Dordt College News

Earth to Mars: Paul Mahaffy gets ready for Mars mission

January 19, 2011

Dr. Paul Mahaffy's team of scientists planned and built the laboratory aboard the new Mars rover, Curiosity, which will be launched in the fall.

Can things live on Mars?

That’s the question Dr. Paul Mahaffy (’72) and his team of thirty-seven  scientists hope Curiosity will help them answer after it lands on Mars later this year. Curiosity is the new Mars Science Laboratory rover being built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

Mahaffy, a supervisory space scientist for NASA, is the principal investigator for SAM (Sample Analysis on Mars), a suite of laboratory instruments developed at Maryland’s Goddard Space Flight Center over the past ten years and sent to JPL in December to be loaded on Curiosity.

As principal investigator, Mahaffy has led a team of nearly forty scientists who have done the scientific work necessary to develop SAM. He also leads a team of about the same size that has designed, fabricated, and tested the SAM instrument.

Most days during the development of the SAM suite, Mahaffy and thirty mechanical, thermal, software, and electrical engineers, technicians, and scientists met to plan their day and set priorities for their work. Some of the scientists spent time conducting geochemical field studies in Svalbard, in the Arctic, where aspects of the environment resemble Mars. Others did hands-on work with the flight hardware in special clean rooms, donning the proverbial white suits to prevent contamination from being transferred from one planet to another.

“Working with a talented team of engineers and scientists on a daily basis is exciting,” says Mahaffy, who spends a great deal of time in review meetings to make sure that  the rigorous methodologies and processes necessary for developing flight hardware are accurately followed.

“We hope that the project will be a good step toward answering the question of past or present microbial life in the universe and specifically in Mars, our planetary backyard,” Mahaffy says. He notes that other places where they might look for life in the solar system, such as in the ocean of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, are much more difficult to reach.

“Our approach with SAM on the Curiosity rover is to look for molecular signatures of life or, even more fundamentally, to understand if organic compounds can survive under the radiation and oxidizing conditions near the surface of Mars,” says Mahaffy.

SAM, which will become an automated, mobile laboratory carried across Mars by Curiosity, includes a Quadruple Mass Spectrometer (QMS), a Gas Chromatograph (GC), and a Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS). The three instruments measure atmospheric gas and gas extracted from solid samples collected by the rover.

After the rover, which is equipped with a variety of other instruments, captures a sample, the SAM suite heats a powdered sample and analyzes the evolved gas to determine whether any organic compounds are present.

Recently scientists have found localized areas of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. Curiosity’s new instruments should be able to more accurately determine if this methane is biotic or produced abiotically.
Regardless of whether SAM detects conditions for life, it will give scientists a wealth of new information about Mars. As the time gets closer for transporting the instrument to Mars and finding answers to  questions about its chemical composition and its ability to support life, the excitement grows for Mahaffy and his co-workers.

SAM and Curiosity are scheduled to be sent to Mars with the Mars Science Laboratory in the fall of 2011. Until that time, according to Mahaffy, his team and others will continue with testing so they can all be confident that both SAM and Curiosity will work in the Mars environment and survive the launch and landing.

Mahaffy, who earned his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Iowa State University in 1977, has worked for NASA for thirty years, serving in a variety roles and on a variety of space exploration projects. 

“I learned a lot about how to think about challenging problems from one of my professors at Dordt—the late Dr. Russell Maatman,” he says, also crediting his research experiences at Iowa State for giving him the tools to work as a planetary scientist.

Mahaffy’s team’s work will continue throughout the two years (one Mars year) of the Curiosity  mission following its lauch next fall. Both the SAM and the Curiosity teams will look at data and plan operations as the rover moves around the surface of Mars.

You can watch Curiosity live as it goes through its final preparation for launch by going to the NASA/JPL/MSL website:


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