NASA/JPL/Cornell via AP

BYU helps NASA prep for human mission to Mars through study of martian dust particles

By Christina Giardinelli, KSL | Posted - Jun 30th, 2019 @ 7:18pm



PROVO — A group of researchers at BYU are nearing completion of a NASA-sponsored project that aims to measure the electrical charge and size of dust particles on Mars.

"NASA is curious what the particular physical and electrical properties of Martian dust are," said Shiuh-hua Wood Chiang, one of the BYU professors and researchers heading the project.

Chiang said the project began two years ago after NASA asked universities across the country for a Mars dust analyer project proposal.

"We had a solution that would allow NASA to directly measure the mass and charge of Martian dust," he said, noting that "this has never been done directly in the past."

NASA provided the team with a $640,000 three-year grant which, Chiang said, will end in summer 2020.

According to Chiang, quantifying the size and charge of the particles is important in order to understand both the climate of the Red Planet and the impact the dust has on materials sent to its surface.

"Mars rovers, when they land on Mars, rely on solar power and solar panels to generate electricity. Dust tends to stick on these solar panels and reduce the power generation capabilities," he said, explaining that the dust's electrical charge causes it to stick to the panels.

Chiang said this is what happened to Opportunity, the Mars rover that was declared dead in February after 15 years of roaming the planet's surface.

He noted that "in the future, we will be sending humans to Mars and the man missions will require life support systems that interact with the Martian atmosphere, we need to understand how the dust particles may affect these instruments and life support systems."

In order to accomplish this, Chiang and his team have been producing lab-made Mars dust. These electronically charged dust particles are not visible to the human eye.

Printed circuit boards and low-noise charge and mass detection instruments are used to measure the charge and size of the particles.

"So far, we have been getting some really nice results out of our experiments, you're seeing performances that are very, very close to what we expect from simulation analysis," Chiang said.

Heading the research project with Chiang are BYU professors Daniel Austin and Aaron Hawkins, as well as a team of graduate and undergraduate student researchers.

Elaura Gustafson, a BYU doctoral student in analytical chemistry, has been involved with the project from its start.

She said "the field of charge detection and mass spectrometry is a more of an up-and-coming field," noting that "it's very exciting to be one of the few who are involved with designing and the building of such an apparatus."

"It is one of my dreams one day to work for NASA. And I feel that being in this lab, and working on this specific project is helping me get to that point, if I play my cards right," she said.

"Lots of my family and friends are super excited about it. Every time I see them, they asked me, how's Mars?" said Tabby Caldwell, a BYU student who is involved in undergraduate research with the project since January.

Caldwell said that experiencing both the lab work and engineering aspects of the project have "opened up a new door of research" for her.

"This kind of work is a lot different than the other chemistry I've been doing in my chemistry lab classes," she said noting that, in the future, she hopes to pursue a postgraduate degree in chemistry.

Christina Giardinelli

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