UTD geoscientist selected to aid NASA’s Mars mission

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently selected UTD geoscientist Janok Bhattacharya to help plan a mission to Mars in 2013.

Bhattacharya, associate professor of geoscience, was selected to be part of the 21-member Mars Astrobiology Field Lab Mission Definition Science Steering Group that will investigate the features of Mars and compromise on the logistics of the mission.

“I was flabbergasted and was not anticipating it all,” Bhattacharya said of his nomination by NASA. He points to a presentation on delta models in Thailand that may have garnered NASA’s attention.

He explained that his knowledge of sedimentation and river deltas might help NASA understand more about the physical features of Mars.

Bhattacharya said that the evidence of fossils in sedimentation could provide clues to the existence of single-celled organisms on Mars.

He said life on Mars centers around the existence of water-borne organisms. Over time, as hydrothermal vents closed as a result of the expansion of crust, the bodies of water froze into ice caps. This, coupled with the minimal atmosphere of Mars, could have halted the evolution of complex life.

“On Earth, water can disappear because of plate tectonics and no one knows why Mars doesn’t have this characteristic,” Bhattacharya said.

Bhattacharya will contribute to the investigation of life on Mars by examining its physical features and presenting them to other researchers.

Bhattacharya does have his trepidations about working with the group.

“I am nervous about saying something stupid,” Bhattacharya said. “But I may say something that might strike one of the top scientists in the world.”

The committee teleconferences regularly to discuss rotating presentations by researchers from fields including ice work, hydrothermal systems and sedimentary rocks.

“I have to start learning a lot about other fields besides mine,” Bhattacharya said.

At UTD, he plans to involve graduate students in his analysis of Mars.

“My interests will always lie in sedimentology because I like to study the origin of life,” Bhattacharya said. “I am also fascinated by Mars even though I hardly know anything about it.”

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