June 13, 2016
For as long as space exploration has been possible — and not something that only existed in the world of science fiction — we “earthlings” have often wondered if inhabiting another planet is possible.
Two Ursinus College students might be getting closer to an answer.
Ethan Haldeman ’18 and Veronica Sanford ’17 have traveled to remote Los Alamos, N.M., to search for signs of life by analyzing data from the “ChemCam,” which is aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover exploring Mars.
The two students are working as part of a team at the Los Alamos National Laboratory under the guidance of Ursinus alumnus Patrick Gasda ’07, a postdoctoral research fellow at Los Alamos. The team is analyzing the elemental composition of Martian rocks, which can determine if life once existed — and can exist again — on Mars.
“It’s not very often that an undergraduate student gets to work on a project as large or as important as the Mars rover,” Haldeman says. “I have always been interested in doing research related to space exploration, and this opportunity is a rare chance for me to do that and also perform research in the field of chemistry.”
Simply put, the ChemCam “shoots lasers at rocks on Mars so we can look at their chemistry,” Gasda says.
After analyzing nearly 1,500 Martian rocks, ChemCam has uncovered some surprising facts about the Red Planet and its geology, including the discovery of igneous rocks, which are solidified from lava or magma.
“This is a stepping stone for NASA’s plan to send humans to Mars,” Gasda says. “The next rover, tentatively called Mars 2020, will actually be searching for signs of life. We believe we found very good evidence that Mars was habitable in its first billion or so years, and that’s enough time for life to evolve. The next rover will have the capability to find evidence of that.”
At the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Haldeman says he is focusing on the concentration of boron in Mars’ soil. Meanwhile, Sanford’s work allows her to apply computer science skills to analyze data from the ChemCam.
For Sanford, astronomy and space science have been a passion since she was young.
“When the opportunity to work on the Mars rover project presented itself, I felt the same childhood excitement that I felt when I was eight years old,” she says. “Not only do I have a chance to be on the inside of a mission that is becoming increasingly important in our society, but I will be able to incorporate my interests in physics, chemistry, and computer science into my everyday life.”
Gasda, who earned his doctoral degree from the University of Hawaii, says doing research as an undergraduate at Ursinus helped inspire his career interests, something he hopes will be true for Haldeman and Sanford, too.
“You learn the fundamentals of science as an undergraduate and here in the lab, those fundamentals can be applied in a students’ own work,” Gasda says. “At Ursinus, I learned the fundamentals that helped me get me interested in space science and science in general.”
This summer at Los Alamos, Haldeman and Sanford will experience Mars rover operation firsthand and will have an opportunity to present research during a poster session at the national laboratory.
“There are many fundamental aspects of science that can be learned from space,” Haldeman says. “Ursinus provided me with research opportunities and in turn, they are helping to prepare me for graduate school and then for a career in a research laboratory.”
Sanford adds, “Doing different kinds of research allows me to pinpoint research interests. I would love to have a career where every day is a surprise and we never know what we’re going to find.”
That’s especially true in space science, where the opportunities for exploration and new discoveries are seemingly limitless.
“It’s important for us to understand if we’re alone in the universe and if life can form independently in many different ways and in many different environments,” Gasda says.
This summer, these Ursinus College students will be able to unlock new secrets about the planet by doing research that is quite literally out of this world. – By Ed Moorhouse