UT professor prepares for Mars mission

UT professor prepares for Mars mission

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Curiosity will spend more than a year searching for signs of current and past life as part of the Mars Exploration Program. Curiosity will spend more than a year searching for signs of current and past life as part of the Mars Exploration Program.
Dr. Linda Kah is one of only 20 or so who will have direct control of Curiosity while on Mars. Dr. Linda Kah is one of only 20 or so who will have direct control of Curiosity while on Mars.
The lab has the ability to seek out and analyze Martian material. The lab has the ability to seek out and analyze Martian material.

By GENE PATTERSON
6 News Anchor/Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - We may not be sending people into space these days, but that doesn't mean we're not exploring.

Later in November, NASA will launch an unmanned Atlas-5 rocket. Its payload is a $2.5 billion science lab dubbed Curiosity.

The lab is headed for Mars, where it will spend more than a year searching for signs of current and past life as part of the Mars Exploration Program.

Curiosity won't be alone. Others will be there, too, at least virtually. Among them will be University of Tennessee associate professor Linda Kah. She's one of 200 scientists from around the world chosen for the mission.

Kah is one of 20 being trained to lead mission operations and will have direct control of Curiosity while on Mars.

The lab is the size of a small car and has the ability to seek out and analyze Martian material. 

"It's like a field geologist with a science lab on its back," explains Dr. Kah. "It has a full set of analytical equipment and has the ability to pick up samples, insert them in the rover and measure specific materials for any signs of organics."

In other words, Dr. Kah says Curiosity will search for signs of life. For the past seven years, while doing field work and class work, she's been immersed in this Mars project.

Dr. Kah was chosen because of her expertise. She's a field geologist whose work searching for early signs of life on Earth make her a perfect fit for the Mars mission.

She's been to the Arctic, the deserts of Africa and the tops of the Andes Mountains. "Every place has been different and amazing, and a lot of them have been remote, but Mars puts them all to shame," she said.

Dr. Kah says rocks offer lots of information because within them are signs of past life. On Earth, it was microbes, essentially pond scum that, she says, created oxygen that allowed higher forms of life to evolve here.

She'll look for similar evidence on Mars, but it won't happen quickly. Curiosity will spend more than a year trekking across Gale Crater, the site chosen as the best chance of finding signs of life.

In fact, it will be agonizingly slow work. "It goes very slowly, a half mile a day if we keep moving. But when we stop, it'll be a full day to collect samples and a day or two for organic analysis," Dr. Kah said.

Due to the price tag, some argue it's too expensive. However, Kah says it's hard to put a price on the value of these kinds of missions.

She believes today's science and technology leaders were inspired by the accomplishments of the past, and we have a responsibility to encourage younger generations to reach for the stars as well.

"We're looking at a generation of people who were young kids when we landed on the moon and always dreamed of doing something as big. We can challenge them to do the impossible because when they were young, they saw us walk on the moon."

Linda Kah isn't doing the impossible, but she is doing the phenomenal. If along the way she happens to find signs of life, that would be awe inspiring.

"I love being a professor and teaching people," she said. "I've been doing this for a long time, and now I'm having a lot of fun feeling like a student again. And I'm learning again and expanding my own boundaries."

"Yeah, by the way I'm doing it on Mars," Kah added. "My Mom sort of likes that."

Dr. Kah will travel to Cape Canaveral later in November for the launch of Curiosity. But it will be more than eight months before the rover arrives on the red planet.

"It's going to be incredibly scary getting it there, but once we're there it's going to be so much fun," she said.

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