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Stony Brook’s Center for Planetary Exploration opens

Renee Schofield explains the testbed for the PIXL she built. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

Although some might not think of Suffolk County as an obvious hotbed of planetary exploration, it doesn’t take long to discover just how impactful the research and work conducted on Long Island has been on the growth of space science.

Going back to the Apollo program in the early 1960s, the Grumman corporation was vital in landing astronauts on the moon by designing, assembling and testing the lunar module at its facility in Bethpage.

Even closer to home, the founder of Stony Brook University’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences, Dr. Oliver Schaeffer, became the first person to date celestial objects. He confirmed that the moon rocks brought back by Apollo astronauts were more than four billion years old.

Donald Hendrix leads a research team to help future astronauts prevent long-term illnesses. Photo by Kevin Redding
Donald Hendrix leads a research team to help future astronauts prevent long-term illnesses. Photo by Kevin Redding

Now half a century later, Stony Brook University has once again cemented Long Island’s place in innovative planetary research.

In 2014, Timothy Glotch, a professor in the department of geosciences, received a $5.5 million grant from NASA through their Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute program to support his research. The department eventually obtained a 6,500-square-foot, world-class facility consisting of three different labs.

On Aug. 26, the public was invited to the official opening of Stony Brook’s Center for Planetary Exploration, where faculty members and students in the department gave a tour of their labs and showcased the inspiring work that has taken place so far.

At the core of CPEX is the Stony Brook-led multi-institutional Remote, In Situ, and Synchrotron Studies for Science and Exploration Institute, one of the nine nodes of the NASA program.

“We’re trying to pave the way for future human exploration of the solar system,” Glotch said. “Right now we are doing basic science; we are doing exploration activities that are going to get humans to Mars, back to the moon, and to the moons of Mars. That work is going on right here. We’re kind of leading the way in space exploration and we’re very proud of that. ”

He stressed the importance of the overall goal: to train the next generation of solar system explorers and scientists. The students are going to be running missions in the next decade or two, he said.

“Just as Schaeffer put together a young and talented group of researchers, we now have an extraordinarily talented group of young researchers working in planetary science,” current Chair of the Department Dan Davis said.

“We’re trying to pave the way for future human exploration of the solar system.”

—Timothy Glotch

As for the three different labs, professor Joel Hurowitz runs the geochemistry lab, which includes a student-built test bed for the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, which will fly on the Mars 2020 rover.

The PIXL is an X-ray microscope that looks at rock samples and builds maps of the elemental distribution in those samples to make it easier to analyze.

“From there, we can start to dig in and try to understand whether the environment that those rocks were deposited in were habitable,” Hurowitz said. “PIXL can detect things that are chemical biosignatures. It can detect biosignature in a rock on the surface of Mars. So we’re trying to place some constraints on whether or not there was ever life on Mars.”

The lab is also conducting a series of experiments to determine the damaging effects of lunar dust inhalation by future astronauts.

“What I do is I try to find minerals here on Earth that are similar to what’s found on the moon,” Donald Hendrix, a graduate student leading the research, said. “I grind them up into powders and determine what chemicals are made when they are exposed to fluid, because whenever you breathe in a mineral powder, they can produce chemicals inside your lungs that can potentially cause a lot of damage and turn into lung cancer.

Since humans are going to go back to the moon in the next 20 or 30 years, for really long periods of time, I want to know what hazards astronauts might face while they’re up there.”

Through the research he’s conducting with his team, he’s trying to figure out where astronauts could go that won’t be quite as dangerous.

Professors Joel Hurowitz, Deanne Rogers and Timothy Glotch guide their students in planetary research. Photo by Kevin Redding
Professors Joel Hurowitz, Deanne Rogers and Timothy Glotch guide their students in planetary research. Photo by Kevin Redding

Deanne Rogers runs the remote sensing facility, where faculty, students and postdoctoral researchers analyze various images and infrared data that come from Mars and the moon. From there, they incorporate observation skills and geological training to learn about the planet or moon’s environmental and climatic history.

