Flinn Scholars join team working on Phoenix Mars Mission

September 25, 2008

By hammersmith

The Phoenix Mars Mission, commanded from the University of Arizona, is now four months into its exploration of the arctic surface of the Red Planet. Guiding the mission are some of the world’s foremost geochemists, robotics engineers, atmospheric scientists, science educators, hydrologists, and computer scientists. And working alongside them are two current University of Arizona Flinn Scholars, Melissa Lamberton (2005) and Matt Hom (2008).

 Lamberton performed her first work on the Phoenix Mission long before the Mars Lander began its 423 million-mile journey from Earth last August. While still a student at Tucson’s Pueblo Magnet High School, she joined the Robot Arm Camera team, performing calibration and planetary-protection for devices on the Mars Lander. Then in her second year at UA, she began serving as a student worker in the Lunar and Planetary Lab, home to the Phoenix Mission.

Since February, Lamberton, who is studying environmental sciences and policy, has worked as part of the Education/Public Outreach team. UA is aggressively working to parlay the attention the mission has drawn from media outlets around the world into greater public understanding of and enthusiasm for the mission’s scientific achievements.

“My main job is to schedule outreach activities for the mission, primarily going out to schools and other groups to give presentations,” Lamberton says. “I also organize and conduct tours and open houses at the Science Operations Center [the Phoenix Mission’s command center], answer questions for the public, and update the mission’s website.”

Such public-outreach efforts have proven highly successful. Dozens of print and broadcast journalists from around the world descended on Tucson for the Mars Lander’s initial weeks of exploration and experimentation. Even now, with activities continuing beyond the 90-day primary mission, Phoenix has retained the public’s interest; open houses, tours, and lectures continue to attract visitors, and last week National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation: Science Friday” conducted a live broadcast from the Science Operations Center.

Hom actually learned about the Phoenix Mission because of the work that people like Lamberton and her colleagues were performing. Last spring, as he was finishing his senior year at Tucson’s University High School, he was reading about the mission on the UA Web site. Intrigued, he e-mailed a team member on the Phoenix Mission and asked if he might meet with Peter Smith, the mission’s principal investigator, and perhaps offer himself as a volunteer so that he could learn about working on a NASA mission.

“She said, ‘I think we can do better than that,'” Hom recalls. “I got to meet one-on-one with Peter Smith, and he interviewed me and asked me, ‘Would you like to work on the Phoenix Mission as a documentarian?'”

As a documentarian, Hom, who is studying mathematics, physics, and economics, works beside graduate students and post-doctoral researchers from UA, Washington University-St. Louis, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Together they track all data that is on the Mars Lander, ensuring that vital information isn’t deleted from the Lander’s memory.

“Phoenix represents my first foray into the real world of science,” Hom wrote in a reflection on his work on the mission. “My experience has been nothing short of incredible and I’m extremely grateful for the privilege of having been a part of this once-in-a-lifetime mission.”

For more information:

NOVA scienceNOW feature on the Phoenix Mars Mission

Interview with Matt Hom (YouTube), 08/19/2008