From Fulbright to Mars

From Fulbright to Mars

Previous American Fulbright grantees to Norway play important roles in the historic NASA Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity project.

Brian Schratz (Fulbright Graduate Student 2008-09, University of Oslo and Norwegian Defence Research Establishment) is a systems engineer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Communications Systems and Operations Group.  On August 5, 2012 he was in the control room in Pasadena, California when $2.5-billion Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity rover touched down on the surface of the Red Planet, breaking new ground in the search for signs of Martian life. 

As a student Fulbright grantee Schratz studied at University of Oslo under the guidance of notable Physics Professor Jøran Moen on a project conceptualizing a new type of instrument to help better measure and understand turbulence in the upper atmosphere.  Schratz also contributed to the analysis of scientific data from four sounding rocket missions conducted by Forsvarets Forskningsinstitut (FFI) and other organizations over the past couple of years.

Kirsten Fristad (Fulbright Graduate Student 2007-08, University of Oslo and the University Center in Svalbard) is a recent Ph.D. graduate of the Physics and Geological Processes department at the University of Oslo.  Fristad previously worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Center where she was part of a team the organic detection instrument, Sample Analysis at Mars or SAM, that launched on the Mars Science Lab.  Fristad’s work twice took her Svalbard for field testing of the instrument.  Her notes from the field test at Svalbard are available on NASA’s Mars Mission website.

Martin Fisk (Fulbright Scholar 2011-12, University of Bergen) is a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. Professor Fisk is a researcher selected as part of the Mars Science Laboratory science-research team.  Fisk’s previous work includes a 1998 discovery of rock-eating microbes beneath the ocean floor, and five years ago he established that the same trails and tracks made by the subterranean microbes were present in his analysis of a meteorite originating from Mars. 

The Mars Science Laboratory project will focus on determining whether an area on Mars has ever been conducive to harboring life, but is not designed for detecting life.  For three months after the Mars Science Laboratory lands, he and the other members of the science team will provide daily instructions to Curiosity. Then for the duration of the two-year mission, the team will meet online to decide on daily operations and long-term plans.

Ideally, the scientists would like to identify organic matter in the shallow subsurface, Fisk told his hometown Albany Democrat-Herald, but it would be a major step forward to document chemical differences in the rock and be able to visually identify them by color, texture or layering so they can more easily locate future sites for retrieval.