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Destination: Mars

Students help engineer future missions to the red planet

Carolyn Lachance '03, Lindsay O'Donnell '05 and Andrew Dufresne '05 spent the winter term in Houston at the Johnson Space Center working on missions to Mars that will ultimately return to earth with samples of Martian soil and air.

It has been almost 40 years since NASA launched its first successful flyby spacecraft to Mars and 28 years since the first lander touched down on the red planet. Now, several WPI students have a hand in planning for a long-awaited phase of Mars exploration: missions to collect and return to earth samples of Martian soil and air.

Carolyn Lachance '03 was one of a dozen students working at the Johnson Space Center in Houston this past winter. Her team's major project was to design the return leg of a Mars mission using solar electric propulsion. Lachance says that although ion engines are already used in many satellite systems, a return trip from Mars will require smaller solar arrays and greater engine efficiency. "We projected that with continued technological advances, we may be able to launch a Mars mission as early as 2011," she says. "Since Earth and Mars come closest together approximately every two years, the spacecraft would bring back Martian rocks, soil and atmosphere in 2013."

The samples could help to answer many questions, including the biggest one: Is there life on Mars? "A Martian meteorite discovered in Antarctica in 1984 contains possible evidence of microbial life having existed at some point," says Lindsay O'Donnell '05, whose interactive project at the Johnson Space Center involved public outreach and sample return missions.

"Water may have been present and may still exist in the polar caps and in water veins. But the question of life on Mars will probably not be answered until we have actual samples," says Andrew Dufresne '05, who also worked on the project.

Ultimately, even samples may not provide a definitive answer, but the students say there is value in the search itself. "Working to overcome obstacles leads to advances in technology," says O'Donnell, while Dufresne points out, "it's in our nature to continue to explore."

Other projects involved sample return missions from Aitken Basin, the largest crater on the moon, and robotics. "All of the projects were well received by NASA," says William W. Durgin, associate provost, who oversaw the work. "Our students fielded questions exceptionally well during their presentations." WPI has been sending students to Houston for five years to work on projects involving returning Mars samples to earth. Initially they were advised by Professor Karen McNamara of the Chemical Engineering Department. She has since been hired by NASA and will serve as WPI's liaison in Texas--Durgin says that the Johnson Space Center is scheduled to become an official WPI project site next year.

Lachance, O'Donnell and Dufresne all agree that the highlight of their project work in Houston was working alongside dedicated scientists--and touring the entire facility, including getting a look at moon rocks. "That's something very, very few people get to see," says Dufresne. Lachance admits it "was wonderful to be in a place we 'space geeks' are in awe of, a place that has so much history."

Students witnessed a dark page of space history unfold on February 1 when they awoke to news of the space shuttle Columbia disaster. They had been invited to watch the launch from mission control just 16 days earlier, sharing in the excitement of NASA scientists around them. Then, like the rest of the nation, they watched the tragic accident play out on their television screens.

The students had been asked to attend a reception with the Columbia astronauts the following day, but instead they were invited to the formal memorial service on February 4.

"I think we all spent a few days wondering why we were bothering to do this work when there was a national tragedy," Lachance says. "The mood was definitely subdued and it was a little bit harder to meet with our advisors at NASA. After all, the astronauts were their friends. It was sad."

But the students say that the tragedy ultimately underscores the importance of space exploration. "We have always been explorers," says Dufresne. "It's something so very fundamental to who we are. No matter what obstacles we encounter, the work will go on."

--Rachel Faugno

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Last modified: Sep 02, 2004, 11:53 EDT
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