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EAPS undergrads use official NASA Mars images to fuel research


Prof. Briony Horgan and students

(From left) Ellen Czaplinski, Rachel Maxwell and Dr. Briony Horgan, Planetary Science professor within the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences

Space is not only the final frontier; it is also the passion for Rachel Maxwell and Ellen Czaplinski.

Both juniors in the Planetary Science program within the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Maxwell and Czaplinski have been interested in the exploration of outer space since they were little girls. Today, their planets have aligned for a pivotal research opportunity at Purdue.

Some of the first students to enroll in Purdue’s new and unique Planetary Science major, Maxwell and Czaplinski have access to official NASA images.

Maxwell’s work focuses on the Mawrth Vallis area of Mars. The photos taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) are fueling her work on examining the soils and clays of Mars and Mawrth Vallis, which could serve as a landing site for the NASA Mars 2020 rover mission. The spectrometer’s 18-meters per pixel resolution helps researchers like Maxwell find out what Mars is really made of.

“I’ll be analyzing the data that comes from those images to see what kind of minerals are there,” Maxwell said, “and using that we can determine what Mars looked like in the past, what the climate was like and if it was habitable or could potentially be.”

EAPS Prof. Briony Horgan is on the science team for the Mars 2020 rover’s camera system, Mastcam-Z, which is similar to the camera used in NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, with updated features like stereoscopic imaging and a zoom capability. Maxwell said having Horgan as a research mentor has enriched her studies at Purdue.

“I didn’t realize that coming to college, you would be with people who do NASA mission stuff. I didn’t realize academia and NASA would overlap,” Maxwell said.

Horgan, one of EAPS’ Planetary Science faculty members, was tapped to be on the science team for the rover to be launched in 2020. An expert in identifying planetary minerals, she will attend a major science team meeting for the rover mission Dec. 9 to 11 at Arizona State University. The construction of the camera instrument has already started, Horgan said.

Using official NASA data and laying possible groundwork for a Mars expedition is a unique opportunity for undergraduates like Maxwell and fellow Planetary Science junior Ellen Czaplinski.

Czaplinski is using NASA images from another orbiting camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) boasts a 25-centimeter per pixel resolution, for her Mars research project. She is investigating how Martian dunes move thanks to the crystal clear images.

“I’m basically looking at a global survey of Mars,” Czaplinski said. “I’m looking at the slip faces to determine what the different features are and what causes them and to see if water is involved.”

As the years go on and 2020 gets closer, Horgan’s laboratory will increase its work.

“Most of the prep work my students and I will be helping with is trying to understand how we are going to use these cameras to identify minerals on the Martian surface,” Horgan explained. “We have to have the cameras finalized first to know what the response will be to different wavelengths of light.”

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