Glotch’s spectroscopy lab is where students acquire infrared spectra of minerals and rocks for comparison to data collected by Mars and Moon orbiters. Within this lab is the Planetary and Asteroid Regolith Spectroscopy Environmental Chamber, used to re-create the conditions on the lunar surface for accurate measurements.

“I can make the moon on Earth, basically, and that’s pretty exciting,” graduate student Katherine Shirley said. “This machine is special because we can make different environments in this. Eventually we’re going to get some attachments so we can simulate the Martian surface or asteroid surface.”

The lab includes a small piece from Mars, which visitors were encouraged to hold.

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who was once a student and employee at SBU, spoke about how much the department means to him.

“I’m practically retired, but my heart is still here,” he said. “I served in this department and am proud to have been among such extraordinary researchers and wonderful human beings for 43 years. It’s a privilege now to help send resources in the direction of these extraordinary individuals who are literally writing the next chapter of our understanding of the universe and solar system. I look forward to continuing to work with you as you go forward. They say I’m technically retired, but don’t believe it. I’m just one phone call away.”

Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) presented the faculty with a proclamation from the county legislature to celebrate what this research means for the community, the university and the overall future of science.

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BNL’s Peter Guida with Daniela Trani, a summer school student at the NASA Space Radiation Lab. Photo from BNL

Ferdinand Magellan didn’t have the luxury of sending a machine into the unknown around the world before he took to the seas. Modern humans, however, dispatch satellites, rovers and orbiters into the farthest reaches of the universe. Several months after the New Horizons spacecraft beamed back the first close-up images of Pluto from over three billion miles away, NASA confirmed the presence of water on Mars.

The Mars discovery continues the excitement over the possibility of sending astronauts to the Red Planet as early as the 2030s.

Before astronauts can take a journey between planets that average 140 million miles apart, scientists need to figure out the health effects of prolonged exposure to damaging radiation.

Each year, liaison biologist Peter Guida at the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory (NSRL) at Brookhaven National Laboratory coordinates the visits of over 400 scientists to a facility designed to determine, among other things, what radiation does to the human body and to find possible prevention or treatment for any damage.

Guida is working to “improve our understanding of the effects that space radiation from cosmic rays have on humans,” explained Michael Sivertz, a physicist at the same facility. “He would like to make sure that voyages to Mars do not have to be one-way trips.”

Guida said radiation induces un-repaired and mis-repaired DNA damage. Enough accumulated mutations can cause cancer. Radiation also induces reactive oxygen species and produces secondary damage that is like aging.

The results from these experiments could provide insights that lead to a better understanding of diseases in general and may reveal potential targets for treatment.

This type of research could help those who battle cancer, neurological defects or other health challenges, Guida said.

By observing the molecular changes tissues and cells grown in the lab undergo in model systems as they transition from healthy to cancerous, researchers can look to protect or restore genetic systems that might be especially vulnerable.

If the work done at the NSRL uncovers some of those genetic steps, it could also provide researchers and, down the road, doctors with a way of using those genes as predictors of cancer or can offer guidance in tailoring individualized medical treatment based on the molecular signature of a developing cancer, Guida suggested.

Guida conducts research on neural progenitor cells, which can create other types of cells in the nervous system, such as astrocytes. He also triggers differentiation in these cells and works with mature neurons. He has collaborated with Roger M. Loria, a professor in microbiology and immunology at Virginia Commonwealth University, on a compound that reverses the damage from radiation on the hematological, or blood, system.

The compound can increase red blood cells, hemoglobin and platelet counts even after exposure to some radiation. It also increases monocytes and the number of bone marrow cells. A treatment like this might be like having the equivalent of a fire extinguisher nearby, not only for astronauts but also for those who might be exposed to radiation through accidents like Fukushima or Chernobyl or in the event of a deliberate act.

Loria is conducting tests for Food and Drug Administration approval, Guida said.

If this compound helps astronauts, it might also have applications for other health challenges, although any other uses would require careful testing.

