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Seeking the origin of our solar system

Seeking the origin of our solar system

NASA’s Genesis spacecraft spent more than two years hovering about 1 million miles from the Earth’s surface collecting samples of solar wind, but crashed upon its return to Earth in 2004. Loyola faculty member Martina Schmeling is among the scientists working with NASA to salvage the samples. (Photo: courtesy Martina Schmeling)

Faculty Research

Since 2009, Loyola chemist Martina Schmeling has been working with space samples to help unlock longstanding mysteries about our world

By Daniel P. Smith

On an October day in her Loyola University lab, Martina Schmeling is holding the sun in her hand and, quite possibly, new clues about the creation of our solar system.

As a member of NASA’s Genesis mission, Schmeling, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, has spent the last eight years developing procedures to clean extraterrestrial material gathered by the Genesis spacecraft. In the process, Schmeling is helping a global team of scientists begin to unlock longstanding mysteries related to planetary materials, cosmochemistry, and the origin of our solar system.

“What we know about solar composition is all based on models and a lot of assumptions, but these samples will help scientists gather more concrete information about solar bodies that will ultimately inform our understanding of galaxy and solar formation,” says Schmeling, a Loyola faculty member since 1999.

On the frontiers of science
Launched in 2001, NASA’s Genesis spacecraft spent more than two years hovering about 1 million miles from the Earth’s surface collecting samples of solar wind, a remnant of the original nebula from which our solar system formed some 4.6 billion years ago.

When the spacecraft attempted to return the samples to Earth in 2004, however, a parachute malfunction on the sample-return capsule led to a high-speed wreck in the Utah desert. With the samples fracturing into small pieces and contaminated by exposure to space radiation, NASA officials were forced to alter their plans. After discovering solar-wind ions buried beneath the surface of the collectors, NASA recruited an international team of scientists, including Schmeling, into its effort to salvage the samples.

“This is the type of project scientists dream of being involved with because it’s working on the frontiers of science,” Schmeling says.

Supported by NASA under the planetary science program, Schmeling joined the Genesis control team in establishing cleaning procedures to ensure that scientists could analyze the samples.

“The progress is slow because of the complexity of the samples, but we’re steadily developing procedures for single fragments,” Schmeling says, adding that the long-term goal is to create a deep repository of clean samples scientists can access for study. “This work has required a lot of patience, creativity, and endurance, but that’s really the beauty and fun of science.”

Raising deeper questions
More recently, Schmeling’s work on the Genesis mission has evolved to include analyzing the samples for solar composition of selected elements, work that has led to the construction of novel instrumentation with the help of third-year PhD candidate Elizabeth Jamka. When complete, the tandem’s Grazing Incident X-Ray Fluorescence spectrometer will be able to perform depth-profiling analysis of solar wind embedded into the Genesis samples.

“This will help us do additional surface mapping and gather information about solar bodies,” Schmeling says.

From collaborating with scientists around the globe to attending NASA’s annual gathering on the ongoing Genesis mission and shaking hands with space-navigating astronauts, Schmeling calls her experience with NASA a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“I’m a part of solving some of the most intriguing questions about our solar system,” she beams.

Yet more, Schmeling says her spot on the mission team has energized her teaching and scholarship, awakening deeper questions about the origins of elements and spurring a more intense passion for scientific discovery that she’s carrying into the classroom and the lab.

“I originally come from environmental science, and at certain point the research becomes redundant because you can only take so many air quality samples in Chicago,” Schmeling says. “This opportunity with NASA has afforded me a new research avenue and led to new perspectives on science that have been so gratifying.”