Schelin Ireland, wearing lab goggles and purple gloves, holds a sample under a laboratory version of the SHERLOC instrument for Mars 2020.

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.

Ireland wears lab goggles and a University of Hawaii T-shirt. She sits in front of several screens and the lab version of SHERLOC.

Ireland sits in the lab where she was helping test the SHERLOC instrument this summer as an intern at JPL. Image credit: NASA-JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

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.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

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.

TAGS: Higher Education, Internships, STEM, Engineering, Interns, College, Robotics, Mars, Rover, Mars 2020, Mars Sample Return

  • Kim Orr
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JPL intern Omar Rehman

While the world of engineering is a familiar one to Omar Rehman (his major is transportation design and he comes from a family of engineers) his internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is all about bridging the gap between form and function. NASA’s next Mars rover, currently in development and planned for launch in 2020, will acquire a set of carefully selected samples of rocks and surface material and store them in sealed tubes for possible return to Earth by a future mission. Returning samples from Mars is a complicated problem. So, a team at JPL is taking an in-depth look at how it could be done. In addition to using his transportation design background to help the team come up with ideas for a vessel that could bring the samples to Earth, Rehman is using visual arts to convey why a “sample-return mission” would be such a big deal. We caught up with the Art Center College of Design student to find out how he’s using art and design to help tell the story of how we're designing missions that might bring the first samples back from Mars.

What are you working on at JPL?

I am on a study team exploring options for a pair of missions that could take key next steps to bring samples back from Mars. I work in JPL’s Mobility and Robotics Systems section. I was primarily brought on to do visuals that translate what the mission concept is designed to do in a more cinematic and visual way so people can understand it. However, since getting here, I've been wearing multiple hats: working on visuals but also picking up my engineering hat from back in the day. I’m illustrating scenes for the Mars Sample Return study and conveying my ideas for a transportation vessel that could be used for the endeavor. The bit of engineering experience I had when I was younger has helped me understand and elaborate on the functional and mechanical side of these ideas. I'm absorbing all the knowledge, learning terminology and really getting into it – living the dream as an intern!

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What is a typical day like for you?

What's most important for a designer or design student is to get out your ideas. You've got to keep the practice up. So I actually sketch every morning. If you look at the wall above my desk, it's all sketches: random sketches and concept satellites, maybe some entertainment ideas, some cars here and there, spaceships – who knows? – just anything to keep my juices flowing and keep my creativity going. Then, I put that creative mind to rest for a little bit and start again.

I’ve also been working on matrices to evaluate the criteria of sample-return mission concepts and the types of innovative variations that would be compatible within the whole system. My work as a designer also comes into play when I create both visual and verbal documents that will help stakeholders understand technical aspects of the designs.

When I get home, I’ll maybe have a snack or relax and unwind, then sketch a little more before I go to bed, and do it all again.

What was the ultimate goal of your project?

I really want to convey the options for Mars Sample Return in a very cinematic way so that people can remember it. And then in terms of the engineering side, before I leave, I want to conceive a concept for a system to help transport the Mars samples once they have been captured that would be innovative but also be realistic and work within the aerospace parameters.

How might your project help the average person one day?

I'm conveying the entire story, from liftoff in 2020 to getting to Mars, collecting samples, potentially getting back up off the surface and heading back to Earth. I think it'll help people remember what Mars 2020 is all about and how it fits in the larger story of future missions that may return a sample to Earth. Hopefully they'll remember those images for years, along with the whole mission's success.

Omar Rehman works on an illustration at JPL

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier | + Expand image

What is the most JPL- or NASA-unique experience you've had so far?

So many! Meeting the awesome interns. Seeing everything around JPL that's being developed and tested. That's so cool. Also, the intern before me is now interning at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in the Mojave Desert. He invited the whole team to go visit. We got to see the F-15B Eagle that is being used for NASA research. We looked at concepts they're coming up with – just crazy stuff like you'd see in movies, but it's actually being built!

How do you think you're contributing to NASA/JPL missions and science?

I think bringing the visual-designer mentality to this engineering-driven community is really good. I think that designers can contribute to these kinds of communities. We can help engineers translate ideas really fast. Maybe there are some skills that engineers lack in design and some skills that designers lack in engineering, but when they come together there's a good balance of work output and ideas, and a good combination of solid engineering and design aesthetics coming together to create a beautiful machine. There's beauty in function, but there's also beauty in function being balanced with an appropriate aesthetic.

If you could travel to any place in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

I get really sci-fi about this stuff. Imagine a theoretical scenario in which you have infinite timelines moving in parallel. Let's say it's like a guitar, and each string is you on a different timeline, moving in different places with different stories. If there is somewhere I can go that's either inside this galaxy or outside that can bring me to these different timelines and lets me come back and explore my own reality or different realities, that's where I want to go.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’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.

