Growing up in Hawaii, Schelin Ireland used to look up at the night sky and dream of one day setting foot on the Moon. She hasn't made it there yet, but in the meantime, she's helping achieve another milestone for space exploration. This summer, as a Space Grant intern at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Ireland was part of the team building an instrument designed to detect signs of past life on Mars. One of several instruments on NASA's next Mars rover, SHERLOC will be the first of its kind on the Red Planet. Situated at the end of the rover's arm, it will shoot a laser into Martian samples and pick up the unique pattern of light waves, or Raman signatures, that result. Scientists can study those light waves to find out what the samples are made of – and whether they contain ingredients for life. Ireland, a geology and geophysics student at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, spent the summer running a laboratory version of the instrument through practice rounds before the real thing launches next summer on its seven-month journey to the Red Planet aboard the Mars 2020 rover. We caught up with her to ask what it's like to be part of the team searching for evidence of past life on Mars and find out what her future plans are for exploring the Moon.
What are you working on at JPL?
I'm collecting a database of Raman signatures for various organic and inorganic materials that scientists will use to interpret the data we get back from the SHERLOC instrument onboard the Mars 2020 rover.
What is SHERLOC, and what will it do?
SHERLOC is a deep UV Raman/fluorescence spectrometer. It will look for evidence that there was once life on Mars. It will shoot a laser into a sample on Mars and pick up Raman and fluorescence signatures.
Raman spectroscopy looks at vibrations of electrons. So you have a light source that hits a sample and causes those electrons to vibrate, and that causes the light to scatter back with a slightly reduced energy. A spectrometer is going to pick up that scattering as a series of peaks, which are the Raman signatures. They tell us what material we're looking at and if it's organic or inorganic material.
Is this technology also on the Mars Curiosity rover?
SHERLOC will be the very first deep UV Raman spectrometer on another planet. Curiosity mostly uses infrared spectroscopy to study samples on Mars. There is some infrared spectroscopy on Mars 2020 as well, but we can look at things in greater detail with Raman spectroscopy. SHERLOC will be able to detect things at a micrometer scale – very, very, very small particles – which is why it's essential for discovering signs of past life. If there are any biosignatures out there, we want to be able to study the smallest particles that we can.
And this device is at the end of the rover's arm?
It's being mounted at the end of the arm. How it works is the arm is going to abrade the surface a little bit and then it's going to rotate so SHERLOC can do its analysis. You don't want the sample superclose. You want it to be a few centimeters away, because you don't want there to be dust on the instrument. You also don't want it to break because, of course, no one will be able to go and repair it.
What's your average day like on this project?
What I've been doing so far is running calibrations on the laboratory version of SHERLOC. Starting next week, I will start looking at the Raman spectra of various materials. So we're going to be looking at some minerals by themselves, and we're going to be looking at mixtures of organic and inorganic materials together – different percentages of organics to see where the limits are for picking up a signal. We'll upload the data onto a computer and then use software to highlight anything that looks interesting that we want to take a further look at.
What are you studying in school?
I study geology and geophysics at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. I'm also minoring in mathematics.
Are you from Hawaii?
I'm from Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. I just did an island hop to go to college. They have a fantastic program for what I want to study, so it's really great that I'm able to study over there and have all the opportunities that made it possible for me to get this internship.
What opportunities lead to your internship here?
NASA Hawaii Space Grant. I did a traineeship with them last semester on something very similar to this, but it was more in the context of the Mars SuperCam [which will also go on the Mars 2020 rover]. We did Raman spectroscopy on that using the laboratory version of SuperCam. We were also looking for detection limits for that instrument and measuring various materials.
After that, I was looking at internships for this summer, and I saw that this one was very similar to what I was working on at UH Manoa. I was very lucky to get it. NASA Hawaii Space Grant is funding the internship. So I did the traineeship with them, and now I'm doing this internship through them.
What got you interested in pursuing science as a career?
Where I'm from, you can see the night sky very clearly on most nights, and I have always wanted to go to the Moon. That's what got me interested in space. I would make dioramas and posters of the solar system and put them all around my room. My mom would take me to the Ellison S. Onizuka Space Center a lot, which is right by the Kona airport. I would read a lot of space books. I thought it was fascinating, but then I kind of got into other things as I grew up.
When I started high school, I joined the science competition team, and my school won first place in the Science Olympiad Regionals for Astronomy. I was one of two people from my school who competed in the astronomy portion of the competition. That really rekindled my interest in science, so I decided this was something that I absolutely wanted to go into.
What's your ultimate career goal?
My ultimate career goal is to be a research scientist studying planetary science and to be an astronaut. One thing that inspired me when I was in high school was knowing that I attended the same high school as Hawaii's first astronaut, Ellison Onizuka. It would be an honor to follow in his footsteps and become Hawaii's first female astronaut.
So if you could play any role in NASA's plans to send humans back to the Moon and on to Mars, would you want it to be as an astronaut?
It would be an honor to be involved in any way. If I were a mission specialist, I could set up a little lab where I analyze samples. I'd fix any equipment that we have onboard, fix any instrumentation that we have onboard and maybe measure moonquakes or marsquakes from there. It would be great to do any little thing that I possibly can. Just to have the experience of being on another celestial body would be absolutely amazing on its own, of course.
Back to the current mission you're working on: What do you hope to contribute to Mars 2020?
By the time my internship is through, I want to make sure that I have used the knowledge that I have developed from the research experience last semester and all of my geology classes and be able to apply it to what we are doing here. I want to make sure that the database I am helping to develop includes minerals and other materials that we are likely to find in the area where the Mars 2020 rover is going to land.
How does it feel to know you could play a role in discovering signs of past life on Mars?
It is a huge honor to know that I am a part – even a small part – of this big mission.
What has been the most unique JPL or NASA experience you've had during your time here?
Being here is a unique experience of its own. I haven't experienced anything like this before, and it is absolutely wonderful. I feel like instead of being a student or some extra labor, I am actually treated as a junior colleague and a research scientist. I'm part of this big scientific team, trying to accomplish something of real significance.
This Q&A is part of an ongoing series telling the story of what it takes to design, build, land, and operate a rover on Mars, told from the perspective of students interning with NASA's Perseverance Mars rover mission. › Read more from the series
The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of STEM Engagement’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.