Ready for liftoff

Tufts-made equipment will test Martian soil for signs of life

On a warm August morning just before dawn, a group of students and their professor will gather nervously on a strip of land on the Florida coastline, awaiting the start of a historic adventure.

A NASA simulation of the Phoenix Mars Lander touching down in May 2008 © NASA/JPL

The Phoenix Mars Lander is scheduled to take off at 5:30 a.m. on August 3 for a nine-month journey to Mars. When it lands, around the last week in May 2008, its robotic arms will dig into the icy ground of northern Mars and return the soil to the spacecraft, where it will be tested on board. The technology on the Lander will conduct the first wet chemical analysis of Martian soil, and the data that will be transmitted back to Earth will help scientists learn whether Mars could support, or has ever supported, life.

Tufts chemistry professor Sam Kounaves and the students from his lab will be cheering at the liftoff because they have designed and built some of the instruments that will be on board the spacecraft. The project has been so energizing and all consuming, that two of his students made life-altering decisions to be able to continue working on the Mars mission.

Kounaves is a co-investigator on the first NASA launch being undertaken as a collaborative project among universities and the space administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He is one of only two dozen investigators on the project, which is drawing on resources from universities and companies around the world. Kounaves has a say in what goes on for the entire mission, including where the spacecraft lands and how the mission is run.

Tufts chemist Sam Kounaves, right, and his graduate students Casey Cable and Jason Kapit, with NASA research associate Suzanne Young, in the Pearson Chemistry Laboratory where the mission testing equipment was developed. © ZARA TZANEV

This is not the first time that the Tufts chemist has been involved in a mission to Mars. His lab worked on what would have been the Mars 2001 mission that was canceled a year prior to launch because of a failed mission in 1999, when the landing craft crashed.

In 2002, NASA put out a request for proposals for the Mars Scout mission, a $325 million project that drew 30 proposals from around the country. Kounaves was a member of the winning group, along with scientists from the aborted mission, including the University of Arizona, which is leading the Lander project. While the 2001 program was aimed at learning what future astronauts would need to know in order to land on the Red Planet, Kounaves said, “This one is a purely scientific program that will explore the history of water on the northern latitudes of Mars. It will help to answer the question as to whether Mars has supported life in the past or whether it does now or could in the future. It will also try to decipher the climatic history of Mars via the record left in the soil.”

Martian teacups
Kounaves and his students have helped design what they call a “lab in a teacup,” a tiny receptacle for the Martian soil. There will be four such analytical cells, each containing 26 sensors that will measure the inorganic components of the soil, such as pH level and the levels of sodium and potassium. A scoop will pick up the soil, dump it in a drawer, and then the soil will be reconstituted with water. Mars is cold and dry now, Kounaves explained, but at one point there was liquid water flowing on it. “So by reconstituting the Martian soil, it will tell us something about its ability to support life and if it will be toxic to future human astronauts,” he said.

Jason Kapit and Casey Cable earned their undergraduate degrees from Tufts in 2006 and stayed to pursue graduate degrees so they could continue working on the Mars project. © ZARA TZANEV

Data will be sent to the lab in Phoenix, and while everyone involved with the project will be living on Earth time, they also will be on Martian time as they begin analyzing the information. A Martian day is called a sol, which is about 30 to 40 minutes longer than an Earth day because Mars rotates at a different speed than Earth does.

Kounaves always has four or five undergraduates working on his team. Two graduate students who will join Kounaves in Florida are Casey Cable, A06, and Jason Kapit, E06, both of whom changed their career plans because of the opportunity to work on the mission.

Kapit, of Bethesda, Md., is a master’s degree student in mechanical engineering. He majored in engineering physics at Tufts, graduating in 2006, and the Mars project is the reason he stayed at Tufts. “As a child I had dreamed of being an astronaut,” he said.

After going home for the summer after his sophomore year, he e-mailed Kounaves, asking if he could join the project. Kounaves invited him back for the summer, and Kapit returned to campus. “Coming back that summer is probably the best decision I’ve made in my life,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have gotten the chance to do this at another school. Tufts has professors who are generous to students and allow them to work with them. This is a research university but small enough for anyone to get involved in exciting projects.

“I can’t wait until the launch. I went to Colorado and saw the actual Phoenix at Lockheed Martin, and that was like Christmas for me. I couldn’t fall asleep the night before.”

The Red Planet awaits. © NASA/JPL

Kapit hopes to work at Mission Control next year when the data starts returning from Mars, or he may pursue a degree in aeronautical engineering.

Cable came to Tufts as a junior transfer student with the intention of going to medical school. She’s still planning to go, but has deferred her admission to Florida State University while she earns a master’s degree in chemistry because she wanted to work on Kounaves’ project. “I couldn’t give up this opportunity,” she said. “We actually worked on equipment that’s going to Mars. It’s the only time they allowed actual equipment going on a flight to be worked on at a university.” Her father is a chemist at Cape Canaveral, so this August, as she huddles with the other students and her professor waiting for the launch, she’ll be home.

Marjorie Howard is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at This story ran in the May 2007 issue of the Tufts Journal.