Decades of Mars research by CU faculty and students lays the groundwork for human astronauts

2021 is a good year to be a Mars researcher like Bruce Jakosky at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at CU Boulder.

Bruce Jakosky checks out two Lego models of the MAVEN spacecraft (Credit: Casey A. Cass/CU Boulder)

On Feb. 18, NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover landed on the red planet, hitting its atmosphere of speeds of nearly 12,000 miles per hour. The robot, which has six wheels and weighs just over a ton, will search the Martian surface for signs of life that may have thrived there 3 to 4 billion years ago—during an epoch when Mars was as water-rich as Earth.

And it will have company. Two more robotic space missions arrived at the red planet last month. The first was the Emirates Mars Mission, a space probe that entered into orbit around Mars Feb. 9. That mission is led by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in the United Arab Emirates in partnership with several U.S.-based institutions, including LASP. China’s Tianwen-1 mission followed the day after.

“There’s an incredible amount going on,” said Jakosky, associate director of LASP and a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences. “We’re looking at several years of truly exciting Mars science.”

It’s pivotal period for the red planet that LASP, which isn’t directly involved in the Perseverance mission, has helped to usher in through decades of Mars research—from investigating the planet’s volatile dust storms to studying the radiation that smacks into its atmosphere.

Jakosky is one of the authors of a recent NASA report that delved into the priorities for the future of science on Mars. He noted that robotic space missions like Perseverance or EMM generate scientific findings that shed new light on how planets form and evolve. They may also help to lay the groundwork for humans to one day visit an alien world—contributing to a recent renaissance in space exploration that is inspiring the next generation of planetary scientists.

“I think that sending people into space is a really great thing to do for society as a whole,” Jakosky said. “I also see the human and robotic space programs as being very intimately connected to each other.”

An edited NASA image of the Mariner 6 and 7 spacecraft approaching Mars (Credit: NASA)

“It shakes your bones”

Ace Stratton still remembers seeing her first rocket launch. She was nine years old and had prime seats to watch the space shuttle Endeavour blast off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in November 2008. 

“The sheer force that you can feel miles away from a rocket is extraordinary,” said Stratton who studies aerospace engineering at CU Boulder and works on Jakosky’s research team. “It shakes your bones.”

Today, she’d rather be on one of those rockets than watch them from a distance.

“I’ve wanted to be an astronaut ever since I was little,” said Stratton, who’s in her third year at the university. “I would like to go to Mars and land on the surface. If I can’t do that, I’ll settle for orbiting Mars, and if I can’t do that, I’ll settle for going to the moon.”

But she also knows that if people like her are going to set foot on Martian soil, scientists have a lot of work to do. Mars, she explained, is an inherently dangerous place for a fragile human—with temperatures that drop below minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit and dust storms that can stretch nearly 50 miles high and cover the entire planet. Robots like Perseverance, in contrast, can explore this hazardous environment safely, and for a lot less money.

“Robotic missions help us determine the environmental conditions we need to know in order to successfully send humans to Mars,” Jakosky said. “What’s the composition of the dust in the dust storms, and what’s the nature of the atmosphere?”

LASP, he added, has a long history of working on just those kinds of projects: In 1969, the institute played an important role in the Mariner 6 and 7 missions, which swooped past Mars and confirmed that its atmosphere was made up mostly of carbon dioxide. The LASP team built an instrument that rode on Mariner 9 two years later and helped to measure the height of Olympus Mons, the tallest volcano in the solar system. 

More recently, Jakosky has led the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, which investigates how the planet’s carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere became so thin. It’s a legacy that LASP is continuing by partnering on robotic missions of all sizes—from “CubeSats” the size of toaster ovens to larger spacecraft like EMM, said David Brain, who leads the mission’s U.S. science team. 

“EMM is going to tell us how the Mars atmosphere functions at all times of day and at all regions. It can tell us when to expect windy or cloudy conditions. It can help tell us how dust storms get started,” said Brain, a scientist at LASP and professor in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences. “That’s intrinsically valuable for humans on the surface.”

A Panorama of Mars taken by the Perseverance rover (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS)

“On the verge of discovery”

Both Brain and Jakosky agree that, one day, Earth will probably need to send living, breathing astronauts to Mars. If nothing else, human explorers can inspire the imagination, and get young people interested in science, in a way that robotic missions like Perseverance can’t. 

“I remember being six years old and watching the countdown of the first Mercury astronaut on TV,” Jakosky said. “I would hate to think that we would back off from that and get to a time where we were not sending people into space.”

These are questions that he and his students, including Stratton, are tackling this semester in a class called “Human Missions to the Moon and Mars.” 

Jessica Perron, an undergraduate enrolled in the class, said it’s an exciting time to be studying planetary science. Nations across the world are launching their own spacecraft, while NASA is ramping up the Artemis program—an effort to return people to the moon this decade. 

“I always say that ‘human curiosity thrives on the verge of discovery,’” said Perron, a transfer student majoring in geology. “It is really exciting to be in this time where there is a reinvigoration in science, and everyone is trying to solve problems together.”

Stratton, for her part, is eager to be a part of those next steps—just try and stop her. 

“The one thing I will not settle for,” she said, “is keeping two feet on the ground.”

This story was written by Daniel Strain and originally appeared in CU Boulder Today.