Professor, students participate in NASA’s Mars landing mission

A watch party for the Mars landing (pictured above) on Nov. 26 in Newton Hall, hosted by the Geology Department. Professor Nicholas Warner and Geological science majors seniors Alyssa DeMott and Megan Kopp are involved in NASA’s Mars InSight mission to assist in logistics for landing as well as looking at the geological makeup of the planet. (Courtesy of Dori Farthing)

A watch party for the Mars landing (pictured above) on Nov. 26 in Newton Hall, hosted by the Geology Department. Professor Nicholas Warner and Geological science majors seniors Alyssa DeMott and Megan Kopp are involved in NASA’s Mars InSight mission to assist in logistics for landing as well as looking at the geological makeup of the planet. (Courtesy of Dori Farthing)

Assistant professor of geological sciences Nick Warner and two geological science students partook in research for NASA’s Mars landing mission. NASA’s Mars Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport probe concluded its seven-month, 300-mile-long journey when it successfully touched base near the red planet’s equator on Monday Nov. 26. 

Being the first-ever mission dedicated to studying the deep interior of Mars, scientists hope to address fundamental questions about the creation of Earth-like planets and potentially discover more concrete evidence of life elsewhere.

InSight is part of a NASA Discovery Program mission that had the goal of placing a single geophysical lander on Mars to explore the interior aspects of the planet and to determine the processes that shaped the rocky planets throughout the inner solar system. 

Warner has been researching Mars, as well as the landing and mapping of the surface of the planet for many years. Prior to his career at Geneseo, Warner worked in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab where he gained extensive experience and built valuable connections.

Through his involvement with NASA, Warner was able to obtain funding from NASA to lead a geology team of Geneseo undergraduate students to take part in the InSight mission to Mars. 

Members of this team include geological science and childhood/special education major senior Megan Kopp and geological science major senior Alyssa DeMott who have conducted research and worked on the mission alongside Warner. They had the opportunity to travel to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. where they were able to fully experience landing day from a first-hand perspective.

“When it was confirmed that the lander was safely on the ground, the room erupted with high fives, smiles, tears and hugs. Of course, the landing itself received a standing ovation,” Kopp said in a statement. “The landing couldn’t have been smoother and the MarCo spacecraft was able to relay the first image from InSight. Everyone in the room immediately ran to the screen to look at the rocks and evaluate the actual, real landing site.”

Now that the probe has successfully landed, Warner and his team’s work is just beginning. For the following three weeks, they will be using images relayed from the lander to map and calculate the height and diameter of the rocks in the landing site.

“We will be working some long days in the lab at JPL, but it is truly incredible to be working here,” DeMott said. “Everyone here is so passionate about their job and about science in general, and that is really inspiring.”  

“The students and I are now mapping a two-meter long and three-meter wide space in front of the lander to try to find a safe location to put the mission’s two instruments—the SEIS and HP3,” Warner said in a statement. “I am the lead geologist on this effort and the students are my assistants. That location has to be free of centimeter-size rocks and have low slopes. The SEIS is the seismometer that will detect Mars quakes and the HP3 is a percussive mole that will hammer down five meters to take the planet’s internal temperature.”

Chair of the geology department Dori Farthing recognizes the enormous prestige brought to the university through Warner’s involvement with the InSight mission and believes it will undoubtedly influence the curriculum in Geneseo’s geology courses.

“This is the beginning of lots of projects, for example a class called Planetary Geology, there’s lots of things that will go into that class. Many independent studies will come out of this and it’s a field that Nick dreams about, he sort of lives and breathes Mars,” Farthing said. “This work is going to be fueling research for years and that research will have a role here at Geneseo.”   

Farthing emphasized the importance of applying classroom knowledge far beyond Geneseo and the value of pursuing research at an undergraduate level.

“I’m so proud to be part of an institution that has undergraduates that can be a part of this, and that NASA said ‘yes, we want them to come as well.’ Having Nick be involved with this fuels a lot of amazing research, but to get undergrads involved with this amazing, cutting-edge research makes me proud to be in a department and school that offers that,” Farthing said.  

News editor Zainab Tahir contributed reporting to this article.

In