NASA and SRU’s Patrick Burkhart set sights on Mars
By Gordon Ovenshine
Issue date: March 01, 2011 on SRU News and Information
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – In June, Patrick Burkhart, Slippery Rock University professor of geography, geology and the environment, will land on “Mars.” Burkhart will step onto a plain of red dust, sand and rock beneath a black and starry sky and conduct research.
The only catch is that this “Mars” isn’t the fourth planet from the sun, but rather a planetary analogue site in the state of Washington. NASA recently recruited Burkhart to co-lead a student-research exhibition to the Channeled Scablands in eastern Washington, where he and a team of 20 undergraduates will study the landscape for similarities to possible landing sites on Mars (the real one.)
NASA offered Burkhart a consultancy with its Lunar and Planetary Institute Academy, a summer internship program for undergraduate and graduate students. Burkhart will supervisor the students and research. The primary objective of the program is to inspire the next generation of scientists to pursue the technological challenges involved with space exploration.
The high point of the internship, Burkhart said, is a field trip to a planetary analogue site to conduct research supervised by NASA mentors. NASA selected 20 undergraduates from across the U.S. majoring in geology, physics, mathematics, technology, engineering for the expedition to the Channeled Scablands.
“NASA is preening its next generation of employees, bringing their talents together under the challenge of space exploration,” Burkhart said.
Burkhart, an expert in hydrogeology, said the terrestrial landscape in eastern Washington shows similar erosion patterns to what scientists observe on Mars.
“There are features on Mars that are similar to where we are going in Washington,” he said. “The area has incredibly cool geology – and a legacy of radical scientific debate – and can be considered an analogue for areas on the surface of Mars. NASA is planning the journey of a lander soon to be sent to Mars and has whittled the choices down to four potential landing sites.”
NASA became aware of Burkhart more than a year ago when the professor guest lectured at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Burkhart talked in part about the student-faculty research exhibitions he has led for more than 10 years with SRU students to the Badlands in South Dakota.
Burkhart said he will supervise students’ research papers after the fieldwork in Washington and is excited about the endeavor. NASA will send the team to the field in June, although the specific date has not been set.
“I am getting a field trip, a stipend and an affiliation with NASA – it’s the filet mignon and caviar of opportunities,” Burkhart said.
NASA’s Lunar and Planetary Institute was established during the Apollo missions to foster international collaboration and serve as a space program think tank.