Meet the EAPS Faculty planting their scientific footprints on Mars
Writer(s): Cheryl Pierce
Earthlings have always had a fascination with Mars, our neighboring red planet. As research and technology has progressed, space programs around the world have set their sights on sending human beings to Mars. Mankind is far from that goal, but every paper published, every rover landed, and every Martian habitat explored gets humans closer to this exploration. Mars is currently only known to be inhabited by robots, and NASA is in the process of combing the planet's exterior with its next round of robotics: the Perseverance Rover and a companion helicopter, the first of its kind to be flown on Mars. Professors from the Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Department (EAPS) of Purdue University have their scientific footprints on everything from the rovers of Mars, the atmosphere, the water, the ice, and even the moons.
No inventory of Mars faculty at Purdue University would be complete without EAPS Professor Dr. Briony Horgan. She is a member of the Mars Perseverance Rover team. She is also on the team that helped decide where the Perseverance Rover would land and explore. The Jezero Crater was selected after much debate because Horgan said in a presentation to NASA that the crater was most likely to yield signs of life, if there are signs of life to find. She also is on the design team that created the eyes of the Mars Rover Perseverance called Mastcam-Z. Horgan’s team at Purdue University led research in Iceland and Turkey to better understand how the Rover Perseverance would be able to operate on another planet. They were looking for analog environments on Earth that would closely mimic the landscape and geology of Mars in order to maximize research conducted in Jezero Crater. Horgan was also involved with the previous Mars Rover, the Curiosity Rover. In addition to her work with the rovers, she is involved in research about the moons and ice of Mars. To learn more about Horgan in her own words, a recent Superheroes of Science episode covers her work on the red planet.
Dr. Roger Wiens joined Purdue EAPS in March of 2022 and brought with him an extensive knowledge of Mars and the robots that prowl the red planet. He holds Physics degrees from Wheaton College and the University of Minnesota and his thesis was on the composition of the Mars atmosphere measured in the laboratory in martian meteorites. He was a developer and Flight Payload Lead of NASA’s Genesis cosmochemistry mission. Subsequently, he developed and led exploration with the ChemCam laser remote sensing instrument for the Curiosity rover (landed 2012). He now leads the SuperCam instrument team on the Perseverance rover (landed 2021). With its international team, SuperCam uses three spectroscopy techniques, a microphone, and high-resolution imaging to study remote targets. Dr. Wiens is a Senior Fellow of Los Alamos National Laboratory. In 2016, he was knighted by the government of France for “forging strong ties between the French and American scientific communities” and for “inspiring many young, ambitious earthlings.” He holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Toulouse and is the namesake of Asteroid 41795 WIENS. His book, Red Rover: Inside the Story of "Robotic Space Exploration from Genesis to the Mars Rover Curiosity (Basic Books, 2013), describes for the public his teams’ earlier space adventures. To learn more about Wiens in his own words, check out his episode of Superheroes of Science.
Dr. David Minton is also instrumental in research and discovery on the red planet. His research with the two moons of Mars has helped lead to the conclusion that Mars may have once been a ringed planet, like Saturn. He is leading a team at Purdue University, including Dr. Horgan of EAPS and Dr. David Spencer of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering at Purdue University, that is building a spacecraft, the Chariot to the Moons of Mars. This spacecraft will be launched with NASA to explore the moons. Currently, the only spacecraft used to view the moons was built to study Mars, so close up photos can only be seen as the moons pass by. To hear more about Minton’s Mars research in his own words, check out the Facebook Live he recorded with the SETI Institute.
Dr. Alexandria Johnson is an atmospheric scientist who studies the properties of clouds and atmospheres across the solar system and beyond. Although not as pronounced as on Earth, clouds are common features of the Martian atmosphere and, despite the family of rovers and orbiters that have visited, many mysteries still remain. Her research primarily focuses on when, where, and by what mechanisms clouds form in the Martian atmosphere and the properties of the resulting cloud particles through laboratory measurement techniques. A better understanding of clouds can tell us more about the climate, both past and present, and how volatiles like water are cycled.
In the Fall of 2020, EAPS added new faculty including Dr. Michael Sori. He came to Purdue University with an existing and ongoing portfolio of Mars research. One focus of his research involves decoding climate records hidden in Martian ice, both at the large polar caps and at smaller hills of ice. He also studies glacial flow and spectacular avalanches that occur at Martian ice.
Dr. Ali Bramson's Mars research focuses on finding and characterizing water ice on Mars. This ice will be a critical resource to any future human exploration of Mars, both for sustaining human life and generating the rocket fuel required to return to Earth. Because of her expertise with water ice on Mars, she is directly involved in the landing site evaluation activities for SpaceX’s Starship. She’s also a member of the NASA SWIM Project (Subsurface Water Ice Mapping on Mars). In addition to human exploration, she studies water ice in order to help decipher the climate history of Mars. To learn more about Bramson’s work in her own words, she can be seen in this Mars Bunker video on YouTube and can be heard discussing her work on an episode of the WeMartians podcast.
Bramson and Sori also collaborate on Mars research. A shared slice of research that received extensive media attention addresses whether there exists liquid water today on Mars beneath a mile of ice at its south pole. The two studied the conditions that would be necessary for that liquid water to exist and found that it is difficult for the area to be warm enough to melt the ice, although not impossible. They discovered one possibility involved recent magmatic activity underground in the region, heating and melting the ice into water. They will further test this idea with observations from Mars-orbiting spacecraft and computer simulations.
Martian research is ongoing all over the world. Dr. Marissa Tremblay of EAPS is a noble gas geochemist and has had ongoing Martian research that has spanned many years. Her planetary research includes reconstructing the thermal histories of Martian meteorites as well as investigating the noble gas systematics of terrestrial analog materials.
As humans look to the skies and dream about one day having humans explore our neighboring planet, researchers continue the work that could possibly make it happen. Here at Purdue EAPS, scientists keep going and going to ensure that humans who may one day explore Mars will have the tools needed to survive the trip and return home safely. Each small step toward this goal will equal the next giant leap into space exploration.