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Jason Kapit

Photo credit: Steven Biggs

At 5:26 a.m. on August 4, 2007, mechanical engineering graduate student Jason Kapit stood under the dark, pre-dawn Florida sky with a group of scientists, engineers and space enthusiasts to witness the launch of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Phoenix will help NASA scientists determine whether Mars could support life by understanding the history of water on the fourth planet from our Sun. From his vantage point on the beach, Kapit dialed into the public number for NASA's control room to hear the check and re-check of all the systems. "I was shaking the last 30 seconds before it launched. I couldn't believe it. I heard '3-2-1…Go!' and then it lit up the sky," Kapit said. "It was the most beautiful thing I think I've ever seen," said Kapit. As the rocket carrying Phoenix blasted off, the glow illuminated the onlookers that included Sam Kounaves, Kapit's mentor and a chemistry professor at Tufts. "It was eerie because it was so quiet for about five seconds after the initial brilliant flash of the engines and liftoff, and then the big blast," Kounaves said. "After 10 years of hard work, I'll be impressed with that moment forever." Kounaves, Kapit and much of the Tufts' Planetary Chemical Analysis Group were just some of the many scientists, engineers and researchers who work on the Phoenix Mars Mission.

NASA's latest fact-finding mission to Mars is different from others that have sent roving bots, like Spirit and Opportunity, to touch down on Martian soil and look for past evidence of water on Mars' surface. Unlike the rover-bots, Phoenix is landing in an area that scientists already know contains water locked up as ice below the planet's surface. The latitude of the Phoenix's landing site is equivalent to northern Alaska with temperatures averaging -60°C but which can plummet to -140°C. After Phoenix makes its 10-month journey and lands in late May 2008, it will remain stationary and take samples within reach of its eight-foot robotic arm, built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL. The robot will spend the first 10 Martian days--called sols, which are 40 minutes longer than Earth days--preparing to dig into the planet's unexplored, arctic north side. To chemically analyze the soil samples, the robot arm will deliver a small teaspoon-sized scoop of icy dirt into on-board instrumentation Kapit and Kounaves had worked on with JPL's Michael Hecht.

Hecht oversaw the team that built Phoenix's MECA--microscopy, electrochemistry, and conductivity analyzer. Kounaves is a Phoenix co-investigator and the project leader for MECA's four wet chemistry labs project, or WCLs, which reconstitutes the Martian soil with water in a container housing more than 20 electrochemical sensors. The sensors in the wet chemistry lab will analyze the frozen soil samples for things such as pH, dissolved oxygen, and amounts of salts and minerals. "The solution in the beaker will dissolve salt in the soil," said Kapit. As an undergraduate engineering physics major, Kapit assisted Kounaves' group by evaluating the design of crucibles that will deliver barium chloride into the WCL's sample beakers to precipitate sulfate out of the soil-water solution. "The dissolved salts in the soil will teach us about the history of water on Mars." Determining the chemical history of the soil and understanding what might be in the water, in turn, gives NASA scientists an idea as to whether the planet did or can support life.

Photo courtesy of Jason Kapit

"I got the chance to do something interdisciplinary. Analyzing soil is experimental chemistry. However experimental chemistry can't occur on Mars without the proper engineering." said Kapit. Apart from running experiments like a stress-strain tests on the tightly packed crucibles, Kapit has also worked on the three Cs: calibration, characterizing and cataloging. "Through these tests, we're building up a library of information so that when we get data back from Mars, we know exactly what we're looking at."

With Kounaves' receipt of a $1.2 million grant from NASA's Astrobiology Science & Technology program, Kapit--now a Tufts engineering master's candidate--is working on a related Mars project: the Microbial Detection Array, or MiDA. Kapit has been working with Professor Doug Matson and other senior mechanical engineering students to design pieces of a system to detect signs of microbial activity in Martian soil samples. "This is a challenging engineering project because the system will be used to detect growth," said Kounaves, "but it will be very mechanically oriented." The machine's design compares two sterilized soil samples. One will be primed with additional Martian soil; the other, devoid of any life, save the nutrients, water and minerals already present. By observing the changes in electrochemical properties between the samples, metabolic activity--and therefore, life--might be inferred. "MiDA could provide a direct experiment of whether or not there was or is life, however small, on Mars," Kapit said.

While Kapit works to perfect MiDA, he also will be training to be a downlink engineer at Phoenix's mission control center in Tucson at the University of Arizona. During three upcoming training sessions, he'll learn how to record, analyze and restructure the data that comes from the Mars Lander. "I feel very lucky to get to be one of the first people who gets to see the data when it comes back from Mars," Kapit said, adding that data collection is contingent upon a successful landing on the planet. When the Phoenix touches down, it needs about 30 minutes to orient itself, unfold its solar panels, and begin transmission back to Earth. "That's going to be the most nerve-wracking half hour," said Kapit. Kounaves pointed out that only 50 percent of the Mars missions have been successful so far and that even after years of testing and analysis "once it lands it's on its own. A gust of wind could take it off the surface." But, Kounaves qualifies, "even if it crashes or disappears, this mission has provided a tremendous amount of educational value to dozens of Tufts students."

Kounaves said that the entire Phoenix Mars Lander mission provided a unique opportunity for students from all disciplines to get hands-on experience. "The project is one of the best things NASA has done to allow young people to get involved," said Kounaves of the project, which has a price tag upward of $420 million. "These aren't cheap missions but they allow a large number of students to work on a real mission and hardware. I think this is a great vehicle for training engineers and scientists."

Profile written by Julia C. Keller, Communications Specialist, Tufts School of Engineering