For 'cutting-edge' research, students use elbow grease.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014 - 1:00pm

This summer, three Mount Holyoke students are helping launch the future of space exploration. They’re part of a team working with Professor of Astronomy Darby Dyar to lay the groundwork for a greater understanding of planets explored using orbiters.

Since 2002, Dyar has assisted NASA with its Mars rovers missions. As part of one NASA grant, a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) unit was installed in Dyar’s campus lab. There are only five such Mars-atmosphere units in existence, including the one inside the rover Curiosity’s ChemCam. Students played a central role in analyzing data on the elemental composition of rocks and soils on Mars.

Last year, Dyar was named to three of nine scientific teams that will help NASA shape the future of human space exploration.

“It’s just not practical to put a rover on every planet, so we use orbiters that take pictures at wavelengths longer and shorter than what the human eye can see,” Dyar explains. “Geological interpretations drawn from those spectra give us insights into how planets form. So this project asks the important question: How does surface texture affect those results?”

In order to find the answer, Dyar and her team are using both equipment and muscle power to crush mineral samples from around the world and then sieve them into tiny pieces. The next step is studying how light reflects off mixtures of grains of different sizes.

“It’s cool to be starting this project early on,” says Laura Breitenfeld ’17, a native of Lexington, Massachusetts, who will likely major in the sciences or math. “I’m very lucky to be working on it. It’s so fascinating and so cutting-edge.”

Dyar hopes these students will contribute to the project throughout their college years, ending up with their names on published papers and the satisfaction of having turned raw materials into fundamental scientific insights.

Madeline Ketley ’17, an intended classics major from Summit, New Jersey, says, “It’s not something I’d have the opportunity to do in my major,” while Sarah Byrne, a Frances Perkins Scholar and psychology major from the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area, expects that the attention to detail required in the internship will help her later in any work that she does.

According to Dyar, “One big advantage is that they all have exposure to what a cooperative research group is like, and how a lab works.” 

Another advantage: working as a team and meeting deadlines.

“This work lets my students complement their academic majors with hands-on, cooperative exploration that’s creative, curiosity driven, and goal oriented,” Dyar says. “It’s what a liberal arts education is all about."

—By Ronni Gordon