NASA’s Mars exploration program has the goal to determine whether conditions ever existed that could have supported microbial life on Mars. The mission can be followed at http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/. The way the Mars Curiosity mission is assessing past and present habitability of Mars by imaging the rocks, and by analyzing the atmosphere and the rocks and soils for chemical compounds and isotopic compositions by mass spectrometry and spectroscopy. Geochemical analyses, including those looking for organic molecules, are made by SAM, which stands for Sample Analyses at MARS, and SAM takes up more than half the scientific payload on board the Mars Science Laboratory Rover. A graduate of the former Geology department Jen Stern (BSc, Brown Univ., PhD Geochemistry, FSU 2005), is a member of the 80+ person strong SAM instrument team. She took part in the development of SAM, which is a suite of three instruments: a mass spectrometer, a gas chromatograph and tunable laser spectrometer.
Jennifer Stern went to Astrobiology Division at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland as a post-doctoral researcher right after receiving her PhD from FSU. She is now a Space Research Scientist. For the coming three months (and most likely many times thereafter) she will be at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena where she will be operating instruments 34 million miles away in space and obtain data from Mars’ soils and rocks in the hunt for signs of ancient life.