WUSTL grads play key roles in NASA rover missions to Mars

Current student Abigail Fraeman also part of mission team

By Gerry Everding

Is it curiosity that drives the graduates of Washington University in St. Louis, or is it the graduates of Washington University who drive Curiosity?

Take a close look at the roster of research scientists now immersed in the day-to-day operations of NASA’s latest mission to Mars, and it appears both scenarios are true.

Despite its Midwest location, far away from massive NASA mission control centers in Cape Canaveral, Fla., or Pasadena, Calif., Washington University in St. Louis can boast at least seven graduates — and one current student — now making key contributions to NASA's current quest to uncover the building blocks of life in the thin red soils of Mars, a mission aptly named "Curiosity."


Raymond E. Arvidson, PhD, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor and former chair of the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, has played prominent roles in a long succession of NASA space missions, including NASA's latest and perhaps most spectacular Mars mission, which early this month landed a one-ton roving science lab on the surface of Mars in a maneuver NASA dubbed "seven minutes of terror."

In his role as a Mars Exploration Rover Mission deputy principal investigator for NASA, Arvidson went out of his way to include current and former students in these missions, and many of his young proteges earned their Mars rover drivers licenses under his tutelage. 

Washington University professor Ray Arvidson, PhD, and graduate student Abigail Fraeman are at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, taking care of the Curiosity rover (a model of which is behind them). During the mission, they will be living on Mars time, where a day (sol) is 24 hours and 39.6 minutes long. Fraeman, a former National Science Foundation graduate fellow in Arts & Sciences, met Arvidson for the first time in 2004 when she was among a group of high school students sent to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to witness the landing of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. This fall, Fraeman is continuing her WUSTL studies as an Olin Fellow, a graduate fellowship for women jointly sponsored by Washington University and the Monticello College Foundation.

As the Curiosity rover makes its way slowly across the Martian surface, Washington University faculty, staff, students and graduates are there — helping steer the rover toward new discoveries, using lasers to blast rock formations, and methodically sifting soil samples as part of a colossal effort to capture new planetary knowledge from millions of miles away.

And, in the new space age of the universal Internet, the world now has the opportunity to get a behind-the-scences look at the Mars mission through the eyes of Washington University community members now immersed in the effort. They are posting videos, audio podcasts and blogs detailing the excitement.

Jeff Marlow, who graduated from Washington University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in earth and planetary sciences, has worked on NASA's Mars Exploration rovers and the Phoenix Mars Lander and now is part of the research team for the Mars Curiosity rover mission.

Washington University graduate Jeffrey Marlow now works on planetary research as part of NASA's Curiosity rover mission to Mars.

With writing skills honed by reporting on science, the environment and international development for The New York Times and Wired magazine, Marlow has been posting almost daily blogs about the Curiosity mission at a NASA social media site “The Martian Diaries."

Following graduation from Washington University, Marlow studied as a Marshall Scholar at Imperial College, London, where he worked on the development of life detection strategies for future Mars missions.

Now, a graduate student in geological and planetary sciences at the California Institute of Technology, he studies exotic microbial metabolisms in an attempt to understand the limits of life on Earth and beyond. He has followed extreme life forms to acidic rivers, ice caves, deserts, the high Andes, Antarctica and the deep ocean.

A sampling of Marlow's recent writings include Wired postings on “Mars Party of the Decade Reaches Fever Pitch," and The Flawless Mars Landing That Almost Wasn't" and NASA Martian Diaries" blogs on Inside The Real Mission Control" and Curiosity's Scientists Get Confirmation of Instrument's Health." For more on his research, visit his NASA bio page or follow him on Twitter.

Another Washington University graduate contributing to the online news buzz about the Curiosity mission is Bethany Ehlmann. In the video below, she describes what it means to "be living on Mars time," a necessity for NASA's Mars mission control teams who must warp their 24-hour earth-based routines to match days that run about 40 minutes longer on the surface of Mars.

http://youtu.be/MpaCboU7IxsLead Curiosity driver Matt Heverly and CalTech research scientist Bethany Ehlmann elaborate on the unusual sleeping patterns and conditions involved with working on the Mars rover expedition. (Video published Aug. 3, 2012, by Exploratorium.)

