One scientist’s 30-year quest to get under Mars’ skin

French Principal Investigator SEIS experiment on NASA InSight Mission, Philippe Lognonne, during a photo session on April 27, 2018 at the Institut de Physique du Globe (Institute of Earth Physics) at the University Paris Diderot in Paris. (AFP / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN)
Updated 06 May 2018

One scientist’s 30-year quest to get under Mars’ skin

  • Philippe Lognonne has explored the dynamics of tsunamis and deciphered data from 1970s Apollo missions
  • The SEIS seismometer that will leave Earth on Saturday measures ground motions in a wide range of frequencies, using an array of six sensors.

PARIS: Philippe Lognonne has waited three decades to hear the heartbeat of Mars.
With a little luck and some help from NASA, the instrument he designed to take the Red Planet’s pulse will land before the year’s end and press a high-tech ear to its dusty surface.
As principal investigator for the Seismic Experiment for Interior Structure (SEIS), a multi-sensor seismometer, Lognonne will have a front-row seat for the scheduled launch on Saturday from Vandenberg Air Force Base in central California of NASA’s InSight mission.
But he’s keeping the champagne corked: three times in the past, Mars space missions featuring his ultra-sensitive seismometers have faltered, failed or been scrapped.
Lognonne’s cherubic features are framed by a mop of shoulder-length auburn hair, a grizzled beard and white sideburns.
He has just turned 55, and has a weakness for Hawaiian shirts.
A researcher at the Institute of Earth Physics in Paris, Lognonne has explored the dynamics of tsunamis and deciphered data from 1970s Apollo missions.
But from the start, his true passion and unwavering mission was to build the tools that could detect what’s going on under Mars’ red surface.
“This planet was habitable four billion years ago, and I want to understand why, bit by bit, it stopped being so,” Lognonne said in an interview at the Paris university where he teaches.
Soon after completing his PhD in 1989, the young scientist focused on designing a suite of seismometers — used on Earth to detect and measure earthquakes — that could probe deep beneath the Martian surface in search of answers.
His first crack at securing passage to Mars for his instruments came in 1996, when France’s National Center for Space Studies joined a Russian mission that included an orbiter and two landers.
But two small seismometers on board never made it past Earth’s atmosphere — the launch failed, and the mission was aborted.
Lognonne got another shot at his goal seven years later.
Working with US engineer Bruce Banerdt — who 15 years later would become the scientific director for InSight — he helped prepare instruments for the European NetLander mission, which sought to set up a network of four small stations on the surface of Mars, including a seismometer. A launch date was set for 2005.
But the mission got mired in red ink and was axed in 2003.
“That was a bit of let-down,” Lognonne said flatly.
What kept him going? Why didn’t he give up at that point?
“I’ve always told my students, if you really believe that a project is scientifically important, the only reason to not carry on is if someone else is already doing it,” he said.
Banerdt and Lognonne went their separate ways but stayed in touch, linked in part by the dream of putting a seismometer on Mars.
“We knew that the scientific consensus was that it must be done,” Lognonne said.
In 2012, NASA invited bids under its Discovery program for relatively low-budget space exploration projects, and the duo decided to try once again.
They were up against 26 other projects in their category.
In August of that year, they got the call from NASA saying they had been selected for a 2016 Mars launch.
“Four years is very short!” Lognonne recalls thinking, as they threw themselves into the task.
The SEIS seismometer that will — with any luck at all — leave Earth on Saturday measures ground motions in a wide range of frequencies, using an array of six sensors.
It will detect and record “marsquakes” and other sources of ground motion, such as meteorite impacts and the faint gravitational effects of Phobos, a Martian moon.
The sensors are in a temperature-controlled and vacuum-sealed box housed within a domed, three-legged pod that resembles an autonomous vacuum cleaner.
The ensemble — protected by a wind and thermal shield — is to be placed on Martian soil by a robot arm, and is connected to the lander by a flexible tether with power and data lines.
But three months before the scheduled launch in early 2016, the French team detected a tiny leak in the tether.
NASA canned the launch. “That was a shock,” said Lognonne.
But this time the cancelation was not final. The mission was rescheduled for May to June 2018, the next window of opportunity for a Mars launch.
 


“Punch in the gut” as scientists find micro plastic in Arctic ice

Chief Scientist for the Northwest Passage Project Dr. Brice Loose drills an ice core in the Arctic as part of an 18-day icebreaker expedition that took place in July and August 2019 in the Northwest Passage, in a still image taken from a handout video obtained by REUTERS on August 14, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 15 August 2019

“Punch in the gut” as scientists find micro plastic in Arctic ice

  • The researchers said the ice they sampled appeared to be at least a year old and had probably drifted into Lancaster Sound from more central regions of the Arctic

LONDON: Tiny pieces of plastic have been found in ice cores drilled in the Arctic by a US-led team of scientists, underscoring the threat the growing form of pollution now poses to marine life in even the remotest waters on the planet.
The researchers used a helicopter to land on ice floes and retrieve the samples during an 18-day icebreaker expedition through the Northwest Passage, the hazardous route linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
“We had spent weeks looking out at what looks so much like pristine white sea ice floating out on the ocean,” said Jacob Strock, a graduate student researcher at the University of Rhode Island, who conducted an initial onboard analysis of the cores.
“When we look at it up close and we see that it’s all very, very visibly contaminated when you look at it with the right tools — it felt a little bit like a punch in the gut,” Strock told Reuters by telephone.
Strock and his colleagues found the material trapped in ice taken from Lancaster Sound, an isolated stretch of water in the Canadian Arctic, which they had assumed might be relatively sheltered from drifting plastic pollution
The team drew 18 ice cores of up to two meters in length from four locations, and saw visible plastic beads and filaments of various shapes and sizes. The scientists said the findings reinforce the observation that micro plastic pollution appears to concentrate in ice relative to seawater.
“The plastic just jumped out in both its abundance and its scale,” said Brice Loose, an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island and chief scientist of the expedition, known as the Northwest Passage Project.
The scientists’ dismay is reminiscent of the consternation felt by explorers who found plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean’s Marianas Trench, the deepest place on Earth, during submarine dives earlier this year.
The Northwest Passage Project is primarily focused on investigating the impact of manmade climate change on the Arctic, whose role as the planet’s cooling system is being compromised by the rapid vanishing of summer sea ice.
But the plastic fragments — known as micro plastic — also served to highlight how the waste problem has reached epidemic proportions. The United Nations estimates that 100 million tons of plastic have been dumped in the oceans to date.
The researchers said the ice they sampled appeared to be at least a year old and had probably drifted into Lancaster Sound from more central regions of the Arctic.
The team plans to subject the plastic they retrieved to further analysis to support a broader research effort to understand the damage plastic is doing to fish, seabirds and large ocean mammals such as whales.
Funded by the National Science Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation in the United States, the expedition in the Swedish icebreaker The Oden ran from July 18 to Aug. 4 and covered some 2,000 nautical miles.