Darby Dyar Heads for Outer Space—Virtually

Monday, December 30, 2013 - 09:45
An artist's conception of astronauts on Mars, with a greenhouse. Image courtesy of NASA

Humans colonizing the Moon and landing spaceships on Mars: Professor Darby Dyar is one of the scientists who will help NASA move these ideas from the realm of science fiction to science fact.

Dyar, MHC’s Kennedy-Schelkunoff Professor of Astronomy, was recently named to three of nine scientific teams that will help NASA shape the future of human space exploration.

Each month for the next five years, scientists will meet in person or through videoconferences in virtual research institutes to share expertise and focus their research on important issues in planetary science. The specifics of their work are very specific, but the goals are literally galactic in scope.

“I think that, in my lifetime, we will go to other planets and establish bases there,” Dyar says. “Colonization of the Moon is the most likely.”

NASA is funding scientists in its Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institutes (SSERVI) in a suitably astronomical way: $12 million annually for five years. Dyar’s work will bring nearly $1 million of that total to Mount Holyoke, and involve students in three distinct research projects.

 Dyar will co-lead a team aiming to get maximum scientific benefit from samples collected from other worlds and returned to Earth via space flights. Future missions might bring back only minute amounts of rock samples, Dyar says, so her expertise in analyzing extremely small samples is needed to determine how to distribute and use the limited amount of material available. This project is based at Stony Brook University and also involves MHC lab instructor Tom Burbine, an internationally recognized asteroid expert.

• A second SSERVI project focuses on how to determine, from an orbiting spacecraft, what minerals are on a planet’s surface. For this, co-primary investigator Dyar will work with Brown University graduate students and faculty. Because the data processing apparatus they’ll use at MHC is extremely complicated, our undergraduates will train the graduate students in using the equipment.

“Our students do this kind of thing all the time,” she says.

• Dyar’s third project, also as co-primary investigator, is based at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab. It involves studying how much hydrogen is trapped in the interiors and on the surfaces of minerals on the Moon. This is significant, she says, because hydrogen is part of water, and “for human exploration, it’s important to have water on the Moon so we don’t have to take it with us.”

Dyar’s work influences not only the undergraduate researchers the grant will fund, but in fact all the students she teaches.

“When I get excited about something, it carries over into my teaching,” she says. “When I talk about the Moon in class, for example, I’ll be talking about something I heard in a NASA virtual seminar last week. It’s about keeping the content current and transmitting my excitement to students who end up—if not becoming scientists themselves—at least understanding why people get so excited about planetary science.”

—By Emily Harrison Weir