Ehlmann earned a bachelor's degree at Washington University in 2004 before continuing studies as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and earning a PhD from Brown University in 2010. She now conducts research on how weathering processes have changed the surface of Mars and other terrestrial planets as a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and as an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology, both in Pasadena, where Curiosity's mission control is headquartered.

In her current role as a participating scientist with the Curiosity mission, Ehlmann will use the rover's Chemistry and Camera instrument, known as "ChemCam," to remotely fire a laser that will blow holes in rocks and create clouds of atoms that indicate the chemical composition of the rocks.

As Ehlmann told the The Chronicle of Higher Education in a recent news article, this is the first time anyone has zapped rocks with lasers on another planet. The laser, she says, will vaporize a patch of the Mars surface, creating a plasma. Light emitted from the plasma forms a "fingerprint" based on the particular atoms that make up the rock. By looking at the ratios of these elements, researchers may be able to determine whether the rocks were formed by upwelling groundwater or by settling sediments in a lake.

"If we're lucky," Ehlmann says, "we'll be watching from rock to rock and seeing enhanced chlorates. It would be a grand-slam home run if we find enhanced carbonates, particularly organic carbon, because that could tell us that Mars might even have been inhabited long, long ago. But there's a lot of ifs to that, and we're still a long way away from it."

http://youtu.be/OMhldmzC5CUWUSTL graduate and NASA research scientist Bethany Ehlmann and NASA mechanical designer Scott McGinley explain some of the scientific instruments aboard the Mars rover Curiosity. (Video published Aug 2, 2012, by Exploratorium.)
Kim Lichtenberg
, who earned a PhD in earth and planetary sciences from Washington University in 2010, currently is a mission systems engineer at JPL, a job that has required her to conduct extensive research on the composition of Martian soils.

When the Mars rover Spirit got itself stuck in a sand pit on Mars, NASA researchers wanted to test escape options using a fully capable rover model back on Earth. Working with NASA rover planners, WUSTL graduate Kim Lichtenberg helped develop a mixture of food-grade diatomaceous earth and fire clay that closely simulated the physical properties of soil in the Martian sand trap. She spent the next two months working with NASA teams testing rover extrication maneuvers.

Lichtenberg's exhuberance over being part of the Curiosity mission is evident in her Aug. 6 interview with Australian news-talk radio host Derryn Hinch. Curiosity's successful landing was a huge relief for the mission team, said Lichtenberg, but also a "reaffirmation" that the mission is on the right track.

Lichtenberg describes the Curiosity landing for Australian Radio.

Jen Griffes, who graduated from Washington University in 2006 with bachelor's and master's degrees in earth and planetary sciences, joined Caltech in June 2008 as a research assistant in planetary geology. There, she worked with the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) team on the analysis of potential Mars landing sites for Curiosity and now is working on rover operations at the JPL.

At Washington University, Griffes' research focused on geomorphic and spectral mapping of the Martian surface using data from various Mars rovers and landers. After graduation, she spent two years at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., where she continued research on the HiRISE camera and MSL landing site selection before moving on to CalTech. This is the fifth Mars mission she has worked on.

http://youtu.be/6RKY1h5wNNYWUSTL graduate Jen Griffes has spent nearly a decade analyzing high-resolution images of the Mars surface, such as these captured by the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Kirsten Siebach, who graduated in 2011 with a bachelor's degree in earth and planetary sciences and chemistry and a minor in English, all in Arts & Sciences, is now working on the Curiosity mission as part of her doctoral studies at CalTech. She also is sharing her ongoing experiences with NASA through science outreach programs serving elementary and high school students in California.

Jennifer Silverberg

Kirsten Siebach, who, as a 19-year-old Washington University sophomore, became the youngest member of the 2008 Phoenix Mars Lander science team, talks in 2011 to adviser Ray Arvidson. 

