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Way Cool Scientist! Paulo Souza

If you hear an ambulance in the distance, stand perfectly still. Listen closely, and you will hear the pitch of the siren change as it moves. It will start out higher than its stationary pitch, slide down as it passes, and continue lower as it gets farther away. The movement of the sound source changes its frequency. This vibration process is called the Doppler effect. The Mössbauer effect is similar, but it has to do with light instead of sound. Our newest Way Cool Scientist, Paulo Souza, has a special place in his heart for the Mössbauer Spectrometer. On Mars, the Mössbauer Spectrometer emits an invisible light into the iron-bearing minerals — the very iron that makes the Red Planet red — and, since minerals absorb light at different frequencies, this instrument can determine their composition and abundance by observing light wavelengths. The Mössbauer Spectrometer is also capable of examining the magnetic properties of surface materials and identifying minerals formed in hot, watery environments that could preserve fossil evidence of Martian life.

Paulo is a Payload Downlink Lead (PDL) and the Long-Term Documentarian for the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission. As a PDL, he receives the Mössbauer data from the rovers, verifies that it meets the scientists’ expectations, and makes sure that the data is complete. The PDL is also responsible for analyzing data and reporting the results to the other scientists in daily meetings. As the documentarian for the Long-Term Planning Science Group, he addresses relevant science hypotheses, and keeps tabs on the status of the mission in relationship to long-term objectives.

Paulo is also a tutor for the Athena Student Interns Program (ASIP), an organization that involves students from around the country in the MER mission. Thirteen teams of high school students and their teachers worked with mentors from the Athena Science Team from May 2003 through May 2004 and were part of the Science Team at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) during real-time operations on Mars. His students measured the influence of temperature on the Mössbauer spectrum recorded on Mars. This data provided important information about the health status of the instrument, and was used in the formal calibration process.

The planet’s volcanoes, polar ice caps, and canyons captivate Paulo, but he’s particularly interested in the similarities between Mars and Earth. Hematite, the mineral that is supposedly responsible for putting the “Red” in “Red Planet” is native to Earth as well — and we know that on Earth, hematite was formed in a very wet environment. This gives scientists reason to believe that this mineral, along with many others, could be instrumental in the process of understanding the planet’s mysterious past, especially regarding water and the implications of life. “The minerals of Mars in both rock and soil are like the planet’s history books,” says Paulo.

Paulo is also excited about applying space technology to earthly inquiries. For example, he uses an engineering version of MIMOS II (a miniaturized Mössbauer Spectrometer) for air pollution studies in Brazil. “In the field of archaeology,” says Paulo, “we can use this technology to learn more about the materials used in ancient Greek pottery, masks used by Gladiators in the Roman Empire, and manuscripts from the Middle Ages.”

Paulo is a physicist with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, and is currently working on his dissertation for his Ph.D. He is a technical analyst for a mining company called CVRD in Brazil. He’s always been a curious person, always interested in the whys and hows. He believes that discipline, organization, and patience are the three most important attributes for pursuing a career in science. Paulo believes that for him, becoming a scientist was one part natural progression, one part hard work.

Each day, Paulo learns more and more about the mineralogy of Mars through his work on the MER mission. He believes that the more information we can gather, the closer we will be to addressing that million-dollar question — or perhaps I should say, a host of questions: how much liquid water was there, for how long, and when did it disappear? The next step will be to look at potential life forms and possible associations between life on Mars and life on Earth. While we don’t yet have conclusive answers, Paulo, with the help of his MER colleagues and some pretty cool technology, is working hard to put the puzzle pieces together.