While Guida conducts and collaborates on research, he spends the majority of his time ensuring that the NSRL is meeting NASA’s scientific goals and objectives by supporting the research of investigators who conduct their studies at the site. He and a team of support personnel at NSRL set up the labs and equipment for these visiting scientists. He also schedules time on the beam line that generates ionizing particles.

Guida is “very well respected within the space radiation community, which is why he was chosen to have such responsibility,” said Sivertz, who has known Guida for a decade.

Guida and his wife Susan, a therapist who is in private practice, live in Searingtown.

While Guida recalls making a drawing in crayon after watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon, he didn’t seek out an opportunity at BNL because of a long-standing interest in space. Rather, his scientific interest stemmed from a desire to contribute to cancer research.

When he was 15, his mother Jennie, who was a seamstress, died after a two-year battle with cancer. Guida started out his career at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where he hoped to make at least the “tiniest contribution” to cancer research.

He pursued postdoctoral research at BNL to study the link between mutations, radiation and cancer.

Guida feels as if he’s contributed to cancer research and likes to think his mother is proud of him. “Like a good scientist,” though, he said he’s “never satisfied. Good science creates the need to do more good science. When you find something out, that naturally leads to more questions.”

This view, from 478,000 miles, shows that Pluto is home to huge, 11,000-foot tall mountains, most likely composed of ice and frozen methane and nitrogen. The lack of impact craters suggests that Pluto’s surface is young, probably less than 100 million years old. Courtesy of NASA/APL/SwRI

When Alan Calder was young, his father used to share the world of the planets and stars with him through telescopes in their backyard. Peter Tarr, meanwhile, drew pictures in his teenage notebooks of Saturn and Jupiter and saved enough money to travel to Africa aboard a ship with Neil Armstrong to view a solar eclipse.

This past week, Calder, Tarr, and many others who have craned their necks skyward received the first set of clear images from Pluto, a dwarf planet located more than three billion miles from Earth.

The New Horizons space probe, which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration blasted off from Earth in 2006, beamed back the first pictures of a dwarf planet that had, up until recently, been considered something of a gray, icy blob.

Traveling at the speed of light, the images took four and a half hours to reach the eager eyes of astronomers and scientists around the world. Long Islanders shared the excitement surrounding these first close-up views of a planet named, by then 11-year old Venetia Burney, more than eight decades ago.

“Our imaginations tend to fail us” when anticipating what’s around the corner or, more precisely, billions of miles away, said Frederick Walter, a professor of astronomy who specializes in stars and teaches a solar system course at Stony Brook. Pluto “doesn’t look like any of the worlds we know.”

Astronomers have zeroed in on the 11,000 foot high ice mountains, which, NASA scientists said, are likely made of a combination of ice and frozen methane and nitrogen.

The show stopper in these early images, however, was the lack of something many of them were sure would be there: impact craters. These craters are like the ones that riddle the surface of Earth’s moon and that have also affected the geology of our planet.

New Horizons captured this stunning image, on July 13, of one of Pluto’s most dominant features, the “heart.” It’s estimated to be 1,000 miles across at its widest point and rests just above the equator. The heart’s diameter is about the same distance as from Denver to Chicago. Courtesy of NASA/APL/SwRI
New Horizons captured this stunning image, on July 13, of one of Pluto’s most dominant features, the “heart.” It’s estimated to be 1,000 miles across at its widest point and rests just above the equator. The heart’s diameter is about the same distance as from Denver to Chicago. Courtesy of NASA/APL/SwRI

“Some process has been resurfacing this planet, to smooth it out and get rid of whatever craters it should have,” said Deanne Rogers, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook. “That was a real surprise for me.”

At this point, any explanation of the process that might melt and smooth out the surface of a planet that takes 248 years to orbit the sun is speculation, Rogers added.

One such possibility is the presence of radioactive elements, researchers said.

Calder, who is an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Stony Brook, said he, too, is “intrigued by what seems to be the smooth surface of the planet. That implies an active geology.”

