Thursday, February 18, 2021

BU prof has eye on Mars landing ‘Space guy’ says drone will look for signs of life

 BLOOMSBURG — By dinner time tonight, NASA will have landed a rover and a helicopter drone inside a Martian crater, ready to explore new ground for manned landings and possible human habitation in the future.

Bloomsburg University professor Michael Shepherd will be watching closely.

“Mars has been a huge focus of NASA in recent years as it is one of the closest and most Earth-like planets and the only one that can be settled in a reasonable amount of time,” Shepard said. He has studied asteroids and is contributing to an asteroid visit by a space probe next year. Some of his academic colleagues and friends helped work on the space project.

The NASA Perseverance rover and Ingenuity drone were launched last July 30 and should touch down on Mars at 3:55 p.m. today. Its two-year mission, and possibly longer, is to collect rock and soil samples and look for signs of any ancient microbial life, while also testing methods of extracting oxygen in the Martian atmosphere needed for manned explorations.

Prior visits to the Martian surface have turned up evidence of water in ice deposits. The Perseverance drone has a drill to collect core samples in a search for possible early signs of microbial life embedded in subsurface rock.

“This crater in which it is landing is thought to have been a giant lake about the size of Columbia County,” Shepherd said. “It has instrument packets to look at minerals there and for any organic material that may show signs of past life.”

Shaping up an asteroid

Shepard developed a 3-D model to envision the shape of a large asteroid between Mars and Jupiter that is believed to be largely composed of metal, unlike most asteroids, which primarily are made of rock.

That is significant because if Psyche, as the asteroid is named, is found to be largely metal, it could be the core of a former planet that once existed in the solar system. It would be kind of like Superman’s Krypton home that fictionally exploded in the cosmos.

“There are not many metal cores floating around,” Shepard said. “They’re never seen before because they are buried deep inside planets.”

His shape-determining model, which appears like a squashed football, will help a probe land on the asteroid’s surface in 2025 or 2026.

“It’s a pretty good sized rock,” he said. “And it is rocky, but there appears to be a lot of metal sticking out of it.”

Shepard is working on a research paper about his work and will speak at an upcoming NASA Lunar and Planetary Conference in Houston about it.

‘Weird space guy’

As a professor and “weird space guy” in BU’s Environmental, Geographical and Geological Sciences department, Shepard has students in his classes who see and discuss space exploration as “a normal thing,” with hopes of visiting those places one day.

Business magnate Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket development project to reduce space exploration costs and offer commercial space flights one day “will be a big business for a lot of people,” Shepard said.

When asked if he might want to journey to Mars someday, Shepard declined.

“I get motion sick,” he said.

But he has his fingers crossed on the success of today’s Martian landing.

~Retrieved from the Press Enterprise article by Leon Bogdan, 2-18-2021

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