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Concordia professor looks for life on Mars

MOORHEAD - While the chances of discovering a green alien are slim, a team of researchers that includes Concordia physics professor Heidi Manning hopes the Curiosity rover set to land on Mars early Monday morning can find evidence that life has e...

Heidi Manning is a professor of physics at Concordia College
Heidi Manning is a professor of physics at Concordia College in Moorhead that will be analyzing data sent back from the Mars rover Curiosity. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

MOORHEAD - While the chances of discovering a green alien are slim, a team of researchers that includes Concordia physics professor Heidi Manning hopes the Curiosity rover set to land on Mars early Monday morning can find evidence that life has existed on Earth's closest planet.

In 2006, Manning helped test the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, one of 10 instruments on the 10-foot-long, six-wheeled vehicle that will look for organic molecules in soil samples. Once the rover lands and starts its two-year mission, Manning will help analyze data broadcast back from the Red Planet.

She said satellite images and samples collected in the past show Mars had water about 3.8 billion years ago, and the planet has carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen - the ingredients that can make organisms and form amino acids that make up DNA.

"Do people think that there is going to be signs of life? There's a good chance," she said. "At least the chemicals are there. But did they have a chance to get together and make simple molecules, and then did those molecules get together and make an organism?

"It would be very exciting if we found it, and I guess that's why we're going to explore."


With a background in physics - she received a bachelor's degree in physics from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. - Manning has had several opportunities to apply her training to the study of the worlds beyond Earth.

While attending graduate school at the University of Minnesota, a professor asked if she wanted to help develop an instrument for the space shuttle.

"I said, 'Gosh, yeah, that sounds like a lot of fun,' and it's been interesting," Manning said.

That research gave Manning a chance to work on the Cassini space probe at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington, D.C. She helped a group develop an instrument to study the atmosphere around Saturn and one of its moons for the Cassini that launched in 1997 and reached the distant planet in 2004.

That same group developed the SAM instrument now heading to Mars.

More to discover

Curiosity launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida last November, and is scheduled to land in the Gale Crater on the Mars surface at 12:31 a.m. Monday after the so-called "seven minutes of terror" - an engineering feat that will bring the craft from its initial speed of 13,000 mph as it passes through the atmosphere to 1.7 mph just minutes later as a sky crane lowers the rover to the surface.

Manning said the nickname isn't just a catchy headline. While the landing plan has been tested on Earth, it's a "crazy complex" series of automated maneuvers involving a parachute, retro rockets and a tether that will bring the rover to the ground.


"There are so many different things that could go wrong," she said. "It's the thing that probably is making the many, many thousands of people who've been involved with this mission most nervous, because it's the next big step that needs to happen."

Once Curiosity is safely on the ground and its instruments have been calibrated, the most advanced rover ever sent to Mars can start its work.

Curiosity has its own power generator that will use the heat of plutonium's natural decay to produce energy - a more stable power source than the solar panels on past rovers that can become worthless as they get caked with dust and dirt.

Manning said the upgrade allows for more-sophisticated instruments that can do even more scientific research during its primary mission to explore the Gale Crater created by an impact long ago.

She said the landing site, carefully selected by researchers before the launch, has layers of exposed soil somewhat like the natural formations that draw tourists to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. It means the rover can collect samples from the layers that will give a glimpse into different points in the history of Mars.

Manning will travel to the Goddard Space Flight Center for two weeks at a time every two months during her sabbatical this year, with her first visit planned for Aug. 14. She will work with a team of dozens of geologists, biologists, chemists and other scientists who will analyze the data from the SAM.

Her work will continue even when she's home in Minnesota, where she can further analyze that data and prepare for her next trip to get more data.

Several rovers and orbiting spacecraft have gathered information about Mars since the 1960s, but Manning said there's plenty more to figure out.


"Yes, we know a lot, but every time we go there, there are more questions that come up," she said. "You find one new thing and it leads to 10 more questions, so there's still a lot left to learn about Mars."

Watch the Mars rover Curiosity

NASA is making it easy to watch the Curiosity rover land on Mars at 12:31 a.m. local time Monday morning.

  • NASA will broadcast live feeds during key landing activities from its Jet Propulsion Laboratory on NASA TV and online at http://www.nasa.gov/ntv . The live feeds will run from 10 p.m. Sunday to 1 a.m. Monday, and again from 2:30 to 3:30 a.m. Monday.
  • The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks is hosting a series of public activities beginning Sunday at 7 p.m. to celebrate the landing. Events will be held in 210 Clifford Hall and outside Clifford Hall on the UND campus.

  • Follow the Curiosity mission on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity or on Facebook at http://www.facebook . com/marscuriosity. For more information about the mission and the landing, visit http://www.nasa.gov/mars .

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587
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Heidi Manning is a professor of physics at Concordia College
In this 2011 artist's rendering provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech, the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover examines a rock on Mars. After traveling 8 1/2 months and 352 million miles, Curiosity will attempt a landing on Mars on Sunday night. Associated Press

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