UMass Amherst Geology Grads Serve as Key Scientists on Mars Pathfinder Mission

July 17, 1997


AMHERST, Mass. - Two University of Massachusetts graduates hold key positions on NASA''s Mars Pathfinder mission. And both are downright euphoric about it.

"What everyone was seeing on television was real human emotion in the control room," said lead scientist Matthew Golombek, recalling the hugs and high-fives after the successful landing. Golombek earned his master''s and doctoral degrees in geology in 1978 and 1981, respectively. "No one was more overjoyed than we were. Everyone on the team put their entire heart and soul into this." Working alongside him is Nathan Bridges, the mission''s "rock czar," who gave the rocks many of their whimsical names. Bridges, who earned his doctorate just last spring, also has some more serious duties: analyzing the images and chemical data sent back by the rover, and updating Pathfinder''s World Wide Web site, which had a record-breaking 260 million hits by the mission''s second week.

The two UMass geologists - both of whom studied under professor emeritus George McGill of geosciences - say that they''re astonished by the enormity of public interest in the mission. "The press room has been packed every day," says Golombek, whose now-familiar grin has appeared everywhere from the New York Times and the Boston Globe to CNN and Newsweek, and who refers to Pathfinder as "the little mission that could."

Several elements contribute to Pathfinder''s popularity. "This is the first mission to land on Mars in a generation," said Bridges, noting it''s been 21 years since the Viking landings. "Mars is the most Earth-like of all the worlds in the solar system. The recent discovery of possible evidence of ancient microbial life in a Martian meteorite has further driven home the point that Mars and Earth were once very similar, only to diverge on different evolutionary paths later on."

Scientists on the Pathfinder mission are trying to learn more about the early environment on Mars by studying ancient rocks. They are also hoping to determine whether water was once stable on early Mars, potentially allowing life to develop. Scientists believe that the Red Planet''s climate may have been warmer and wetter, similar to early Earth.

"The questions are, if life formed, can we find evidence of it; and if life didn''t form, why not?" said Golombek.

To say the scientists are enthused about the mission is putting it mildly. "It doesn''t get any better than being among the first geologists to investigate the surface geology on Mars with a rover," says Golombek. The rover, of course, is Sojourner, the mobile robot that''s about the size of a laser printer. Although the machine was designed to last a minimum of one week - which has already passed - scientists hope it will last as long as a year. "I hope I''ll be driving a rover on Mars for a long, long time," Golombek says.

"It''s been 20 years since we got data from a spacecraft on Mars. We''ve been chewing over that data for 20 years so it''s getting a little stale," he adds. The science team is using the now-famous APXS (alpha proton X-ray spectrometer) to determine the rocks'' chemical composition, as well as to glean some information as to how the rocks were formed. Early indications show that some may be the result of volcanic activity.

Golombek takes particular pride in having selected Pathfinder''s landing site. The choice was the result of 2½ years of research into eliminating safety problems and guaranteeing a varied terrain. The area offers a grab-bag of ancient crustal material, dating back 4.6 to 3.5 billion years - the age of the recently discovered meteorite that scientists believe originated on Mars, and which suggests that microbes once lived on the Red Planet.

"Whether there''s life anywhere else in the universe is almost a theological question, asked in a scientific manner," Golombek says. "It''s the kind of question almost anyone could relate to."

Golombek and his colleagues have been particularly encouraged by the interest of schoolchildren, and they''re aware that the mission may be inspiring a new generation of scientists. "Movies show evil scientists taking over the world, but scientists are just regular people, especially geologists. We''re regular folks; we like rocks and dirt," says Golombek. "I''m just a regular old geologist, and it''s all I''ve ever wanted to be."

The mission is a great success not only technically, but also philosophically and spiritually, says Bridges. "Pathfinder''s cameras are our ''eyes,'' Sojourner our ''legs,'' for vicariously exploring another world. Mars is now part of our daily lives," he muses. "Quoting science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, ''We are the Martians,'' and the Cosmos is not so remote, but rather is an integral part of ourselves."