TAGS: Internships, Higher Education, Career Guidance, Mars 2020, Mars Sample Return

  • Lyle Tavernier
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Amanda Allen holds out a rock containing a microfossil in front of the science building at JPL.

To prepare her team to analyze the first sample returned from Mars in the future, JPL intern Amanda Allen is exploring how she can get the biggest science from the smallest places. We caught up with Allen, an Earth science major at UC San Diego who also has a background in costume design, to find out what the tiniest and rarest fossils could tell us about ancient life on Earth – and beyond.

What are you working on at JPL?

I am trying to develop a method to analyze the isotopic ratios of organic carbon preserved in individual microfossils.

Say again?

As living creatures on Earth, one of the most important elements to us is carbon. When we eat food, we are adding carbon to our bodies, and depending on what we eat and where we live, we get different types of carbon, which are called isotopes. Some isotopes are heavier than others, but living organisms have a tendency to process the lighter ones, which we can measure as a ratio.

When a creature dies, and if it becomes a fossil, any carbon that is preserved will hold a record of its isotope ratio. If we can get that fossil, we can use a mass spectrometer instrument to separate the lighter and heavier isotopes to see what that ratio is. Then we can use that to figure out what sort of lifestyle and eating habits the organism had.

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But usually, you don’t get a single fossil. Sometimes your sample is what was once sludge at the bottom of a lake, and that makes it difficult to study a specific fossil because there are lots of things that lived in the lake and contributed to that organic-rich sludge.

My lab is investigating some of the earliest evidence of the evolution of life on Earth, and one technique is to examine very tiny fossils – and there are not that many of them. So my project is working towards being able to take an individual microfossil and analyze it with our instruments. Right now, the state-of-the-art method needs a sample with about 10 times as much carbon as these microfossils to work properly. There’s also a lot of possible contamination with that method. So I'm working on trying to get a different method to work.

How does this work play into NASA missions and science?

We're planning on eventually getting samples back to Earth sometime in the future after the Mars 2020 rover lands, and we want to be able to get the most information out of the tiniest amount of material so that more people can have the opportunity to experiment on it.

What are the samples that you’re working with?

The samples that I'm working with are these little blobs of organic, carbon-walled microfossils. We don't really know what they are. They're called acritarchs, which is basically a lump-all term for, “of uncertain origin,” but they're some of the oldest biological signatures on Earth.

What's an average day like for you?

Amanda Allen stands in the abcLab at JPL

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

I’ve been working with the same lab over the past 3 years. At first, I was trying to get a handle on imaging the samples, studying them with a light microscope and our scanning electron microscope, looking for things like whether the surfaces had any rock bits left on them, estimating how much carbon they had, and then preparing them to be analyzed.

This summer, the instrument I’m working with is this really cool device called a Pyroprobe. It has a little platinum wire coil, and you fit a tiny little sample tube into it and the platinum coil will heat up to around 1,500 degrees Celsius [about 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit]. We use oxygen to combust the sample so any carbon on it will turn into carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide can get passed to our isotope ratio mass spectrometer.

How do you feel that you're contributing to NASA missions and science?

I think the people I work with have a really good vision and intention when going about investigations like this. We want to be the ones who they hand the samples to when they come back from Mars. We want to show that we're taking every necessary precaution to treat the samples with care and that we have instruments that can look at thin sections of rocks and make images of them that can be shared instantaneously. I really like being a part of that.

I also feel like my superpower is being able to find things. So if there's something cool to find on Mars related to astrobiology, I think I can help with that. Finding life or signs of life on Mars is the coolest application of my superpower [laughs].

Amanda Allen shows the instrument she's working with this summer

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr | + Expand image

Before taking the science route, you were involved in theater and costume design. What made you choose to study science?

I had a really hard time choosing between costuming and geology for a long time. But then I realized that they didn't have to be separate things, or I could use one to kind of fuel the other one, and use an understanding of the natural world to inspire my art. Being able to actualize new ways of understanding the universe and helping other people understand it is really important, and I think that's where art comes in.

What's the most JPL or NASA unique experience you've had so far?

I think it's just being able to start up a conversation in the lunch line with someone and hear about this whole other experience and the important work that they are doing. People here are excited about what they do and excited to come to work. They want to cross boundaries. It’s people’s job to be the intermediary between the engineering side of things and the science side of things, and I’m totally into that emphasis on communication and bridging traditionally divided disciplines.

If you could travel anywhere in space, where would you go and what would you do there?

Hiking around Pluto would be pretty cool. I never thought I would say that until I saw the images of Pluto from New Horizons. I also realized recently that I'm more interested in going to Mars than another place on Earth. I'm like, oh yeah, Prague is cool, but I'm just more interested in Mars.


Explore JPL’s summer and year-round internship programs and apply at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/intern

The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of Education’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.

TAGS: Women in STEM, Interns, Internships, College, Higher Education, STEM, Science, Geology, Mars 2020, Mars Sample Return, Earth Science

  • Kim Orr
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