“I love the way that space exploration inspires people to think about the world around them from a different perspective and wonder about the way the Earth works,” she told the St. Louis Beacon as part of a recent article on WUSTL's involvement in the Curiosity mission.

Within a year of starting classes at WUSTL, the 19-year-old sophomore found herself immersed in the drama of her life, becoming the youngest member of the Phoenix Mars Lander science team in Tucson, Ariz.

Among her roles as a team member were analyzing robotic arm forces to determine soil properties and serving as a strategic documentarian for Lander plans.

As a strategic documentarian on the Phoenix mission, Siebach kept spreadsheets that explained past and future “sol-to-sol plans,” where a sol is a Martian day. She also tracked the completion of mission success objectives, names of features and changes to the Martian surface. Eventually, she became a strategic science planner, all highly critical activities.

“The team thought that she was a graduate student, given her ability to absorb information rapidly and maintain her cool while putting a plan together in time to meet the uplink window through the NASA Deep Space Network,” said Arvidson in a 2011 feature on Siebach in the Record, WUSTL's campus newspaper.

Siebach's capstone honors thesis involved remote sensing of White Sands National Monument, where she analyzed a transect across the gypsum dunes using spectroscopy to look at different textures. Also, during the summer of 2009, she commuted from her Virginia home to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., to work as a documentarian for the Mars Exploration Rover mission.

Siebach is now working on a PhD in geology at Caltech with John Grotzinger, the project scientist for the Curiosity mission. She has two operational roles on the Curiosity mission. As a mission documentarian, she takes notes during the key planning meetings, and as the science "keeper-of-the-plan," she put together part of a daily plan for the rover's science activities, detailing what pictures the rover will take and what science instruments will be used.

"These roles are similar to my roles on the Phoenix mission," she says, "so my work at WashU helped me prepare for my PhD and for my current work on the Mars Science Laboratory mission."

http://youtu.be/B2-jqE43PG0As part of her preparation for a career in space research, WUSTL graduate Kirsten Siebach participated in NASA's 2011 Student Airborne Research Program, a 6-week summer internship program for advanced undergraduate and early graduate students to acquire hands-on research experience in all aspects of a scientific campaign using NASA's airborne laboratories.

Rebecca Eby Williams, who earned a PhD in earth and planetary sciences from Washington University in 2000, was among a group of WUSTL graduate students that Arvidson enlisted in the late 1990s to do field work and planning as part of the Mars Surveyor Program. Part of that effort involved trips to the Mojave Desert, where they conducted field experiments to test technologies NASA planned to use on future Mars rovers.

Washington University graduate Rebecca Eby Williams in the field.

Now, as a senior scientist at the Planetary Institute, Williams continues to make field trips to the Mojave Desert and to equally remote locations in Utah and northeast Australia in search of geologic formations that resemble those NASA's rovers will encounter on Mars. 

Of particular interest to her research are river channels and valleys and other water-carved landforms, which may offer clues to the past presence of water in the Mars environment.

"I'm interested in all kinds of water-carved landforms," Williams said in a recent interview with Franklin & Marshall Magazine. "In my first job out of graduate school, I was targeting one of the cameras capturing images of Mars."

The profound role of water in modifying the martian landscape is evident in many of the satellite images that Williams helped capture.

"Now at Gale crater with the Curiosity rover we have the opportunity to ground truth the hypotheses developed from orbital data." she said. 

As "Keeper of the Plan" for the Mars Curiosity rover mission, Williams is responsible for formalizing the scientific observations requested from the science group to ensure that there is adequate resources, such as time and power, to conduct the desired work.

And, while geologic formations on Earthprovide a reasonable facsimile for the study of those on Mars, Williams hopes that the research she and other members of the Curiosity mission are doing now will pave the way for hands-on research as part of future manned missions to Mars.

"I hope we're moving closer to sending humans to Mars, but it would take a huge commitment," said Williams. "I do hope manned exploration of terrestrial planets occurs. We'd learn so much, so quickly."

