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Way Cool Scientist!

Morten Madsen While dusting the kitchen hutch and grumbling about the tedious chores that your parents make you do, do you ever glance at your dust cloth and wonder what those powdery black flecks could tell you about the Earth's inception? Dust particles have the power to unlock secrets about the history of a planet. So, as NASA scientists gear up to examine the data from the current MER (Mars Exploration Rover) mission, they plan to give special attention to those seemingly innocent 'flecks'.

Much of the dust on Mars is highly magnetic, and our newest "Way Cool Scientist", Dr. Morten Madsen believes that this magnetic dust could reveal clues about the planet's geological story. An examination of the dust will help scientists determine what minerals are causing the magnetism, and whether they can be traced back to ancient waters, to volcanic or microbial activity, or even to interplanetary space. The rovers will collect images of the Martian dust samples and send them to Earth for analysis.

Since Madsen can't visit Mars himself, he'll have to rely on the rovers to collect the scientific data. The rovers carry 3 sets of magnets (each varying in strength) to attract all forms of magnetic dust. The first set of magnets is attached to the RAT (Rock Abrasion Tool). As the RAT grinds into the outer rock surface, the magnets attract the flying dust particles. The second set is mounted at an angle to encourage non-magnetic particles to slide off. And the third set is placed on top of the rover deck in direct view of the Pancam, one of the rover's cameras. This last set is strong enough to deflect the paths of wind-carried magnetic dust. The Pancam will capture images of the magnets, allowing scientist to thoroughly examine the magnetic material.

As the Co-Investigator on the MER project, Madsen, along with seven other scientists and several students, is responsible for the magnetic properties experiments. He is also a member of the camera team; he'll keep an eye on the quality of images sent back to Earth during the night, and program the cameras for the following day. Madsen and his colleagues also study Martian meteorites that have landed on Earth, some of which are as old as the sun. In all these activities, Madsen and his teammates aim to research the patterns and properties of Martian dust, hoping to uncover new information about the Red Planet's mysterious past.

When Madsen isn't examining stray meteorites, he can be found in the classroom at the Niels Bohr Institute for Astronomy at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. As an Associate Professor, Madsen teaches courses in elementary and quantum physics, and electromagnetism. He is also responsible for a laboratory for Mössbauer Spectroscopy. Mössbauer Spectroscopy is a method for determining the composition and measurement of iron-bearing minerals in rock, soil, and dust. When asked about what he enjoys most about his job, he answers without hesitation, "Discussing physics with bright and curious students and interpreting Mössbauer spectra."

Madsen is a husband and proud father of two. His daughter, Stine, is fourteen, and his son, Mikkel, is eighteen. His family, he insists, has to put up with his "long hours and frequent excursions out of town to attend MER training sessions." But when he's home, he loves riding mountain bikes with his kids in the beautiful Danish forests, and listening to a wide spectrum of music ranging from Beethoven's string quartets to rock and roll.

The moon landing in 1969 was a defining moment for him – as a kid growing up in Denmark, Madsen was fascinated by science. He remembers sitting in front of the television with his whole family, watching the historical event. As he got older, he became intrigued with robotic technology and magnetism. These passions have directed his career path, leading him to his current set of titles: Associate Professor, member of the NASA-sponsored MER mission, and most importantly, "Way Cool Scientist".

With all of his varied interests, one thing is for sure: even in the midst of juggling a family, student papers, rover data, and Mössbauer spectra, Morten Madsen will be careful not to overlook the 'powdery flecks' that settle on the Martian surface…and neither should you!