Tag Archive for NASA

NASA Selects 2 Proposed Venus Mission Concepts Co-Developed by Gilmore


Martha Gilmore, George I. Seney Professor of Geology and professor of earth and environmental sciences, believes that if scientists are able to measure Venus’s atmosphere and surface, we can better understand the climate, volcanic activity, and the habitability of Earth-size worlds. The selected missions aim to understand how Venus became an inferno-like planet after it was potentially another habitable world in the solar system with an Earth-like climate. (Photo by Henry Greenwood)

Two proposed Venus mission concepts co-developed by planetary geologist Martha Gilmore were selected by NASA’s Discovery Program this week. The selected missions aim to understand how Venus became a scorching planet after it was potentially another habitable world in the solar system with an Earth-like climate.

Gilmore, George I. Seney Professor of Geology, professor of earth and environmental sciences, is a co-investigator of both winning concepts. Each project will receive approximately $500 million per mission for development and is expected to launch in the 2028–2030 timeframe.

The projects include VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) and DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging Plus).

“Venus is so critical to our understanding of how Earth-sized planets form in our solar system and other solar systems,” Gilmore said. “I can’t wait to see what we know about Venus in 20 years—will we know then that Venus was once covered in oceans? Will we know how the inner planets acquired their water inventory? Will we know how to recognize habitable planets around other stars? Will we find evidence of life there?”

VERITAS, a Venus orbiter, will create high-resolution topography imaging of Venus’s surface and produce the first maps of the planet’s global surface composition. By charting surface elevations of nearly the entire planet, scientists will be able to learn more about the geological history of the planet and why it developed so differently than Earth. VERITAS also will map infrared emissions from Venus’s surface to map its rock type and determine whether active volcanoes are releasing water vapor into the atmosphere. VERITAS is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

DAVINCI+ is an atmospheric probe that would be managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. As the probe plunges into Venus’s thick atmosphere, it would measure the chemical composition, revealing the possibility of a history of water on Venus. In addition, DAVINCI+ will return the first high-resolution pictures of the unique geological features on Venus known as “tesserae,” which may be comparable to Earth’s continents, and, as the oldest terrains on Venus, may record past climates. This will be the first U.S.-led mission to Venus’s atmosphere since 1978.

“Having these two such complementary missions is a dream come true,” Gilmore said. “I’m so happy and look forward to working with our students on this fascinating planet.”

According to NASA, these investigations are the final selections from four mission concepts NASA picked in February 2020 as part of the agency’s Discovery 2019 competition. Following a competitive, peer-review process, Gilmore’s missions “were chosen based on their potential scientific value and the feasibility of their development plans.” The project teams will now work to finalize their requirements, designs, and development plans.

NASA“We’re revving up our planetary science program with intense exploration of a world that NASA hasn’t visited in over 30 years,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science in a June 2 press release. “Using cutting-edge technologies that NASA has developed and refined over many years of missions and technology programs, we’re ushering in a new decade of Venus to understand how an Earth-like planet can become a hothouse. Our goals are profound. It is not just understanding the evolution of planets and habitability in our own solar system, but extending beyond these boundaries to exoplanets, an exciting and emerging area of research for NASA.”

Established in 1992, NASA’s Discovery Program has supported the development and implementation of over 20 missions and instruments. These selections are part of the ninth Discovery Program competition.

Gilmore, who also is the co-coordinator of Wesleyan’s Planetary Sciences program, is a fellow of the Geological Society of America, has served on dozens of NASA and National Academy of Sciences-NRC Committees, has mentored more than 20 master’s degree recipients, has served as chair of the Wesleyan’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and the Venus Exploration Analysis Group, deputy chair of VEXAG, and has a publication record of fundamental research contributions in planetary geoscience, particularly on the geological evolution of the Earth, Venus, and Mars.

In 2020, she received the Randolph W. “Bill” and Cecile T. Bromery Award from the Geological Society of America for her exemplary contributions to research in the geological sciences and for being an instrumental mentor to young people of color.

Redfield Receives NASA Grant to Study the Properties of Outer Space

Seth Redfield

Associate Professor of Astronomy Seth Redfield will use the Hubble Space Telescope to measure composition, density, temperature, motion, and the spectroscopic signatures of gas and dust.

