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This Graduate Student is Working to Unlock Mars' Greatest Mystery

Mars 2020,Exploration,Robots
Alex Lin
Darius Pippi
05.31.1920:05 pm
Supercluster

On the island of Oahu lies one of the space industry’s best kept secrets.

Nestled in a tropical paradise, the University of Hawaii-Manoa Institute for Astronomy is one of the leading hubs of astronomical research.

But PhD candidate Macey Sandford has no time to stop and smell the hibiscus. She’s crafting an instrument to be used on the upcoming Mars 2020 mission, NASA’s next Mars rover. Her goal is to help unlock the Red Planet’s greatest mystery: did life once exist there? This mission is a test run for future NASA projects that could bring Mars rocks back onto Earth — a feat never accomplished before.

The instrument Macey is building would help the rover’s camera digitally put together what it’s seeing. “In my lab here at the University of Hawaii, I work with building and adapting remote Raman and fluorescence spectrometers,” Macey Sandford tells Supercluster. “I am hoping that some of the work that I can do here [...] can be applied to understanding the data that SuperCam will collect on Mars, but we will see.”

Raman is a technique that uses lasers to measure the wavelength and intensity of  light scattered off of molecules that the laser targets. This method could help analyze the composition of rock and soil the Mars 2020 rover’s SuperCam scans on unexplored terrain--Mars’ Jezero Crater.

Mars’ geological history is not of interest to scientists purely for the joy of expanding human knowledge. The planet’s checkered past as a former vessel for life might reveal one of Earth’s possible futures. This research will also be critical to NASA’s deep space ambitions and to the efforts being made by private companies to establish settlements on the red planet.

“Mars exploration is important because it gives us another data point into how planets like Earth formed and evolved in the solar system, and whether Earth is unique in its ability to foster life,” says Sandford, who has been attending remote meetings with the mission’s science team, “We can use this information to extrapolate our knowledge to exoplanets and gain a better understanding of planetary formation and evolution throughout the universe.”

The history of our closest neighbor in the Solar System is still largely unknown.

NASA scientists have long suspected that Mars once had a past life similar to that of Earth. Far from the universally dry climate that researchers observe today, Mars’ terrain likely was once quite diverse and wet.

The Jezero Crater, where the 2020 rover is assigned to touch down in September of that year, shows remnants of deltas over 3.6 billion years old, indicating that the now-barren crater was once filled with water.

“Something I’ve been thinking about recently is the very mysterious climate change that has occurred on Mars,” says Mars 2020 Project Scientist, Dr. Kenneth Farley, to Supercluster, “Today, it’s super cold and dry. You never have liquid water on the surface. But the rocks that we’re going to study with Mars 2020 were clearly laid down in the bottom of a lake. How’d that work? We have no idea how that works.”

We on Earth just might be looking at Mars as a grim reflection of the not-so-distant future. Statistics from CSIRO and NASA in 2019 reported a 3.3 millimeter increase in sea levels per year and arctic ice shrinking 12.8 percent per decade. It’s within the realm of possibility that our home planet could become as uninhabitable as Mars.

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Mars 2020 isn’t without its logistic challenges. The rover’s journey comes at a time when NASA’s funding has reached near historic lows. In 2018, NASA’s total budget was 20.7 billion dollars, only around 0.5% of the government’s 4 trillion-dollar budget. This past March, the Trump administration proposed a 600 million-dollar increase for lunar missions and allocated 150 million dollars for commercial spacecrafts but also proposed canceling five Earth science missions and cutting NASA’s Office of Education.

While Mars 2020 would maintain financial support, there’s always the possibility that missions could suddenly get the axe. Budget rearrangements are especially concerning when, according to NASA’s acting director of planetary science, Lori Glaze, Mars 2020 could cost as much as 15% more than NASA projected in 2016.

“Every year, NASA’s budget is declining,” says Sandford, “All my professors here spend most of their time on proposals, so that they will have funding once their current funding runs out. And it’s not just for them, it’s funding for us too.” Despite the ever-present money question, Sandford’s driven to pursue a greater understanding of the universe around us. A hunger for scientific knowledge runs in her family.

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“My grandfather, father, and brother were all physicists,” says Sandford, who worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California last summer, “I was never exposed to the ‘women can’t do math’ type of logic growing up. There are so many young girls who are told math and science are for boys. One of the goals in my career is to promote female role models, so that when people — especially young people — think of outer space, it isn’t just with men in mind.”

A mission like Mars 2020 can’t afford to exclude ready and able candidates from its team based on gender. Powering a rover is a massive group effort. Hundreds of scientists and engineers must work together every single day to cover even a couple meters of ground on Mars.

“Building, launching, and landing a spacecraft successfully is not a small feat. It truly takes an army of passionate, dedicated women and men to do that,” adds Sandford, “It’s encouraging to see people from all over the world work together towards a common goal that is much larger than politics and economics.”

“You have a collection of people—hundreds of scientists, literally hundreds of scientists,” says Ken Farley,

“There are veryfew places you can look in the world today where you see a really large number of people working on a giant project that isn’t about making a weapon or a product.”

Even though she’s an ocean away from NASA’s headquarters, Macey Sandford knows that each second she spends working on Mars 2020 is critical. “I have learned that I think that I manage my time well, but I can do much better,” says Sandford, “I have learned that I do not have to do all of this on my own—leaning on other people in my life is okay.”

There’s not much room on Mars 2020 for human error, so it’s crucial for team members to reach out when they’re stumped. There are tons of things that could go wrong during a rover mission, like faulty code in the rover’s computer or inclement weather on Mars. Sometimes, what’s broken just can’t be fixed.

In 2009, NASA’s Spirit rover got stuck in the soft soil at its exploration site. It wasn’t until 2011 that NASA officially called off efforts to free the rover from its sinkhole of doom. The unpredictable nature of Mars missions is part of what makes them unique. At a certain point, what happens to the Mars 2020 rover will be completely out of human hands.

“If something goes wrong, there’s nothing you can do except try to figure out what it is and overcome it. Sometimes there are things that happen that can’t be overcome,” says Farley, “It’s not like there’s someone who can go there and pull it out. So, that’s how you lose a mission.”

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Losing a mission costs NASA time, money, and resources. And yet, great losses only motivate researchers to push forward. After the Spirit rover received an early decommission in 2010, NASA launched the Curiosity rover just a year later. For Sandford, it’s inspiring how these scientists rebound quickly after huge setbacks.

“It’s freaking cool,” says Sandford, “I mean think about it; we are making a spacecraft and an instrument suite here on Earth that will be launched into space, travel to and land on Mars, and drive around Mars to collect data that could lead us to understanding the origin or existence of life in this solar system.”

“This is part of what humanity does. Humanity explores the landscape.” says Farley

“We are making something to expand human knowledge — that’s special. It’s a delicate thing. We have to get everybody behind doing this, but I think everybody can share in the success.”

Alex Lin
Darius Pippi
05.31.1920:05 pm