From Fergus Falls to Mars [UPDATED]Published 10:58am Wednesday, August 15, 2012 Updated 10:58am Wednesday, August 15, 2012
On Aug. 5, NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars, and while this isn’t exactly a Fergus Falls, Minnesota, U.S. or even an Earthly event, one woman with roots in Fergus Falls is on the team of scientists trying to find out if life could have ever existed on Mars.
Heidi (Kennedy) Manning, daughter of Richard and Mary Kennedy, grew up in the area and graduated from Fergus Falls High School in 1986. Now a professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, Manning has been splitting time between teaching and working with the NASA on the Mars Curiosity project.
Manning said her first taste of physics came from one of her favorite high school teachers, Loren Woolson, who taught physics at Fergus Falls High School from 1960 to 1990.
“As a former teacher, I am very proud of what she has been able to accomplish,” Woolson said. “That’s one of the greatest rewards we receive as teachers. We might not get the reward at the time, but now looking back, I know that I had a little bit to do with her development and success.”
The Mars Curiosity project has been in the works for a long time. Manning began work on the project in 2006, but she will play her main role in the coming months.
Manning will spend the next year on sabbatical. She will be in Greenbelt, Md., for much of the time at NASA’s Goddard space flight center, working with the Curiosity rover.
She will work specifically with the Sample Analysis at Mars, more commonly known as SAM. The microwave oven-size device is a complex chemistry lab that analyzes atoms and molecules in the air and rocks.
“It would be really great to find some complex molecules made of hydrogen and carbons, called hydrocarbons,” she said. “These are the building blocks of life.”
One of the most important findings from the last Mars rover was fairly conclusive evidence that Mars used to have liquid water on its surface, Manning said.
“Water cannot exist in the surface of Mars today, but in the past, Mars was warmer and had a more substantial atmosphere,” she said. “On Earth, wherever we find water, we find living organisms.”
For the next year, Manning will work full time analyzing data coming from the Curiosity to try to find out if life ever existed on Mars. She will use SAM’s identical twin that sits at Goddard space flight center to replicate the findings from Mars.
Manning said she never really set her mind to working in space flight. She took a lot of science classes in high school and decided to get her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. When the opportunity came up to work with NASA, she said she thought it would be really fun and interesting.