If a spacecraft were to quickly travel outside the solar system—potentially en route to a nearby exoplanetary system—it would need to pass through an atmosphere unfamiliar to scientists on Earth.

As a recipient of a $415,000 grant from NASA, Seth Redfield, chair and associate professor of astronomy, hopes to learn more about the mysterious makeup of this “outer space.”

“There are several very early designs for an interstellar probe, but first, we need to understand the properties of the space in between the stars if you are traveling through it, especially at high speed,” Redfield said. “Given the vastness of space, even in our nearest cosmic neighborhood of the closest stars, very high speeds are needed. The designs for an interstellar probe involve speeds that range from 11,000 miles per hour to 6 million miles per hour! These require the biggest rockets that NASA has ever built and new propulsion ideas that are still in very early design phases.”

NASA Supports Poulos’s Wildfire Research


Helen Poulos examines a high fire severity site.

Wildfires can transform forest ecosystems to varying degrees, depending on fire severity. While low-severity wildfires change plant community composition by killing short-statured trees and understory plants, high-severity fires result in top kill of above-ground vegetation. This variation in wildfire effects can have major impacts on post-fire vegetation composition and water stress.

Helen Poulos, adjunct assistant professor of environmental studies, received a $300,000 grant from NASA on Dec. 5 to examine how forests can permanently change in response to high-severity wildfire in southeastern Arizona.

NASA Funds Study of Gilmore’s Venus Mission Concept

Martha Gilmore

Martha Gilmore, the George I. Seney Professor of Geology, professor of earth and environmental sciences, believes we have a lot to learn from studying Venus—yet the United States has not sent a mission to the Earth-sized planet since the early 1990s. That’s why Gilmore has proposed a major flagship mission concept study to assess whether Venus was ever a habitable planet by looking at its rocks and atmosphere.

In October, NASA agreed to fund the planetary mission concept on Venus submitted by Gilmore, a planetary geologist, and colleagues at several other institutions, who come from varied disciplines. Gilmore, who is the principal investigator, said NASA received 54 proposals and selected 10 to feed into the next Planetary Decadal Survey. Theirs was the only proposal on Venus to receive funding.

In 2020, the National Academy of Science will convene a panel of scientists and engineers to determine the scientific priorities for Planetary Science over the period 2023–2032. This Planetary Decadal Survey is conducted every 10 years and is tasked with recommending a portfolio of missions to NASA. The mission concepts that were funded will be developed for consideration by the Decadal Survey. In the coming months, Gilmore will be meeting and communicating regularly with her science team and conducting mission design runs at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Final reports are due to the Decadal Survey in June 2020, and will describe mission architecture, cost, and how the mission will address the scientific priorities of the Decadal Survey and NASA.

Gilmore’s expertise is on the surface morphology and composition of Venus, Mars, and Earth, and her PhD focused on Venus during the United States’ Magellan mission. She explained that all three planets are rocky, and there is evidence that they all had oceans early in solar system history. Scientists believe that Mars’s ocean dried up first—within about one billion years—and that Venus’s ocean may have lasted for two or three billion years.

“Thus, for most of solar system history, there were two Earth-sized planets with oceans,” said Gilmore. “Was Venus habitable like the Earth and if so, what changed?”

Students Receive Research Awards from NASA

Three undergraduates and one graduate student received NASA Connecticut Space Grant Awards from the NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium (CTSGC). The CTSGC is a federally mandated grant, internship, and scholarship program that aims to inspire the pursuit of careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Astronomy and math major Nicole Zalewski ’20 received a $5,000 undergraduate research fellowship to pursue her study on “Measurement of the Radar Properties of the Oldest Rocks on Venus to Constrain Mineralogy.” Her advisor is Martha Gilmore, the George I. Seney Professor of Geology, professor of earth and environmental sciences, co-coordinator of planetary science, and director of graduate studies.

Astronomy Department Awarded Grants for Research

Seth Redfield, astronomy professor of astronomy, campus director of the NASA CT Space Grant Consortium, reports that several students and faculty have recently been awarded grants for their research in astronomy.  Photo c/o Redfield

Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy, campus director of the NASA CT Space Grant Consortium, reports that several students and faculty have recently been awarded grants for their research in astronomy. (Photo c/o Redfield)

Several Wesleyan students and faculty were recently awarded grants for research by NASA’s Connecticut Space Grant Program. Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy and campus director of NASA’s CT Space Grant Consortium, was excited about the number of winners.

