21 March 2013

April Science Café: What scientists have learned exploring Mars


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Are you a stargazer?

If so, don’t miss the MagLab’s next Science Café on Thursday, April 4. Hosting will be Jennifer Stern, a former MagLab researcher and Florida State University graduate turned space scientist.

Jennifer Stern. Jennifer Stern. (Photo courtesy of NASA.)Stern is part of the Curiosity team, a large and varied group of scientists and engineers who preside over and manipulate a robotic rover called Curiosity. For the last eight months, this car-like machine — about the size of a Mini Cooper — has been exploring the terrain of the Red Planet, taking samples of what it finds and searching for life. At the April café, held from 6:15 to 7:30 p.m. at Ray’s Steel City Saloon on John Knox Road, Stern will talk about what scientists have seen and learned so far through their high-tech robotic eyes, ears and other instruments.

Although they haven’t found any signs of little green men — that will have to remain forever part of science fiction lore — they have uncovered clues that will help answer the Big Question: Is there, was there ever, life on Mars?

“We’ve discovered that ... Mars once had an environment that would have been hospitable to life,” Stern, 37, said recently, during a break from the 44th Lunar Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas, where she and others from NASA were making a presentation. “In order to answer questions about life on Mars, about whether life could have ever have arisen on Mars, it’s important to detect organics, and we have not definitively found organics as of yet.”

An artist's rendering of the robotic rover Curiosity exploring Mars.An artist's rendering of the robotic rover Curiosity exploring Mars. (Image courtesy of NASA.)By organics, Stern means elements such as carbon and molecules such as methane. Curiosity’s mobile lab contains tools that can vaporize soil and rocks and analyze them for traces of carbon, oxygen and nitrogen — the chemicals associated with life. Curiosity’s scientists will continue to search for these and other organics on Mars for the next year and a half, and Stern and the team she works with will continue to analyze the data being downloaded from the robotic lab more than 34 million miles from Earth.

“This may be the most exciting project I ever get involved with,” said Stern, who earned her doctorate in geochemistry at FSU in 2005.

Stern’s team works with data from an instrument aboard Curiosity's lab called SAM (for Sample Analysis at Mars), and the most heart-pounding aspect of her job happens when fresh data from SAM starts to stream in. That takes place about once a month.

“When the data comes down, everything stops. It may be 4 a.m. Sunday morning, it doesn’t matter. We want to see that data just as soon as it comes down.”

Curiosity is the fourth robotic explorer launched in space since 1997, but only the second to take actual organic samples. It made a truly spectacular landing on the Red Planet on Aug. 5, setting down with the help of a parachute that spanned 51-feet (almost 16 meters). Stern will talk about that landing — which brought the Curiosity team to its feet, cheering.

"Every time we go to Mars, there's basically a 40-percent chance of success," she allowed, "so it's amazing that everything went so well."

The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory is the world’s largest and highest-powered magnet facility. Located at Florida State University, the University of Florida and Los Alamos National Laboratory, the interdisciplinary National MagLab hosts scientists from around the world to perform basic research in high magnetic fields, advancing our understanding of materials, energy and life. The lab is funded by the National Science Foundation (DMR-1157490) and the state of Florida. For more information, visit us online at nationalmaglab.org or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest at NationalMagLab.