The Bendheim Lecture: Exploring Mars

As Science Department Head Steven Mylon noted, Middlesex enjoyed a great week of science, given that the community was able to watch a near-total solar eclipse on Monday, April 8, and then learn about the exploration of Mars on Friday, April 12, from planetary geologist Tina Seeger ’12. Invited to give this year’s Bendheim Lecture – a speaker series established by a Middlesex parent in 2015 to bring inspiring experts in STEM fields to campus – Tina was delighted to “come back to a place that was so formative for me, leading me to where I am,” as she said. “Middlesex let me have lots of interests and pursue them all – and learn it’s OK to find fulfillment in different places.”

She is now a Ph.D. candidate at CalTech, but back then, Tina related, “English was my main thing here,” though she also clearly remembered being inspired by MIT Professor Sara Seeger, who spoke at Middlesex about her study of exoplanets and the search for another Earthlike planet. At Williams College, Tina eventually pivoted from majoring in English and astronomy to geology and astronomy, studying Jupiter’s moon Io, the most volcanically active world in the solar system. After graduating and spending the summer on Mt. Rainier, running the park’s nighttime astronomy program, she presented her undergraduate research at a conference and ended up being asked to join the team running NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars. Tina is also on the team managing the Perseverance rover.

Successfully sending a rover to Mars is no small feat and requires international collaboration, as Tina explained. Specialized rover parts and instruments are built all over the world, shipped to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and assembled in a “cleanroom” there to prevent contaminating the Red Planet. Launching and landing a rover carrying expensive, sensitive instruments are major challenges, too, requiring thorough testing and “a lot of math” here on Earth, she said. And while many envision Tina driving the rovers using a video game controller or joystick, it’s a much different process, as she detailed. After downloading and examining the rovers’ photos that are relayed by satellites, her team decides what areas should be further investigated and makes a plan that is then coded by a control center and transmitted to the rovers via satellite.

Because Mars is half the size of Earth and – until 3.5 billion years ago – had a wet environment, Tina said, “It helps us understand Earth better to study Mars.” By landing a rover in areas that were once river deltas filled with rich soil, for example, scientists can look for evidence of microbial or bacterial life there. Unlike Curiosity, Perseverance is equipped to drill out samples of rock and put them in tubes, to be collected by a future Mars mission. “You might have a chance to work on those samples!” Tina beamed. “Exciting science is on the horizon!”

In the meantime, she is enthusiastically engaged in analyzing the rovers’ progress and pictures, as well as the recent images of Io being taken by the Juno spacecraft. For through exploring these celestial neighbors, Tina and her fellow scientists hope to better understand both the larger solar system and how life evolved on Earth.