“I was thrilled to see how successful Wesleyan was this year in getting grants through NASA’s CT Space Grant program,” wrote Redfield. “It demonstrates the diversity and quality of work we do that is aligned with NASA’s mission.”

“The grants this year support undergraduate, graduate, and faculty research, as well as special events organized by faculty at Wesleyan to promote exposure and career development in STEM fields,” explained Redfield.

Redfield Participates in NASA’s IBEX Mission Press Conference

Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy, speaks at a press briefing about NASA's IBEX (Interstellar Boundary Explorer) spacecraft, which sampled multiple heavy elements from within our solar system and beyond. IBEX found some astonishing data in the process.


Seth Redfield had to cut short his first Astronomy 224 class of the 2012 spring semester, but he had a good excuse: he was presenting at an international press conference being held by NASA on one of its recent missions.

Redfield, an assistant professor of astronomy, was chosen by NASA to be a non-mission expert to help verify results from the space agency’s ongoing IBEX (Interstellar Boundary Explorer) mission, an unmanned probe that analyzes the interstellar boundary that protects much of our solar system, including the Earth, from deadly cosmic rays from interstellar space.

One of Redfield’s primary areas of research deals with these types of clouds, more generally known as local interstellar medium (LISM), and his models had been used by NASA in the past,

Ph.D Candidate Kopac to Study Bacterial Evolution with NASA Award

Ph.D candidate Sarah Kopac samples soil that contains a bacterium that can endure extreme conditions.

Sarah Kopac, a Ph.D student in Professor of Biology Fred Cohan’s lab, has won a $20,000 NASA grant for research on ecological aspects of bacterial evolution in Death Valley National Park.

The grant, announced Jan. 11 by the Connecticut Space Grant College Consortium, will support Kopac’s study of Bacillus subtilis, a bacterium commonly found in soils that can endure extreme conditions, such as high heat levels.

Kopac, a third-year Ph.D candidate, is focused on identifying bacterial species that evolved within a gradient of salty soils – part of a broader effort to understand how ecological factors influence the spawning of new species.

Wiedenbeck ’10 Receives NASA-Supported Grant for BA/MA Research

BA/MA biology student Jane Wiedenbeck received a NASA-supported fellowship that will support her research in Professor of Biology Fred Cohan's lab on bacterial evolution.

BA/MA biology student Jane Wiedenbeck received a NASA-supported fellowship that will support her research in Professor of Biology Fred Cohan's lab on bacterial evolution.

In some models of origins of life, hot springs are considered to be one of the first environments inhabited by life. During the 2010-11 academic year, biology BA/MA student Jane Wiedenbeck ’10 will use a NASA-funded Graduate Fellowship to study the evolution of certain microorganisms to discern how life may have originated and evolved under extreme conditions.

Wiedenbeck, who applied for the fellowship during the fall 2009 semester, received a $20,000 award from the Connecticut Space Grant College Consortium. The Consortium is a member of the NASA-funded national Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, and serves to promote and support NASA aeronautic and space-related research in Connecticut.

Martha Gilmore, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, and Wesleyan’s liaison for the Connecticut Space Grant, presented the award to Wiedenbeck.

This fellowship will support Wiedenbeck’s research in Professor of Biology Fred Cohan‘s lab on bacterial evolution–specifically the nature and rate of species formation in Bacillus subtilis and hot-spring Roseiflexus. Both model organisms are of particular interest to astrobiology, Wiedenbeck explains.

” Both Bacillus and Roseiflexus are able to thrive in extreme environments, for example, Roseiflexus has the ability to live in extreme thermal conditions in hot springs,” she says. ” While Bacillus and Roseiflexus themselves may not be found in other parts of the universe, studying their ecology and evolution may give us clues as to what types of traits may be advantageous for organisms that would allow them to survive on other planets, and how simple microorganisms in general are able to adapt to extreme environments.”

Bacillus produces an extremely resistant spore, which is believed to be able to withstand the rigors of travel through space, perhaps after being launched into space with dust from an erupting volcano. Thus, if another planet were to be colonized spontaneously by earthly life, Bacillus