University of Virginia Engineering Professor Selected as Member of NASA Team Charged with Understanding Mars

Jan. 27, 2007 — Robert E. Johnson, the John Lloyd Newton Professor of Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering Physics at the University of Virginia, has been chosen as a member of a team that will develop a concept study for an orbiting space mission to Mars slated to launch in 2011.

Johnson is a member of the "Great Escape mission," one of two Mars mission finalists that NASA selected in January.  According to NASA, the missions would increase understanding of Mars' atmosphere, climate and potential habitability in greater detail than ever before.

The Great Escape mission, which would include measuring the structure and dynamics of the Martian upper atmosphere and potentially biogenic atmospheric constituents such as methane, would determine the physical and chemical processes in the Martian atmosphere that affect its evolution.

"We know that Mars lost a considerable amount of its early atmosphere. It used to have a fairly robust atmosphere," says Johnson. "One way that atmosphere may have been lost is escape to space. We think that escape to space began to play an important role after Mars lost its magnetic field. Many useful ideas about the evolution of the atmosphere have come from previous missions to Mars, but this one is dedicated to the upper atmosphere where the escape processes might have occurred."

Once the mission launches in 2011, it will take about 10 months to get Mars and will orbit for about 2 years, collecting data that will then be analyzed to create a model for what happened to the Mars atmosphere.

The chief scientist for the mission is Stephen W. Bougher, research professor at the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering’s Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences. The team’s primary investigator is S. Alan Stern, executive director of the Space Science and Engineering Division in the Southwest Research Institute, based in Boulder, Colo.

Each Mars mission proposal will receive initial funding of approximately $2 million to conduct a nine-month implementation feasibility study. Following these mission concept studies, NASA will select one of the two proposals in late 2007 for full development as a Mars Scout mission — a mission that could cost up to $475 million.

NASA’s Mars Exploration Program seeks to characterize and understand Mars as a dynamic system, including its present and past environment, climate cycles, geology and biological potential. The Mars Exploration Program Office is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Johnson joined the U.Va. faculty in 1971. He has served as an assistant dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science and was the head of the graduate program in Engineering Physics and the undergraduate program in Engineering Science for 15 years. Johnson's research studies energetic ion, electron and photon interactions with surfaces and gases in space.

U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science

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