Calder’s research is in the field of star explosions. He said the images and information from Pluto wouldn’t impact his work too directly, unless scientists were able to show an interesting ratio of unexpected isotopes.

Calder said he’s looking forward to watching the textbooks change and seeing an alteration in the curriculum of classes on the solar system in light of the new images from the New Horizons satellite that are returning at such a slow pace that it will take 16 months for NASA to collect them all.

The active geology of this distant dwarf planet suggests that “even a small cold body that far out has activity on it,” Calder said.

For Tarr, a senior science writer at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, his interest in the planets date back to his teens. Traveling aboard a boat toward Africa to observe a solar eclipse, Tarr rubbed elbows with author Isaac Asimov, astronaut Armstrong, thousands of others interested in astronomy and fellow teenager Neil deGrasse Tyson, who would become an astrophysicist, author and director of the Hayden Planetarium.

For Tarr, some of the heroes of the Pluto images are the scientists who figured out, more than a decade ago, how to plot a course from Earth that would take the New Horizons spacecraft within 7,800 miles of Pluto.

“The calculation that goes into the launch is an incredible achievement,” Tarr said.

For Walter, part of the excitement of seeing these images comes from interpreting and understanding the unexpected parts of the picture.

“If you anticipated everything, you’d be doing the wrong thing,” Walter said. “Now that they’ve got these images” some of the old ideas will get “tossed out, and they’ll bring in something new” to explain the lack of craters, he added.

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Martian water, in a lab. Maria-Paz Zorzano, of the Centro de Astrobiologia in Madrid, Spain, recreates the conditions in which perchlorate salts would melt water during the Martian summer night. Photo from Maria-Paz Zorzano

By Daniel Dunaief

It’s not exactly an oasis filled with unexplored life in the middle of a barren dessert. Rather, it is likely a small amount of liquid water that forms during the night and evaporates during the day. What makes this water so remarkable and enticing, however, is that, while it’s in our solar system, it is far, far away: about 225 million miles.

The rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in the summer of 2012 after a 253-day journey from Earth, has gathered weather data from the Gale Crater on the Red Planet for the last year. That data has suggested the likely presence of liquid water.

“The cool part of this is the present-day nature of it,” said Tim Glotch, an associate professor at the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University, who studies the role of water in shaping the surface of Mars. “It’s there right now.”

The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station  on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover includes temperature and humidity sensors mounted on the rover’s mast. Photo from Maria-Paz Zorzano
The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover includes temperature and humidity sensors mounted on the rover’s mast. Photo from Maria-Paz Zorzano

The liquid water is in the form of brine, which is a mix of water and salts. The perchlorate salts on or near the surface of Mars melt the ice that forms during the cold parts of the Martian night. It’s similar, Glotch said, to the way salts melt black ice during a frigid Long Island evening.

Curiosity, which is about the size of a small car, can’t detect this liquid water because its electronics don’t operate during temperatures that plunge at night to around 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

The findings, which were reported last week in the journal Nature Geosciences, have competing implications. For starters, said lead author Javier Martin-Torres, who works at Lulea University of Technology in Sweden and is a part of the Spanish Research Council in Spain and a member of Curiosity’s science team, the water is in one of the least likely places on Mars.

“We see evidence of conditions for brine in the worst-case scenario on Mars,” Martin-Torres said in a Skype interview last week from Sweden. “We are in the hottest and driest place on the planet. Because we know that perchlorates are all over the planet — which we have seen from satellite images — we think there must be brine everywhere.”

Given the radiation, temperature fluctuations and other atmospheric challenges, however, the conditions for life, even microorganisms, to survive in these small droplets of water are “terrible,” Martin-Torres said.

Still, the fact that “we see a water cycle, in the present atmosphere, is very exciting,” Martin-Torres said. “This has implications in meteorology.”

Deanne Rogers, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook, said the likelihood of water bound to perchlorate salts directly affects her own research.

“Something I work on is sulfate minerals on Mars,” she said. “They can take on water and get rid of them easily by exchanging water vapor with the atmosphere.” She may incorporate perchlorates into future grant proposals.

