Penn State diploma first; Mars second

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State students Rachel Kronyak and John Fegyveresi have never met, but when they do, it could be on a Martian mission in the Canadian Arctic.

Kronyak, a senior in geosciences, and Fegyveresi, who is earning a doctorate in geosciences, are among the 62 semi-finalists competing for a chance to spend a year at a field station in the Arctic where they’ll be simulating exploration of Mars. The Mars Society is organizing the mission, Mars Arctic 365, which Kronyak said she learned about while reading the news one day.

“I’m obsessed with Mars,” she said. “So anything about Mars piques my interest.”

She and Fegyveresi both applied — unknown to each other — for a shot at one of six spots on the final mission, which will take place in 2015. Kronyak said she learned another Penn Stater had been picked for the semi-finals when she was looking through the list to see if she was one of more than 200 applicants who had made it.

Now that they are semi-finalists, their next step is making it as one of 18 finalists, who will spend two weeks this August on Devon Island in a sort of testing ground for 2015. From there, the six science-minded explorers chosen for Mars Arctic 365 will spend a year in the cold arctic environment, cut off from most other people, studying what life on Mars might be like.

For Fegyveresi, who has spent five seasons working in Antarctica, the trip would be a dream.

“I would love an opportunity to do polar work in the Arctic, particularly studying the surface snow,” he said.

And, he said he sees exploration of Mars as the next step in the evolution of exploration.

“I think inherently we are all, at some level, explorers. But Mars is still quite a ways off,” he said. “If I can contribute, even in the smallest way, to the first step of making that exploration possible — even if it is part of step one of 1,000 with this simulation — I think that in itself will be pretty rewarding.”

Fegyveresi is working on his doctorate with Richard Alley, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences, on the physical properties of ice found in the ice sheets and ice cores in West Antarctica.

Part of the application for Mars Arctic 365, is outlining a research project, and Fegyveresi proposed studying the net surface energy at the site by deploying solar and meteorological sensors around the station that measure fluxes in incoming and outgoing energy. That would relate to his work studying changes in surface snow, and has implications for solar power efficiency and the potential for the growth of food crops.

For her research project, Kronyak has proposed studying rock outcrops on Devon Island as part of a project with Tim White, senior researcher in the Earth and Environmental System Institute in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

Kronyak notes that the outcrops are thought to contain minerals that may be analogous to mineral concretions — known as “blueberries” because of their color and shape — that are found on Mars.

“That’s the big push — to look for life in the universe.”

Kronyak said that her obsession with extraterrestrial exploration started in high school when she attended space camp, something that inspired her to want to work for NASA. She has had that chance twice with internships at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

The work from one of those internships is now the focus of her senior thesis and inspiration for the trip to Mars simulation.

For her thesis, she used the Mars-simulator chamber at the Goddard Flight Center to study whether bacteria has the ability to survive in Mars-like conditions. One reason answering that question is key is because people would bring bacteria with them if and when they do make it to Mars. So, it would be crucial to differentiate between signs of life that were on Mars before people arrived and signs of life that really came from contamination by people.

Kronyak, who plans to go to graduate school where she’d like to study Mars, would put that off for a year for a chance to go on the year-long mission to a place that, while it isn’t Mars, might provide insight into the Red Planet.

For more on the Mars Society and the Mars Arctic 365 mission, go to: http://ma365.marssociety.org/.

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Last Updated April 07, 2014