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University of Iowa News Release


Aug. 6, 2007

Note: Click on photos for high-resolution version. Photo top left- A Delta II rocket lit up the early morning sky over Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida as it carried the Phoenix spacecraft on the first leg of its journey to Mars. The powerful three-stage rocket with nine solid rocket motors lifted off at 5:26 a.m. EDT. Image Credit: NASA. Photo bottom right- Artist's concept of Phoenix lander on Mars. Photo credit: NASA/JPL/UA/Lockheed Martin

UI, Iowa City Students Participate In NASA Mars Mission Project

Two local teenagers and a University of Iowa graduate student have a rare opportunity to participate in a NASA Mars mission.

Juan Diaz, a graduate student pursuing his doctorate in the UI College of Education Science Education Program in the Department of Teaching and Learning, has been paired with City High School Students Tomas Daly and Fletcher Bates. The three will explore the surface of Mars as participants in the Phoenix Student Intern Program (PSIP) for the 2007-08 Phoenix Mars Lander Mission, a NASA project involving 13 teams selected from across the country.

Over the coming year, they will work alongside scientists and engineers on the Phoenix Mars Mission, which launched Saturday, Aug 4. After its May 25, 2008, arrival at Mars, the Phoenix Mars Lander's assignment is to dig through the Martian soil and ice in the arctic region and use its onboard scientific instruments to analyze the samples it retrieves.

Following months of preparation and special training, teachers and students will spend one week at the University of Arizona Science Operations Center in Tucson, Ariz. in summer 2008, during "landed operations" to help investigate the surface of Mars. PSIP students and teachers will also have many opportunities to tell others what it is like to work on a Mars mission. They will convey their experiences to other students, teachers and members of the public through outreach activities and events such as presentations, Web-casts, and publications.

During the coming year, they will be doing all-team meetings twice a month to discuss their current research findings.

"It's going to be really cool to meet the next generation of rocket scientists," said Daly, 17, who is contemplating a career as an aeronautical engineer. "I'd like to get more involved in NASA, and I bet that this will help a lot. I think this is valuable because it's showing students that they can actually get involved with projects like this."

Daly said he is fortunate to have Bates' involvement since Bates is even more interested in geology than space exploration, which is a good fit for this project.

"My dream as a kid was to be a geologist," said Bates, who has been friends with Daly since the fourth grade. "I am really looking forward to being part of this hands-on experience. You can't pay to have this kind of experience. It's awesome. We've all heard of the Spirit and Opportunity rover missions, and you just can't believe that you're part of something so significant. I feel really lucky to be part of this program."

Though Bates is now interested in pursuing careers in psychology or music, he said this is a great opportunity to explore whether he still might want to pursue a career in geology and space exploration.

The PSIP is a program designed to give high school students like Bates and Daly and their teachers active experience in the areas of science, engineering, mathematics and technology. The 13 teams, each consisting of one teacher and two students, were selected from across the country following a national application process. These student-teacher teams will each work with a member scientist of the Phoenix Science Team.

Diaz, who also has master's degrees in physics and astronomy, said he was honored when Brian Hand, a UI science education professor, identified him as an excellent teacher to be involved with this project, and helped put him in touch with Daly and Bates.

"This will give students an idea of what science really is: true investigations and research," Diaz said. "I'm really honored to be part of this project."

NASA's next Mars mission will involve looking beneath a frigid arctic landscape for conditions favorable to past or present life, according to Diaz. The Phoenix Mars Lander will claw down into the icy soil of Mars' northern plains. The robot will collect data that may provide important answers to the following questions: can the Martian arctic support life, what is the history of water at the landing site, and how is the Martian climate affected by polar dynamics?

Diaz, Daly and Bates will work with Diane Blaney of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. They will use a device called a Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer or MECA, one of the seven instruments aboard the deck of the Phoenix spacecraft.

MECA is a combination of several scientific instruments including a wet chemistry laboratory, optical and atomic force microscopes, and a thermal and electrical conductivity probe, said Diaz. By dissolving small amounts of soil in water, MECA determines the pH, amounts of minerals such as magnesium, chloride, bromide and sulfate anions, as well as dissolved oxygen and carbon dioxide.

"We'll be able to determine what the chemical composition is, what minerals are in the soil up at the northern polar cap where there most likely would be water," Daly said. "It would determine if, at one point, water was flowing, because that might change the mineral composition."

MECA's wet chemistry lab contains four single-use beakers, each of which can accept one sample of Martian soil, Diaz said.

With images from these microscopes, scientists will examine the fine detail structure of soil and water ice samples. Detection of hydrous and clay minerals by these microscopes may indicate past liquid water in the Martian arctic.

Daly and Bates are perfect examples of students who've been inspired to consider pursuing careers in the sciences. Daly said he first learned about this program during a career research project for an English class. He was looking online for pharmaceutical careers when he came across a link on internships and other opportunities at NASA.

Phoenix is the first mission of NASA's Mars Scout Program of competitively proposed, relatively low-cost missions to Mars. The University of Arizona leads the Phoenix mission, with project management at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and development partnership at Lockheed Martin. International contributions are provided by the Canadian Space Agency, the University of Neuchatel (Switzerland), the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), the Max Planck Institute (Germany), and the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

For more information on the project, visit

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

CONTACTS: Juan Diaz, University of Iowa, 319-353-3719, Cassie Bowman, Phoenix Student Interns Program Coordinator, NASA Ames Research Center, 650-269-2787, Sara Hammond, Phoenix Mars Mission, University of Arizona, 520-626-1974, or Lois J. Gray, University of Iowa News Services, 319-384-0077,

EDITORS: If you would like to interview a member of the local team, contact Lois J. Gray at 319-384-0077 or at