UA Geosciences Student Participates in NASA’s Women’s Mars Curiosity Day

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UA Department of Geosciences and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory July 2, 2014

Shaunna Morrison, a UA geosciences doctoral student who works on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, was one of the female engineers and scientists who helped run the Curiosity rover during Women’s Curiosity Day.

Shaunna Morrison works with the single-crystal X-ray diffractometer in the Downs Mineralogy lab at the University of Arizona. (Photo: Beatriz Verdugo/UA News)

During one of her stints at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Shaunna Morrison got to play with the "scarecrow," a replica of the Curiosity rover. The scarecrow lacks the instrumentation of Curiosity, but features identical wheels and base, and is exactly weighted and calibrated so it behaves as it would on Mars. "We can control it with a smartphone, and it was pretty neat to tell it to spin its wheels this way and move backwards and things like that." (Photo: Thomas Bristow/NASA)

University of Arizona geosciences doctoral student Shaunna Morrison joined 75 other female engineers and scientists to perform 76 of the 102 jobs required to run NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover on Women's Curiosity Day.

Every day the rover works on Mars requires several dozen rover team members completing tasks on Earth.

Women's Curiosity Day, held June 26, was part of a larger NASA celebration surrounding the Mars Science Laboratory's completion of its first Martian year of exploration. The rover landed on Mars on Aug. 6, 2012. June 26 marked one Martian year – 687 Earth days – since that milestone.

Although she spent some of the last Martian year at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Morrison was in Houston while she took part in Women's Curiosity Day, helping with mission operations via the Internet and telephone. She's in Texas for a summer internship with Chevron. 

Her duties included executing a "downlink" – which means receiving a data transmission from the rover's CheMin instrument. She used that data to assess and report on the health and safety of the instrument. CheMin – short for chemistry and mineralogy – is an X-ray diffractometer that shoots X-rays at a rock sample. The X-rays interact with the electrons in the rock and send back signals that are like fingerprints, revealing the three-dimensional structure of a given mineral.

"I am honored to be surrounded by world-class scientists, engineers and technicians," Morrison said. "Women's Curiosity day is a time in which we acknowledge the great scientists that have come before, such as Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin, along with the contributions of those on the outstanding NASA Mars Science Laboratory team."

Her geosciences faculty adviser, Robert Downs, helped develop the CheMin instrument and its software. He likens it to a tricorder, the instrument used on the "Star Trek" television show that could be waved over materials to identify their chemical composition.

Downs, a UA professor of geosciences, has accumulated the largest database of minerals in the world. About 7,000 small vials, neatly labeled and stored in cabinets in his lab, represent about 3,500 species of the approximate 5,000 known Earth minerals, more than any other lab in the world. The scientists will use that database to figure out what minerals make up the sample that Curiosity scooped up.  

Morrison has an ongoing roles on the mission as a CheMin instrument payload uplink/downlink lead and as a science team member. As a PUDL, she controls CheMin, telling it to prepare to receive a sample, to analyze a sample and to transmit the data back to Earth. Once the data are transmitted to JPL, she performs an assessment to ensure the activities were executed successfully. As a science team member, she participates in discussions on future plans, both immediate and long-term. She reports her findings through the publication of scientific articles, and has co-authored two Science covers in the last year. For engineers and scientists, this is like getting your picture on the cover of "Rolling Stone" twice in a row.

Areas of expertise on Women's Curiosity Day ranged from soil science to software engineering and from chemistry to cartography. Duties ranged from assessing temperature data freshly arriving from Mars to choosing where to point the rover's cameras. Descriptions of the roles, along with names and locations of the team members who filled them on June 26, are available at

In addition to the engineers and managers working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, other members of the June 26 team, like Morrison, worked from 11 other U.S. states and four other nations: Canada, France, Russia and Spain. Each of the rover's 10 science instruments has people responsible for evaluating newly received data and planning to get more data. Other scientists participating in operations serve on theme groups that pull together information from multiple instruments and choose priorities for upcoming activities.

"Women's Curiosity Day is a reminder of how much progress U.S. academics have made in terms of women becoming scientists," Downs said. "Shaunna is just great at her job, and it's terrific that she is part of the mission."

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