A decade of lab work hurtles toward Mars

Mars appears as a red dot in the pre-dawn sky on the beach at Cape Canaveral as dozens of people make their way to the shoreline. They are in a festive mood, these partygoers in the dark. Some are carrying bottles of champagne; others have cups of coffee to ward off the effects of little sleep. The black sky is filled with twinkling lights and the tiny glow of the planet Mars.

Jason Kapit, E06, and Casey Cable, A06, watch the plume trail of the Phoenix Mars Lander as it hurls away from Earth. © SCOTT COOK

In the near distance, like a gigantic lighthouse, is a tower-like structure flanked by two bright beacons. This is NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander, scheduled to be launched at precisely 5:26 a.m. on August 4. Knots of people gather around telescopes or share binoculars to see the rocket, some 3½ miles away.

“Go straight to Pleiades and hang a left,” jokes Michael Hecht, a senior scientist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the lead U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

Tufts is one of eight universities that worked with a group of laboratories to develop the technology on board the Phoenix, now soaring on a nine-month journey to the Red Planet. When the craft lands in May 2008, it will attempt to determine whether the Martian soil is—or has ever been—capable of supporting life. Phoenix will study the history of water as well as the history of the Martian climate.

Standing with Hecht on the beach this summer morning are members of the research lab of Samuel Kounaves, an associate professor of chemistry at Tufts. Their lives have been have been bound up in this launch, some for more than three years. Suzanne Young, a research associate and adjunct professor in the chemistry department, is watching the launch from the Kennedy Space Center, while Kounaves, whose work on the project began more than a decade ago, is at Jetty Park, just north of the beach gathering.

The rest of the team, watching from the beach, are Jason Kapit, E06, now a graduate student in mechanical engineering at Tufts; Casey Cable, A06, who earned a master’s in chemistry from Tufts in May and postponed medical school to work on the Phoenix project; Shannon Stroble, who is working on her Ph.D. in chemistry; research associate Kalina Gaspodinova; and Lee Rettberg, an undergraduate at the University of Texas who worked in Kounaves’ lab this summer.

Analysis in a teacup
The Tufts researchers developed four wet chemistry labs—each the size of a teacup—to examine the Martian soil. The labs contain several sensors and reagents developed in the Kounaves labs at Tufts. When Phoenix lands on Mars next spring, its robotic arm will dig down into the water-ice layer on the planet and deliver soil and ice samples to be analyzed on board.

On the morning of the launch, the Tufts team is excited and anxious, despite the lack of sleep. They repeatedly call a NASA phone line that announces launches. They hold up their phones so others can hear: “Six minutes until launch,” an unemotional voice intones.

Reliving the liftoff through the camera lens are, from left, Kalina Gaspodinova, Casey Cable, Jason Kapit and Michael Hecht, a scientist with the U.S. Jet Propulsion Laboratory. © SCOTT COOK

“I cannot wait for this,” said Kapit, whose father, Richard, has traveled from Maryland to join him for the launch. “We have touched stuff on that,” he said, pointing to the spacecraft, “and designed some stuff that’s going to Mars.”

Cable, whose already-high energy level has gone into overdrive, yells out what she calls the MECA chant, referring to an acronym used by the researchers. “Give me an M…Give me an E…Give me a C…Give me an A!” (MECA stands for Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer.) “The “E”, Cable said, “that’s us.”

The low rumble of the NASA radio, heard via telephone, continues, and Cable and Gaspodinova embrace. “Two minutes,” the voice crackles. “It’s a go,” says the voice, and nearly everyone on the beach shouts “It’s a go! Go! Go!”

“I’m shaking,” Kapit said.

Stroble repeats, “It’s a go!”

Everyone counts down with the disembodied NASA narrator: 10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3...2…The cheers and whoops drown out the final number as a huge ball of flame heads upwards. A loud boom echoes on the beach, and it appears as if someone has flipped a light switch because everything is completely aglow. A plume of smoke swirls in the black sky; the first booster is released, and a cheer goes up.

The NASA voice announces: “It’s 17 miles up.”

“Oh my god,” Kapit said. “It’s the prettiest sight I’ve ever seen.”

The spectators open champagne and toast the liftoff. The Tufts contingent is joined by Hecht of the Jet Propulsion Lab, who notes that he grew up in Newton, Mass., and that his first professional job was in the Tufts physics department.

Golden soil
“Tufts has done amazing things for this project,” Hecht said. “I am not a chemist. We are doing a lot of chemistry in this project, and we are able to do it because of Sam’s [Kounaves] lab. What we’re doing on Mars is trying to plant a garden and first finding out what the soil is like. Is it acidic? What salts are in it? If you learn all that you can learn about how it was formed, where it came from, could anything live in it? If they could bring a handful of soil to Earth, it would be the most valuable soil in the world. The goal is to do that, but for now, we’re going out there to do the first thing you’d do on a lab bench if you had it in front of you.”

For Kounaves, the launch was the culmination of a decade of work. After joining up with his team following the launch, he described the event as “an amazing burst of white light … it was instantly clear to me that there was no turning back now. It was either going up or would become an even brighter memorial to our effort. It was amazing to watch that white light slowly ascend from the [launch] pad in total silence, and then the white rocket body became visible from the surrounding smoke.

“After a few seconds, the roar of the engines suddenly hit us,” Kounaves continued. “You could not only hear, but actually feel, the vibrations and power all around and through you. I was amazed at how long it seemed to take as it climbed in an arc upwards, and then about half a minute later, you could see the separation of the solid fuel boosters, little tiny red dots, like shooting stars. It was quite stunning and awe-inspiring to see it climb toward a clearly visible Mars in the night sky. It was a culmination of my childhood dream to someday be an astronaut.

“Even though I will not there in person,” Kounaves said, “this little robot is going to do what I would have been doing, exploring another world, and helping us to add another piece to the puzzle of how we all fit into the rest of the universe.”

It’s now been 90 minutes since liftoff, the time it takes for Phoenix to orbit the Earth and then be shot straight off in a second stage, like a bullet, toward Mars.

Suzanne Young, the Tufts adjunct professor, and a group of researchers from another team decide to reenact the launch with a champagne bottle. The cork pops. “These are all my MECANS,” Young says, introducing her team. Everyone lifts a cup: “To the Phoenix.”

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