20 September 2012

MagLab alum follows her curiosity

Jennifer Stern, a Florida State University graduate and MagLab alum, is a scientist on the Earth-based crew that monitors and directs Curiosity, the space rover now rumbling over the Red Planet more than 34 million miles away.

By KATHLEEN LAUFENBERG

Jennifer Stern goes to Mars every day. It’s her job.

Stern, a 2005 Florida State University graduate, is a scientist on the Earth-based crew that monitors and directs Curiosity, the space rover now rumbling over the Red Planet more than 34 million miles away. Before she signed up to explore Mars, though, the 36-year-old earned her doctorate in geochemistry at FSU and worked daily for nearly four years in the Magnet Lab’s geochemistry department. She left to do her postdoctoral research at the Astrobiology Division at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Jennifer SternJennifer Stern is a scientist on the Earth-based crew that monitors and directs Curiosity. (Image courtesy of NASA)“Definitely working with all of the state-of-the-art instruments at the MagLab, getting all that hands-on experience using the mass spectrometers and other tools in geochem, helped me get this job,” Stern said in a phone interview from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. “I really got to know the instruments I used at the MagLab inside and out. If you don’t understand the instrument, you don’t understand how good your data is — and that’s especially true when you’re making an instrument for outer space.”

At the Maglab, Stern worked on projects involving geochemical analysis with Vincent Salters, the MagLab’s geochemistry director and a geochemistry professor at Florida State University; Yang Wang, an FSU geochemistry professor; and Jeff Chanton, an FSU chemical oceanography professor.

Astrobot trailblazers

These days, robotic spacecraft — not humans — explore new worlds, controlled by scientists and engineers back home on terra firma. We do hope to visit neighboring planets in person one day, though, and Curiosity is intended to help us “blaze a trail for human footprints on Mars,” NASA’s top administrator Charles Bolden has said.

Curiosity, the fourth robotic rover launched into space since 1997, made a spectacular landing on the Red Planet on Aug. 5, setting down with the help of a parachute that spanned 51 feet (almost 16 meters).

CuriosityBefore Curiosity landed on Mars, it went for a photo shoot on terra firma. (Image courtesy of NASA/Jet Propulsion Lab-Caltech)“Every time we go to Mars, there’s basically a 40 percent chance of success, so it’s amazing that everything went so well,” Stern said. “For a lot of people that was a big relief and very exciting.”

The rover’s two-year mission is to solve the Red Planet’s biggest mystery: Can Mars support life? Did it ever, does it now, could it do so in the future? To accomplish that, Curiosity has SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars), a lab on the rover that consists of 10 complex instruments that can analyze soil, rocks, atmosphere and more. Stern and about 35 other scientists and engineers tell SAM what experiments to do, then analyze the data.

“We want to know what everything is made of,” Stern said. “We would love to find organic matter! ... It’s all very fascinating. I feel very lucky to be a part of this team.”

Life with SAM

Life with SAM has its challenges, of course. For Stern, it means being bicoastal. She flies back and forth between the NASA center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the jet lab in Pasadena, Calif. During this phone interview, she was at the jet lab, with the rest of the SAM team.

SAMSAM — Sample Analysis at Mars — is a lab on the Curiosity rover that consists of 10 complex instruments. (Image courtesy of NASA)Because the length of an Earth day differs from a Mars day, the crew also has a yoyo-like schedule.

“There’s so much to learn: There’s a bunch of different software tools and a lot of different procedures and, as a scientist, I want to learn about all of the instruments, not just the ones my team uses,” she said. “So just in terms of learning all the instrumentation and getting to know everybody’s personality, it’s so important to have the science team together all in one place ... It’s really challenging to design experiments when we don’t know what we’re going to find!”

“My day is based on when the data is going to get sent from Curiosity back to us,” Stern said. “That means my schedule generally moves forward by about 40 minutes each day.”

In the coming weeks, her day schedule will shift to a night schedule; she’ll arrive at 8 p.m. rather than 8 a.m. But the excitement of potentially discovering signs of life on Mars makes up for it.

Signs of Life

For the first three months of the mission, Stern and the other SAM scientists are running tests to make sure all the robotic lab’s instruments and computer programs are running correctly on both Mars and Earth.

“Every instrument is being put through the basics,” Stern said. “So far, everything is going really well.”

Soon, they will begin to hunt for life on the planet. Scientists don’t expect to meet any little green Martians — that will have to remain a part of sci-fi lore — but they do hope to find evidence of former life. While Mars today is a cold, dry and apparently barren world — with an atmosphere so thin any surface water boils away — scientists don’t think it has always been this way.

“One of the questions we have is, is there methane on Mars? On Earth, methane is mostly produced by bacteria — by life. So if there is methane on Mars, and we think there may be, that would be really exciting. First, we would want to measure how much there is, and then we would want to determine where is it coming from.”

On Earth, animals such as cows and even tiny organisms, all release methane — a gas that consists of four hydrogen atoms bound to one carbon atom — as they digest food. But a rock can release methane, too; a rock full of iron releases methane when the iron rusts, or oxidizes. So even if methane is found, Curiosity and SAM must run a variety of tests to discover what’s producing it.

For Stern and others, however, the mission has already achieved important goals. She sees evidence of that every time she visits a school (her mom is a former fifth-grade teacher and school administrator) and talks to kids about space exploration.

“When I put a picture of Curiosity up on the screen, the kids already know a lot about Mars and the rover,” she said. “If this mission gets more kids into science and gets them thinking about science careers, I feel like it’s already been a success.”