Bumpy Road to Mars, Part 1
The Phoenix Lander lowers itself onto Mars using a set of powerful thrusters. No airbags for this tricky touch down on the red planet. Image
Credit: JPL/Corby Waste

I visited Richard Quinn's lab at NASA Ames Research Center to learn more about his work on Earth and on Mars. Richard Quinn and John Marshall are both scientists in the Carl Sagan Center at the SETI Institute; they are instrument scientists and team members on NASA's soon-to-land Mars Phoenix Lander.

The Phoenix Lander arrives at the red planet May 25. It will alight on soils near the north polar permanent ice cap on an Arctic plain where the Mars Odyssey, currently in orbit, detected high concentrations of ice just below the topsoil.

Phoenix is a remotely operated laboratory, designed to answer key questions about the history of water on Mars and whether Mars could support life. It's been a long and rocky road to get this lab to Mars in 2008. In 1996, the Russians lost a lander which splashed down somewhere off the coast of Chile. In 1999, NASA lost the Mars Polar Lander, and then grounded the similar 2001 Mars lander. Then, ESA's Beagle 2 mission failed. It's hard to get to Mars and do science, as the history of spaceflight attests. Phoenix is well named. It carries the heritage, as well as many components, of these prior missions which all share the same goal: Follow the water in the search for life.

Quinn and Marshall are instrument scientists for Phoenix. They are both involved with MECA: the Microscopy, Electrochemistry and Conductivity Analyzer. MECA's four tools will examine soil to assess characteristics that a gardener or farmer would learn from a soil test, plus several more. Three of the tools — a wet chemistry laboratory and two types of microscopes — will analyze samples of soil scooped and delivered by the robotic arm. The fourth tool is mounted near the end of the arm, and has a row of four small spikes that the arm will push into the ground to examine electrical conductivity and other properties of the soil. Quinn is an instrument scientist for wet chemistry analysis, and Marshall for optical microscopy.

Richard Quinn's "day job" is a chemist who develops instrumentation for landed Mars missions. He's been on a bit of a bumpy road to Mars having participated in the prior missions that did not get to Mars, or failed once they arrived. As I noted before, getting to Mars, landing successfully, and doing good science is hard. Quinn is eager to see the Phoenix Lander safely on Mars, and transmitting data to Earth. We all are.

Recently, I got a look at the wet chemistry instrument in Quinn's lab. Think back to the beakers and test tubes in your high school chemistry lab. Everything you worked with was bigger and more fragile than the "beakers" going to Mars. Quinn is working with a small cubical container, about 4 cm on a side with 24 tiny sensors embedded in the sides of this high-tech "beaker." The sensors are small — about the size of a paper punch disk. It's a "lab in a teacup."

MECA carries four of these beakers so that Quinn and the team can study four different samples. The robotic arm will deliver soil samples to these beakers; water will be added. By studying the reaction with multiple sensors, Quinn hopes to gain insight into the history of water on Mars. Are salts present? What is the ph? What dissolves? What does not? And more.

Quinn is leaving for Tucson, Arizona this week, to join the Phoenix Mission team at mission central near the University of Arizona, home of the Mission PI, Peter Smith. During his stay in Tucson, Quinn and all of the other mission scientists go onto martian time to stay synchronized with the up and download of data. Their days will stretch to more than 25 hours, and circadian rhythms will fail. One day, when we actually go to Mars, it will probably be a lot easier to adjust, but living by Mars time on Earth is taxing. He'll work on the mission for at least 90 days.

Back in California, Quinn is assembling a team to assist him in Earth-based lab analysis of Phoenix data. His lab assistant, Cindy Taylor, is already at work on the project. Beginning in June, two more young scientists will join the team: Kelly Miller and Matthew Finch. Both came to the lab as a part of SETI Institute's Astrobiology Research Experience for Undergraduates program (funded by the NSF and NASA). Last summer, Kelly worked in Quinn's lab studying the electrochemical properties of Martian analog soils using the lab bench version of Quinn's Phoenix Lander wet chemistry instrument. She's just graduated with her degree in chemistry from Scripps College, and is returning to work for Quinn. Earlier this year, Matt spent his spring break in Quinn's lab learning how to operate the same equipment, and begins his REU work on June 8. Matt attends College of San Mateo nearby. For me, it's exciting to see these young scientists starting their careers via our REU program.

When the wet chemistry data arrives from Mars, the lab team — Cindy, Kelly and Matt — in California will test terrestrial analog soils on the lab bench to assist Quinn with data analysis. They will endeavor to duplicate the results from Mars with samples from Earth using the same equipment in the lab that is installed in the Phoenix Lander. Quinn's Earth-based test lab sits in a small refrigerator, waiting for data from Mars, via Tucson, that might reveal whether there's life on Mars.

When asked, "What would be the best possible outcome from these experiments?" Quinn replied, "A sample with high salt content and reasonable ph which would reveal a history of water, coupled with results from the Thermal Evolved Gas Analyzer that found organics in the soil." Then, you'd have both water and organics. Perhaps evidence of life?

I asked Richard, "What's next?" and learned that he's already working on concepts and requirements for an instrument on the ESA Mars lander that's scheduled for 2013. It's a next generation chemical sensor for analysis of Martian regolith, the next version of a "lab in a teacup."

And, if that does not come to fruition, perhaps Quinn will pursue a different avenue. At one time, he planned to teach high school science. He completed a credential, and then diverted to work at the NSF for a couple of years. Then, a masters degree in chemistry and a PhD led him to Mars. He's still interested in teaching and coaching track, but for now Mars beckons. Can we trace the history of water and find evidence of life? Quinn and the other members of the Phoenix Lander team may be able to answer these questions this summer.

Next week: Profile of John Marshall, instrument scientist for optical microscopy on MECA.