MHC's Dyar Receives Grant from NASA

Monday, September 14, 2009 - 2:00pm

Posted: September 14, 2009

Associate professor of astronomy Darby Dyar has just gotten a big boost for her work—a $689,000 grant from the Mars Fundamental Research Program at NASA for a project titled Technique Development for Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy: Calibration, Classification, and Light Element Analysis.

"I'm incredibly excited about this," said Dyar, who will share a portion of the grant with the Los Alamos National Laboratory. "Laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) is a great new elemental analysis technique that will be one of the instruments in the 'payload'--that is, on board--the next Mars lander, which is called Mars Science Laboratory."

The Mars Science Lab is a rover that will launch in 2011 and land on Mars in 2012 to assess whether the planet is now or ever was capable of supporting microbial life. It is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, a long-term project involving robotic exploration of the red planet. The rover will carry the largest, most advanced instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface; in addition to evaluating if the planet could support life, instruments will characterize the climate and the geology of Mars.

The grant will be used to help calibrate the ChemCam instrument on the lander, said Dyar.

According to the Mars Science Lab Web site, "Looking at rocks and soils from a distance, ChemCam will fire a laser and analyze the elemental composition of vaporized materials from areas smaller than one millimeter on the surface of Martian rocks and soils. An on-board spectrograph will provide unprecedented detail about minerals and microstructures in rocks by measuring the composition of the resulting plasma--an extremely hot gas made of free-floating ions and electrons.

"ChemCam will also use the laser to clear away dust from Martian rocks and a remote camera to acquire extremely detailed images. The camera can resolve features five to ten times smaller than those visible with cameras on NASA's two Mars Exploration Rovers that began exploring the red planet in January 2004. In the event the Mars Science Laboratory rover can't reach a rock or outcrop of interest, ChemCam will have the capability to analyze it from a distance."

Dyar's grant has provided the funding to hire recent Amherst College graduate Jonathan Tucker as a full-time research staff member at Mount Holyoke. Tucker—who wrote his senior thesis on related subjects--will do "the hands-on work" in her Clapp lab. The grant will also provide funding to purchase an LIBS unit that will be located on campus; it is currently being built at Los Alamos.

Dyar said students from MHC and the Five College Astronomy Department will be involved in work related to the Mars Science Laboratory project.

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