Shannon Curry appointed principal investigator of a NASA Mars project

photo of Mars from space
Adam Hadhazy/Creative Commons
NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission, which is set to explore and understand the current and future atmospheric conditions on Mars, appointed UC Berkeley researcher Shannon Curry as its principal investigator. Photo by AdamHadhazy under CC BY-SA 4.0

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UC Berkeley researcher Shannon Curry was appointed as the principal investigator of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, mission at NASA.

Curry, 38, is now one of the youngest principal investigators of any NASA mission, according to a UC Berkeley news article. She leads the MAVEN mission, which is one of only three NASA satellite missions studying Mars and the only one run by a woman, the article added.

The mission is using a satellite, which was launched in 2013 and is now orbiting Mars, to research how the red planet’s atmosphere and climate evolved into what it is today, according to Curry. The research would provide insight on why liquid water is unable to exist on Mars, as liquid water requires a certain amount of atmospheric pressure to maintain its liquid state.

“Earth has about one bar of atmosphere; Mars has six or seven millibars, so six- or seven-thousandths of a bar,” Curry said. “As a consequence, water cannot exist in a stable liquid form. Where did the atmosphere go and why? That’s one of MAVEN’s main primary science goals.”

According to Curry, scientists know that liquid water did exist on Mars in the past. Rovers on the planet’s surface have discovered geographic features, such as riverbeds as well as minerals that formed in the presence of water.

Curry said she joined the MAVEN team as a postdoctoral in 2013 in which she analyzed the data collected from the MAVEN satellite. She added that she also worked on other projects, and has experience with both the science and engineering aspects of the mission.

As the new principal investigator, Curry will manage the mission’s operations, orbit, fuel usage and the data pipeline and processing, according to the UC Berkeley news article.

In her new role, Curry said she looks forward to researching how Mars’s atmosphere will react to the convergence of three phenomena in the next few years. These phenomena are the perihelion, or the point when Mars is closest to the sun in its orbit, the peak of solar activity in 2024 and a major dust season.

“We have a really nice way to analyze quiet conditions and extreme conditions,” Curry said. “We want to have an idea of what the extreme conditions on Mars look like for future human exploration.”

Curry praised her colleagues on the project, saying she is fortunate to work with a team of “this caliber,” and that working with her teammates at NASA has been both a “pleasure and a privilege.”

She also urged aspiring female scientists to pursue their dreams.

“If something excites you, definitely go do it,” Curry said. “We have a limited time on this earth, so make it worthwhile.”

Contact Christopher Ying at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @ChrisYingg.