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Concordia College prof has ties to NASA’s Mars Rover Mission

Concordia College physics professor Dr. Heidi Manning helped to test one of the instruments on NASA’s Mars mission’s rover “Curiosity.” Photo provided by Concordia College

Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota, physics professor Dr. Heidi Manning helped test one of 10 instruments aboard the Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity,” which landed at 12:31 a.m., Central Daylight Time, August 6. Manning worked with the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument which will be looking for organic molecules.

Currently on sabbatical, Manning is preparing to leave for the Goddard Space Center in Washington, D.C., in order to help analyze data SAM sends back and trying to answer a question that has been posed for a number of years, “Is or has there been life on Mars?”

Manning, a Gustavus Adolphus College alumna, explained that the tough part is over. “In the last 20 years, about 40 percent of these [voyages] actually made it,” she said. “Now that the rover is there, the fun begins.” Manning will analyze molecules found on the planet’s surface in what she calls a “reconnaissance mission.”

The rover landing is the most complex ever attempted by NASA. It has even been referenced as the “seven minutes of terror.” Seven minutes is the amount of time it should take for the rover to descend from the top of Mars’ atmosphere to the surface.

“It’s the thing I’ve held my breath about the most,” Manning says. “The landing is just an amazing engineering phenomenon.”

“I will have the opportunity to work with full-time scientists to see if we find complex molecules — amino acids — that would indicate any past history of whether Mars was habitable or not,” Manning, a member of Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA), Moorhead, Minnesota, told Metro Lutheran.

The rover landing is the most complex ever attempted by NASA.

“The SAM instrument is focused on what chemicals are present on Mars,” Manning says. “So there is carbon there, but what molecules does it form? And does it form the building blocks of life?”

Faith kissing science

Manning said that near the conclusion of her astrobiology class, students address theological issues when she asks them, “What would it mean for you if life is found on another planet?” She appreciates she works at a Lutheran institution where she is allowed to “encourage the students to think about the meshing of science and faith.”

Manning believes the next step will be a follow up trip to gather samples to bring back. “SAM is a complex lab for analyzing surface molecules for signs of hydrogen or oxygen, but it would be better to have the samples in labs here.”

The Rev. John Hulden, a pastor at Trinity Lutheran, had such travel in mind when he told Metro Lutheran, “I asked Heidi to warn me about what she finds. I want to talk with her about doing the first church start on Mars.”

To see a re-enactment of the landing, visit the NASA newsroom at mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/news/newsroom.

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