Briny water, Rogers said, may also explain the dark streaks that appear on Mars at mid and low latitudes. These streaks look like running water going down a slope.

“People try to explain what these are,” she said. “It can’t be pure liquid water. It might be perchlorates taking on water vapor and producing dark streaks.”

By landing on the planet and sending readings back to researchers, Curiosity and other land-based vehicles can offer firsthand evidence of environmental conditions.

“Direct measurements are way more precise than what we can do from orbit,” Rogers said.

In the first week after the paper came out, Martin-Torres said he spent about 85 percent of his work time talking to the media, scientists or people asking questions about his studies. He has also received more than 10 times the typical number of requests from prospective Ph.D. students who would like to work in his lab while scientists from around the world have reached out to form collaborations.

Rogers explained that students might react to this kind of discovery the same way she did to other data and images from Mars in the early stages of her career.

“When Pathfinder landed in 1997, I saw the beautiful, colorful panoramas in the newspaper,” she said. “That’s when I knew what I was going to do. I hope that kids feel the same way.”

Martin-Torres, who said he has already submitted additional research proposals based on this discovery, described the current era of Mars research as the “golden age of Mars exploration.”

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By Daniel Dunaief

In the course of a month, two events have occurred that, perhaps some time in the next several decades, may help people make that incredibly long journey to Mars.

First, Scott Kelly went up in space. OK, so, that’s not such a shocker. Kelly is an astronaut and that’s what astronauts do. What makes Kelly’s trip different, however, is that he plans to spend an entire year at the International Space Station, setting an American record for the longest time away from Earth.

Kelly’s identical twin Mark, a retired astronaut and husband of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, will of course spend that same year on Earth. Having identical twins in two places for the same period of time presents an incredible opportunity. Mark is in reality the “control” in the experiment, giving NASA, doctors and anyone else interested in the effects of prolonged periods of time in space an opportunity to see how the two brothers react differently to different environments. Identical twins present that rare opportunity to rule out the nature part of the nature-nurture dynamic.

Some day, the information NASA records from the Kelly twins will help us understand the kinds of preparations necessary to safeguard any would-be space traveler from the harmful effects of higher radiation and no gravity for a journey to Mars that by current technology would take some 250 days. After all, our genes have evolved over thousands of years to life on Earth. Just because we’ve figured out to send ourselves deep into space doesn’t mean we can suddenly fine-tune the gift of our biological systems the way we might raise a heat shield on a space module.

A month after Scott Kelly returned to the ISS, where he’d spent considerable time on previous missions, a team of scientists, led by Javier Martin-Torres, a Spanish researcher who is a professor in Sweden and used to work in the United States at NASA, published a study based on a year’s worth of meteorological data from the Red Planet.

As it turns out, Martin-Torres and his team have determined it is highly likely Mars has liquid water — today. It’s not enough water to open a super-exclusive pool club or to plant a couple of dozen grape trees to cultivate a deep-space vineyard for the elite and refined palates of the world’s wealthiest wine lovers.

The scientists recorded readings through the Mars rover Curiosity of water that likely evaporates during the Martian day and forms again during the cold night as perchlorate salts melt any frozen water vapor.

This study, Martin-Torres suggested, may have implications for planetary protection policies. The Committee on Space Research may look carefully at places where spacecraft couldn’t land on Mars out of concern that any vehicle might contaminate the planet by introducing new organisms.

The presence of water speaks to us because it makes up more than 60 percent of our own bodies. Water also is a key element to life on our blue planet, raising the question about whether life, even in the form of small microbes, could use it to survive.

This Martian water, however, isn’t exactly a refreshing stream. It’s probably up to three-and-a-half times as salty as the water in the Dead Sea, Martin-Torres said.

The saltiness, radiation and numerous other factors make that water inhospitable to life, even on a microbial scale.

“The conditions are terrible,” admitted Martin-Torres. Still, “it’s better to have water than not to have it.” Besides, while it’s likely that any life on Mars would struggle to survive in that water, “nature always surprises us.”

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