NASA Scientist Lands at Cedar Crest to Explain Mars Rover Mission
Jennifer Stern, Ph.D., is a NASA scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and a key member of the team that created the instrumentation for sample taking and analysis aboard the Rover Curiosity, which landed on Mars in August. She headlined a public lecture on campus recently titled, “Follow Your Curiosity: The Search for Habitability on Mars,” in which she chronicled past, current and future exploration of the Red Planet, as well as her role in the current mission.
She told an audience of 300 that early analysis of the Gale Crater, where the Rover Curiosity landed in August, indicates water may have once flowed on the planet, and that temperatures could have been much warmer than the extremely cold temperatures that exist today.
While this might hint at the possibility of life on Mars sometime during the planet’s history, the mission hasn’t uncovered any traces of methane gas yet, a clearer marker for the actual existence of life forms at some point in time, said Stern. She said the mission could very well extend into the next decade, so there’s much research left to be done.
The Rover Curiosity traveled 354 million miles at speeds up to 13,000 MPH just to get to Mars, with the aid of a spacecraft. With all types of amazing equipment including more than a dozen cameras, and a built-in lab for sample analysis in its belly, it looks to be up for the task.
“Curiosity is the biggest thing we have ever landed on Mars,” said Stern, who noted the rover is “about the size of a Mini Cooper” and weighs a ton. “There are six wheels on Curiosity, and its mobility is going to allow us to go where we haven’t gone before.”
Stern may have one of the "coolest jobs in the universe," and if ever there was a quintessential role model for students at Cedar Crest College and young women everywhere, she just might be it.
The Brown University and Florida State University graduate recalled skiing with family in the Wasatch Mountains in Utah as a fourth grader and wondering, “What made them, and why do they look the way they do?” She honed her natural curiosity from grades 4-12 at an all-girls school, where she balanced her interest in science and math with her passion for the arts and humanities.
During her senior year at Brown, Stern became involved in a research project to study the recurrence of hurricanes making landfall in southern New England, and learned to love field work and the camaraderie of working in a research group. While at graduate school at Florida State, she discovered that she enjoyed applying chemistry to solving geological problems. She also took seminars in astrobiology and got interested in the fact that you could use the same chemical tools to look for life elsewhere as we use on Earth to trace biological processes.
Stern applied for a postdoctoral fellowship at NASA, and the rest is history. She said the Mars Rover Curiosity project is easily the most exciting and high-profile of her career.
“Being part of the Curiosity mission is hard work and requires lot of patience, but it has been incredible. Sometimes it blows my mind how fortunate I have been to have the opportunity to participate in planning activities and experiments we perform on Mars,” she said. “I think it’s extremely important for both the United States and the world to continue space exploration. Humanity is intrinsically fascinated by what lies beyond the Earth, and the space program is something in which Americans feel pride."
Stern had the following advice for Cedar Crest College students and young women everywhere: “As women, it’s important that our voices be heard. Things might be different after college, but hopefully you won't forget the freedom of being able to take a guess and not worry about being wrong, and will continue to speak up. In terms of career path, stay open minded, and no matter what, follow what you enjoy doing, and what interests you.”
In addition to the public lecture, Stern had met with Cedar Crest students throughout the day. College President Carmen Twillie Ambar told the lecture audience, which included some college and younger students: “Part of the benefit of having Dr. Stern here is letting you know that anything you want to do in life is possible.”