August 01, 2014

Mission to Mars

Professor's computer simulations to assist in explorations of Martian atmosphere

by Amy Whitesall, Published November 02, 2012

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On the first day of high school physics class, Dave Pawlowski's teacher gave his students a bunch of paper arrows, a list of instructions and a simple assignment: Follow the instructions and figure out what it all means.

The exercise taught them something about vectors, he recalls, but it also opened his eyes to the process of discovery.

"I wasn't told what the point was, but at the end it made sense," says Pawlowski, an Eastern Michigan University physics professor who now uses the arrow exercise with his intro-level students. "With very limited instructions and very limited (explanation of) 'This is the point,' you go, 'Wow, this makes sense because I went through the process of doing it.' "

Physics, Pawlowski soon decided, was the coolest thing on Earth.

But as it turns out, Earth was just the beginning.

In May, Pawlowski and co-investigators at the University of Michigan were awarded a three-year, $345,418 NASA grant and a $21,960 University of Michigan grant to support the upcoming Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission (MAVEN). MAVEN is scheduled to launch in late 2013 and will explore the upper atmosphere of Mars.

NASA hopes to better understand what happened to the planet's once abundant liquid water, and what role events on the sun - solar flares, solar storms and solar winds - may have played.

Pawlowski and his colleagues are developing computer models to better simulate conditions in the Martian upper atmosphere, paying particular attention to those solar events and the way they change the atmosphere's density. Density affects the speed of spacecraft traveling through the atmosphere, so the mission depends on good simulations to help get satellites where they need to go.

"It's challenging," he says. "The science part is new and it sort of exciting because you're looking at solar flares - and I haven't even mentioned dust storms, but we're looking at dust storms and how they affect things. It's just sort of sexy. At least I think it's sexy."

"Sexy" may be a matter of personal preference, but you'd have a hard time arguing with "challenging."

Because our understanding of the Martian upper atmosphere is about 40 years behind our knowledge about Earth's, Pawlowski and his colleagues are working on a complex puzzle with a whole lot of missing pieces. Sometimes there's no data, and sometimes the data that is available isn't quite what they need. There are variables on top of variables. Often the computer model and the data don't match up, and then they must go searching for answers and try to figure out why.

"I've always liked to try to understand the way things worked. When I was little I'd take apart the VCR - things like that - like a little kid does, right?," he says, making you wonder what lies ahead for this father of two when his kids get old enough to wield a screwdriver.

At age nine he cracked open the family TV to fix a coaxial cable jack that kept falling back into the cabinet. In his early teens he started exploring the operating system of his family's computer. Even when he had to call a computer technician neighbor to set things right, it did little to tame his adventurous streak.

"If he doesn't understand something he'll get on the Internet and reference that thing until he gets it," says Pawlowski's father, Dan, a retired pipe fitter. "Me, I'd be asking for help or hiring someone, but he'll learn it even if there are mistakes along the line."

Pawlowski's always loved space, but never thought he'd work there.

His childhood bedroom was decorated with space murals and glow-in-the-dark planets; he even went to Space Camp at Kennedy Space Center when he was 10. But even then, it didn't seem like a very practical career path.

"At that time I thought a career in space meant being an astronaut, and even as a kid I knew there aren't that many astronauts," he says.

An adviser at Bradley University opened his eyes to the idea that he could study space without actually being launched into it, and after earning a physics degree at Bradley he added a masters in astrophysics at the University of Utah. He found his way to the U-M PhD program in Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences. He was six months into his postdoctoral year when, in 2010, a job opened at EMU for a physicist with his very qualifications.

You might say the stars aligned.

In two short years at Eastern, Pawlowski has earned a Provost's New Faculty Award (2010) and a Faculty Research Fellowship (2011).

When the NASA project came along, it seemed a good fit for his computational physics expertise, and he knew Steve Bougher, one of his advisors at Michigan, was already working on a computer model.

"I like to think that what I'm doing has some sort of tangible implications for society, and its hard to make that connection, even in my field, and as you get farther away from earth it gets harder to make the case that its important for reasons other than just scientific inquiry.

"The way I look at the Mars project is we're sending a lot of spacecraft there, investing a lot of money and a lot of time. If I'm doing something to help protect those investments, that feeds my scientific interests while keeping in line with my moral sense of obligation."

This story originally appeared in the fall issue of Eastern magazine.

Geoff Larcom

glarcom@emich.edu

734.487.4400

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