfred McEwen, one of the world’s most pre-eminent experts on planetary geology who Ojha had met during his undergraduate years at the University of Arizona.
Ojha later developed a new technique to analyze chemical maps of the surface of Mars obtained by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft.
The team then found telltale fingerprints of salts that form only in the presence of water in narrow channels cut into cliff walls throughout the planet’s equatorial region.
The slopes appear during the warm summer months on Mars, then vanish when the temperatures drop.
But NASA will not be rushing out to search the newly discovered saltwater residue for life just yet.
“If I were a microbe on Mars, I would probably not live near one of these (sites). I would want to live further north or south, quite far under the surface and where there’s more of a freshwater glacier. We only suspect those places exist and we have some scientific evidence that they do,” one scientist said.
News of Ojha’s work has been warmly received in his native Nepal.
Rock music’s loss, it appears, is humanity’s gain.