Tufts University

Phoenix Risen

Sam KounavesChemist Sam Kounaves sees the payoff of years of work as he analyzes Martian soil using instruments his Tufts group helped develop.

Last August, Samuel Kounaves stood on a darkened Florida beach, watching the dramatic liftoff of NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander. The spacecraft lit up the sky, and the roar of the rocket was heard miles away.

Kounaves, an associate professor of chemistry, felt a thrill of excitement and trepidation as the spacecraft began its 435-million-mile journey to what the group of people gathered on the shoreline could see as a small red speck in the sky.

Ten months later, on May 25, Kounaves listened and waited as the Phoenix lander began its descent to Mars, knowing its success or failure could alter his life's work. "It's like the feeling you get when the letter arrives from the college you always wanted to go to and you know it's a life-changing event, an event that will change your path," he says.

Sam Kounaves

A polygonal pattern in the ground near the lander, similar in appearance to icy ground in the arctic regions of Earth. (See more photos)

Kounaves is a co-investigator for NASA's Phoenix Mars mission and, along with students and other researchers from Tufts, is analyzing daily streams of data at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where much of the Phoenix research is based. Kounaves and his research team designed a wet chemistry lab aboard the spaceship, which consists of four beakers in which water is mixed with Martian soil. A group of 26 sensors samples the mixture to analyze its contents.

The Phoenix lander, with its camera eye and robotic arms, is almost like a person to the scientists who communicate with it daily. Each morning it receives a set of instructions, carries out its tasks and then, by the end of the day, transmits information to an orbiter passing around Mars that sends that information to Earth. Jason Kapit, a Tufts graduate student in mechanical engineering, organizes the information for further analysis.

Last week, NASA investigators announced that one of the substances found in the soil is perchlorate, a mineral salt that had not been detected on Mars before. "It's something we weren't expecting," says Kounaves, "and it changes our ideas about the geochemistry of the planet and the types of life that might live there."

Found on Earth, perchlorates are used in rocket fuel, fireworks and fertilizer. Kounaves says it is also a high-energy food for several kinds of bacteria. "We don't know if Mars is habitable," he says, "but from what we have learned so far, there is nothing to preclude life."

Back on Earth

In a way, Kounaves has been living on two planets, one literally and one virtually. On Earth he has been questioned and photographed by the media, and his comments have appeared in newspapers around the world and on the Internet. He jokes that his five years of service on the Winchester, Mass., school committee made the international scrutiny seem easy.

He probably earned his 15 minutes of fame when he told a NASA press conference in late June that Martian soil contains the right nutrients to grow, say, asparagus. The media were happy to find something the public could readily understand, and published dozens of stories with headlines like "Ground Control to Farmer Tom."

"Google 'Kounaves and asparagus,' " he jokes. "That's my recognition for the rest of my life."

Despite the program's success, Kounaves believes that even if the Phoenix had failed, the mission would have been useful because of the experiential learning it offered students across the U.S. Undergraduate and graduate students from his lab are helping with the research, and a dozen high school teachers and students from around the country have internships in the program, including one from Medford, Mass., and one from New Hampshire.

Kounaves will be able to use some of what he's learned from the mission in his course work at Tufts. "I teach a course in analytical chemistry, and this would be interesting material to use when we study how to analyze environmental samples," says Kounaves. "Professor David Walt also has a team-taught course on the evolution of the universe, and this fits right in."

The success of the mission, he says, has left him awestruck.

"Sometimes I have trouble finding words to describe it. I am humbled to be part of something that used to be science fiction."

— Prof. Sam Kounaves

"Sometimes," he acknowledges, "I have trouble finding words to describe it. I am humbled to be part of something that used to be science fiction."

Sometime around the end of November, Mars will go into what's called solar conjunction, when it will be on the opposite side of the sun from the Earth. As the nights get longer, it will eventually be dark 24 hours a day, and the Phoenix, which relies on solar energy, will die a slow death. The temperature on Mars will drop to minus 100 degrees Celsius, and the spacecraft will become covered in dry ice.

"It's our remote lab assistant," says Kounaves. "It has eyes—the cameras—and arms. We talk to it every day, and it has a personality, and it will die. It's sad. It has been performing its mission, but will soon be left there for who knows how many hundreds or thousands of years before humans interact with it again."

"We're exploring the boundaries of knowledge," he says. "Explorers went from one continent to another; they wanted to see what was there, and that's what we're doing now…We're scientists looking for answers, but we are also, in effect, expanding the boundaries of what we know, why we're here and what's around us."

Story written by Marjorie Howard, Senior Writer, Office of Publications.

Mars photos courtesy of NASA. Kounaves photos by Melody Ko, University Photography.

This story originally ran on Aug. 11, 2008.