Mars explorers

Undergraduates help to unravel the mysteries of the red planet

Is there life on Mars? Did Mars ever support life? These questions have tantalized scientists and the public for decades. A team of four Tufts undergraduates may help find the answers.

The four, all seniors, are working on a NASA-funded project headed by Samuel Kounaves, associate professor of chemistry, that aims to discover whether there is life on Mars and find out more about the climate and history of the planet. The students are helping to refine prototypes of sensors that will measure and analyze the ice and soil on Mars. The sensors may be launched in an unmanned mission as early as August 2007.

The work of four Tufts undergraduates may answer the question of whether there is life on Mars.

It is unusual for undergraduates to be working at this level alongside Ph.D. students, but Kounaves said the students are doing an excellent job. "These students are competent, creative and intelligent," he said. "It takes a little more effort to work with them than it does graduate students because they have not yet developed the confidence that comes with graduating and having a few advanced courses behind them, but I'm very pleased with the results. This gives them a head start in science. They have a chance to be creative in solving the daily problems that arise and also in answering a larger science question."

Kounaves is also pleased that the students represent several disciplines because, he said, "the most challenging and cutting-edge research questions in science today can be unraveled only by collaborative efforts."

Kounaves, an analytical chemist, has been working for the past 15 years on the science of making chemical measurements. His earlier research led to the development of devices that can detect toxic heavy metals in groundwater. Building on that work, Kounaves has been developing techniques for performing chemical analyses on-site in outer space instead of bringing samples back to Earth. In 1998, he was asked to participate in MECA, the Mars Environmental Compatibility Assessment, an instrument package designed to investigate the surface of Mars. However, the loss of the 1999 Polar lander forced the cancellation of the 2001 flight that was to include MECA. The next time MECA is expected to be put into action most likely will be in 2007. In the meantime, Kounaves and his team will continue to better understand and improve the electrochemical sensors and analytical techniques to be used for MECA as well as other programs.

Kevin Lewis, a senior majoring in physics and math, is working on a program funded by NASA. Kounaves has received more than $2 million in grants to study and develop the analytical instruments and sensors that will be used in several chemical analysis systems, including Lewis' project, the mini-cryobot, a torpedo-like tube that can melt through ice while measuring its chemical composition.

The Mars research team, clockwise from left, Amelia Botsford, Adam Biacchi, Prof. Samuel Kounaves, Kevin Lewis and Katie Nordstrom.
© Mark Morelli

Lewis, who hopes to study planetary science in graduate school, is helping to determine the viability of a miniature version of the cryobot, which can be used in conjunction with the main cryobot, to provide scientists with clues about the Martian climate as well as the make-up of the planet's polar cap. Lewis is working with Katie Nordstrom, a senior majoring in computer engineering, who has devised the computer program that reads the data from the sensor in the cryobot. Nordstrom's work allows Lewis to see how his tests are working in real time. She also wrote a program that shows what the concentration of dissolved materials will be as the cryobot descends through the ice.

"I like the idea of the project being interdisciplinary," said Nordstrom. "Kevin has knowledge of physics, and I know programming."

Amelia Botsford, a biology and environmental studies major, is working on the Life Detection Array, known as LIDA. It will be able to detect even a miniscule presence of bacteria in soil, indicating life.

"I love this lab because of its interdisciplinary nature," she said. "We are exposed to so many different subjects, and the members of the lab represent a huge library of resources. It is very exciting to be on a NASA-funded project that will actually happen in a few years."

Adam Biacchi, a chemistry major, is working with a diamond electrode using a relatively new technology discovered at Tufts for an application that hasn't been tried before. He is using the electrode to detect the amount of total organic carbon in a soil sample. The presence of organic carbon would help quantify the potential of Martian soil to support past or present life. The advantage of the electrode is that it is only a few inches long, meaning it will not take up a lot of space. Also, it does not use power, and "space and power are very limited on craft going to Mars," Biacchi said.

"I could never picture myself doing this kind of work when I first came to Tufts," said Biacchi. "Tufts is very supportive of undergraduates doing research."

"This is one of the unique advantages for Tufts undergraduates," Kounaves said. "You have the environment of a small college and the benefits of a major research university, both in the same place."