While you're trudging through the mud on your way to school, take a look behind you. Can you see footprints imbedded in the soil? Your prints not only confirm that you're wearing the goofy sneakers your mom bought you at the mall; they also contain valuable information about the soil. Did your feet sink a couple of inches or did they make a mere indent? What does that tell you about the density and water content of the soil? And, what does that ultimately tell you about the planet Earth?
Now visualize the Mars Exploration Rover (or MER for short), roaming across the surface of the Red Planet. The Rover leaves unique footprints of its own. These footprints or 'tracks' will be caught on film by cool high-tech cameras, otherwise known as the Rover Hazcams, Navcams, and the Athena Microscopic Imager. And that's where Dr. Lutz Richter comes in. Dr. Richter will focus on the dust, sand, and soil materials that the Rovers will be driving on. "I will try to determine how densely packed or 'hard' they are, and whether there is a layering of different types of soil at the depth that can be accessed with the rover wheels," explains Richter. He will examine both the images of the Rover's own wheel tracks, and close-up images of the surface material.
Richter brings his scientific knowledge to bear on the larger questions concerning the history of Mars. Careful studies of surface materials will reveal new details of the planet's mineralogy that may determine whether water was involved in rock and soil formation. This knowledge, in turn, will lead to clues concerning whether the environmental conditions on Mars may have been conducive to life in the past.
In preparation for the MER Mission, Richter studies the surface materials of other planets. This involves working with simulated planetary soils. Richter studies these so-called 'analogue' soils, which are designed to be similar to the real soil, to observe how they compress and how they can be modified by conditions on Mars.
Conducting a field test in a quarry, Lutz(left) takes ground-penetrating samples for future Mars missions.
Dr. Richter holds both a Master's degree and a Ph.D. in Aerospace engineering, and works at the German Aerospace Center, near Cologne, Germany. He's currently working for NASA as a member of the 2003 Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Mission and is involved in a European mission called 'Mars Express' that also launches next year.
As a kid, Lutz had always been excited about space, watching sci-fi shows such as the original Star Trek series, 'Space 1999,' and peering through his amateur telescope (which he still has). His interest in science was also fueled by the belief that everything in nature can be explained by the laws of physics... "maybe except for the original creation of the universe" he mentions. This belief has been a strong driving force in Richter's life, leading him to a rewarding career in science.
To this day, the most intriguing aspect of Mars, according to Dr. Richter, is the mysterious sequence of events that took place during the history of the Red Planet after it first formed. "Today we can observe what apparently are dry riverbeds and flood channels and perhaps shorelines of an ancient ocean, but we have not yet collected sufficient evidence to--once and for all--confirm the theory of a 'wet past.'" Connected to this problem is the distribution of water on the planet that, today, is in the form of ground ice (or 'permafrost'), water vapor in the atmosphere, and the permanent polar caps.
"What I find particularly fascinating about Mars," explains Richter, "is the water vapor. There is evidence that during the night part of it forms a fog near the surface made of tiny ice crystals because of the low temperature--this phenomenon is very Earth-like." Some of the water vapor actually gets into the pores of the surface soil, "and of course, that could potentially be an environment for life!" says Richter.
So the next time you're sloshing through the mud, remember that the mysteries of the universe are often found in the most unlikely of places--they might even be stuck to the bottom of your shoes.