NASA Mars Exploration Scientist Mitch Schulte, a south St. Louis native who earned a bachelor's degree at Washington University in 1987 before adding a PhD, also from WUSTL, in 1997, says he grew up in an era where man walked on the moon and St. Louis-based McDonnell-Douglas played a huge role in the effort.

“I was very interested in that as a kid," said Schulte in an Aug. 5 interview with his hometown radio station, KMOX News/Talk 1120.

"When I went to high school, I was very excited about science as a career. I was fortunate to go to Washington University, which has a great planetary science program,” he added.

Schulte, whose doctoral work at WUSTL on aqueous organic geochemistry was advised by Everett Shock, now at the Arizona State University, says that Curiosity's primary mission is to look at the geologic and geochemical records of the rocks on Mars to see if it ever was an environment that might have been habitable and favored the formation of life.

Washington University PhD alum and NASA scientist Mitch Schulte discusses NASA's Curiosity rover mission in an Aug. 6 interview with Australian Broadcasting. VIEW VIDEO.

Schulte was a postdoctoral fellow (1997-2000) and research scientist (2000-05) at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. He is on the editorial board of the journal Astrobiology and was a co-investigator on the NASA Ames Astrobiology Institute team. From 2005-10, he conducted research as an assistant professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

His research has included being the chief scientist of a field-based study of ophiolite terranes in northern California and studies of habitats for extremophiles as analogs for potential life in a Martian biosphere. He also studies the organic geochemistry of hydrothermal systems, focusing on the behavior of sulfur and the abiotic formation of organic compounds in terrestrial and extraterrestrial geochemical systems.


Why all the fuss about Mars exploration?

Arvidson attempts to answer this question as part of his Aug. 4 presentation at Planetfest 2012 held in Pasadena, Calif., just prior to Curiosity's landing on Mars. 

In a 23-minute academic presentation titled "Ancient Water-Rich Environments at Meridiani Planum, Mars," Arvidson offers a recap of his participation in six NASA missions to Mars, noting that the current mission has an important new focus.

"Curiosity, importantly, is going from follow the water and geological exploration to actual geochemistry, where we're going to try to reconstruct past environments in great detail, and tell whether or not this area at Gale Crater is layers representing habitable environments," Arvidson says. 

"Why are we doing this?" he asks. "We're doing this to better understand us, that's Earth." 

And, understanding Mars, he argues, "will undoubtedly come back and lead to a much better understanding of Earth, it's current and past environments, habitability and life." 

http://youtu.be/JjAJCC1eEEsWashington University Professor Ray Arvidson presents Aug. 4 on "Ancient Water-Rich Environments at Meridiani Planum, Mars" at The Planetary Society's Planetfest 2012.

And, while Arvidson's Planetfest presentation offers plenty of scientific justification for America's investment in Mars exploration, a recent Tedx talk delivered by Washington University graduate Jeffrey Marlow offers a more humanistic view of what drives mankind's thirst for exploration.

In a Jan. 14, 2011, presentation at CalTech, Marlow noted that the United States' landing of the first man on the moon is seen by many as one of the few truly positive landmark events that have become indelibly etched into the cultural memory of modern Americans.

"Exploration has accounted for one of the only positive moments that echoes in the public consciousness, showing us in a very tangible way what we're capable of as a species. There's a reason," Marlow contends, "that every time a politician proposes an enormous world-changing effort, he calls for a moon shot.

"As the settlers of Easter Island showed us, exploration is within our reach. It's a uniquely human characteristic that has produced some of the most important unifying, positive moments in history, and I believe that the discovery of life on Mars, if it were to happen, would be a similarly profound moment. These moments bring people together and change what it means to be human, and that is why we explore."

http://youtu.be/48CYlAP4WZ4Washington University graduate Jeff Marlow discusses Mars missions and "The Forces of Exploration" in a Tedx talk at CalTech on Jan. 14, 2011.

Gerry Everding
Executive Director, News Research; Senior News Director, Social Sciences
(314) 935-6375
Diana Lutz
Senior News Director, Science
(314) 935-5272
Raymond Arvidson
James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor
(314) 935-5609