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Noffke a Guest of NASA at Launch of Mars Rover Curiosity

A photo of the launch taken by Noffke's colleague, Martin Brasier of Oxford University

When NASA launched its Mars Curiosity rover from Cape Canaveral on Saturday, Nov. 26, one of the agency's invited guests was Old Dominion University geobiologist Nora Noffke, whose methods for researching early life on Earth could also turn up signs of life on Mars.

Field work by Noffke has produced numerous geological samples supporting her case that the woven mats of microbial colonies we see today covering tidal flats were also present as life was beginning on Earth. The mats can cause unusual textures and formations in the sand beneath them. She has identified two dozen such textures and formations caused by present-day microbial mats, and has found corresponding formations in geological structures dating back about 3 billion years on Earth. Her work helped to coin the term microbially induced sedimentary structures (MISS).

Many astrobiologists believe these MISS would also serve as "fingerprints" of any communities of microbes that may have existed on Mars. Noffke's invitation letter from James L. Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division, stated, "I value your contributions to the field of astrobiology, a line of research that has had a profound influence on our exploration of our Solar System. Therefore, I would be honored to have you join us for this historic event."

The ODU associate professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences said Mary Voytek, the director of NASA's astrobiology program, and with whom she has had professional contacts, probably put her on the invitation list.

Curiosity, which was launched atop an Atlas V rocket from Kennedy Space Center, is due to arrive on Mars after a journey of nearly nine months. It is the biggest and best-equipped robot ever sent to explore another planet. The nuclear-powered mobile laboratory is about 7 feet tall and 10 feet wide, and has a six-wheeled propulsion and suspension system that would make any earthbound off-roader jealous.

The 10 instruments on board include a jackhammer/drill, laser probe, cameras and other equipment designed to analyze Martian soil and rocks for evidence that Earth's neighbor might once have supported life.

Noffke said that she was pleasantly surprised when the invitation came via email and that she replied with an acceptance within seconds. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the day the launch was originally scheduled, she and about 200 other scientists, most of them astrobiologists, were given a tour of the Kennedy Space Center. After the launch was postponed, they were told to return the next day.

"At 7 a.m. Saturday we all assembled again to drive to the Space Center," Noffke said. "There, a parking lot was reserved for us - at a safe distance of 3.5 miles from the launch site. At first, I was disappointed not to be allowed closer. However, clearly, a rocket is like a bomb - a big one. An explosion early in the launch could have disastrous effects. Think alone of the shock wave."

Rain was falling and Noffke worried about another postponement. But then the sun came out. "About half an hour before the scheduled launch, we heard the words by the mission chief, 'Mission manager is a go.' The crowd cheered.

"Finally, the famous last 10 seconds were counted down over the loud speaker, the crowd joining in down to 'zero.' For a moment it seemed as if nothing would happen. The rocket just stood there, and there was silence. Then the rocket started to majestically rise, very slowly, in a huge cloud of smoke. With fast increasing speed the rocket launched upward, an unbelievable bright flame flashing behind it, and moved upward in a slight curve. Then the sound of the jets reached us - imagine 10 airplane jets blasting in close proximity to you. The sound was shaking the ground. Cheers erupted, and all I could say was 'Awesome.' The rocket reached the sky and disappeared from view, leaving a spiral of white clouds behind it."

This article was posted on: November 28, 2011

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