Curious About Life: Interview with Michael Meyer

Categories: Interview Mars

Michael Meyer is the program scientist for the MSL mission. As such, he played a key role in organizing it long before it let Earth’s gravity, and continues to keep things running smoothly as Curiosity rolls across Mars.
Credit: NASA

The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover has 10 science instruments, and each will be used in the coming weeks and months to help characterize the environment of Mars and determine if the planet ever had the potential for life.

While some scientists are involved in working directly with the instruments, NASA’s Michael Meyer serves as the program scientist for the entire mission.

What kind of science do you generally do?

I started as an oceanographer, then moved into life in extreme environments. I’m a microbiologist — actually a biologist, really. I study single-celled plants, phytoplankton, algae, that sort of thing.

I’ve been at NASA headquarters for awhile. At first, I was running the exobiology program. I was also planetary protection officer. Then I helped to start astrobiology and ran that. Now I’m the lead scientist for the Mars program.

What do you do specifically for MSL?

I’m the program scientist for the mission. Also, as the lead scientist for Mars program, I have an overall responsibility for the science that gets done on MSL, along with all of other Mars missions. I don’t get bored!

The program scientist is specifically responsible for the science of the mission. MSL is my first planetary mission in which I helped initiate it and was program scientist for it, did the original selection for instruments, and got to see it through to actually landing on the surface and doing the science.

Initially, you have to have a mission concept—what should it do and how it fits into the overall program. That took several years of interaction with the science team and the engineers. Once you have a good idea of what the mission is, and what want it to do, and get other people to sign up to it, you then start getting the mission going.

You have a solicitation for the instruments, and some negotiation with foreign partners that want to contribute. You have a competition, and from that you select a suite of instruments that will work well together and complement each other. My job is to put out the solicitation, run a review, then organize the results of the review and make recommendations to the associate administrator about what would be a good suite of instruments on the rover. That is folded into some instruments that other international partners have already offered to contribute. For instance, the Russian DAN instrument and the Spanish REMS instrument were outright contributed to us. The other foreign contribution was the APXS, but that was proposed and went through the competition like every other instrument.

You make recommendations to the associate administrator saying, here are several good groupings of instruments that would make a good mission. The associate administrator makes a selection. Then the rest is notifying everybody, getting money out to people, getting the engineers wised up to what instruments are going to be onboard. Finally, you actually begin the process of really building the rover.

Part of Meyer’s responsibility was folding the Russian-contributed Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) instrument into NASA’s rover Curiosity. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Russian Federal Space Agency

The main part of the job is keeping enough interest in the mission to keep it going. Specifically for the mission itself, you have to make sure the science is preserved as you go along. You have to make compromises about what the capabilities of the rover actually are, compared to what you hoped they would be — how much room there is, how much mass you can carry, what the power requirements are, recognition that some of instruments as proposed aren’t going to work so they need to be done differently.

One of the instruments, RAD – the radiation detector – the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate (HEOMD) funded it because the instrument measures the radiation on the surface of Mars. That’s something that the human space flight component is particularly concerned about — what the radiation environment of Mars is like, and understanding that before you send humans. Part of my job, then, was convincing another directorate to fund an instrument, and making sure that there are adequate resources.

Then the job is organizing the science team. That’s not a one-person job, because the project scientist is the one who deals most directly with the principle investigators and their instruments, getting things delivered on time, and team meetings, and that sort of thing.

Now that Curiosity is on Mars, my job is still to encourage public participation in the mission, make sure the public hears about what’s going on with the mission, report back to headquarters about what’s going on with the mission, and also make sure the mission is in fact addressing the broader goal of understanding whether or not Gale Crater and Mount Sharp have ever been places that were habitable.

One of the amazing things that we did over the last four years is to organize a landing site selection process. This involves a good portion of the Mars community. In looking at all of the places on Mars that we could go, and picking places on Mars that we wanted to go, we had a series of five workshops. Everybody said, here’s my favorite place and why. It was a great planet debate, and we ended up with four landing sites that geologically, morphologically, and mineralogically showed evidence of having interacted with water. It came down to picking Gale Crater as being slightly more popular than others. Part of it is because it shows a huge sedimentary record — you see layering after layering after layering. It promises to give good chunk Martian history as we explore those layers. Now that we’ve landed there, and are looking, it looks to be an even better landing site than we had hoped.

Exploring the world around it. Curiosity takes a look at the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

We had identified from orbit two mineralogical assemblages that interacted with water, and promised to tell us something about different parts of Martian history. It turns out that where we landed looks really interesting and it has sediments in it that could be lake sediments, if there was a lake. We hoped that something like that might be going on. From orbit, we knew that this area had a high thermal inertia. If you had sediments, they might be cemented together by water. The site has three different geomorphological segments to it. What that implies is that, by going there, we can actually explore three geological units almost simultaneously. At worst, we’ll be exploring sediments that have come off the crater rim or Mount Sharp itself, and at best it could be lake sediments. It just looks really interesting. The whole area is spectacular.

How could your work help us to answer astrobiology questions?

This is the first astrobiology mission since Viking in 1976. The over-reaching goal of the mission is to study a region of Mars and determine whether or not it has ever been able to or is still able to support microbial life. That is directly related to astrobiology, looking to see Mars’ biological potential.

If you look at the 1995 NASA publication called “An Exobiology Strategy for Mars Exploration,” it had five steps for how to go about exploring Mars so that you could understand its biological potential. This mission is step number three. Step number four is sample return, and step number five is humans to Mars. Of course, the report has more to it, but that’s sort of the thumbnail.

The bottom line of my involvement, besides MSL being a critical mission to the overall Mars program, is the formulation, and seeing it become a reality of a mission to Mars that’s directly addressing astrobiology concerns. It’s kind of hard to imagine a better job than that.