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By Natalie Murphy | Photos courtesy of University Relations

Reaching for the Stars

Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences finds great success

As Arkansas residents prepare for this year’s rare total solar eclipse, thoughts of space are on the minds of many. But for University of Arkansas graduate students and professors at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences, extraterrestrial exploration plays a major role in their lives every day.


When you think of revolutionary space research, Arkansas might not initially come to mind, but that is sure to change with the waves being made by those at ACSPS. More than half the program’s graduates have successfully transitioned to NASA facilities or are working under NASA contracts. Among those looking to join this statistic is content creator and graduate student Alyssa Carson, who recently started sharing her Razorback journey with her 500,000 Instagram followers.


Dr. Vincent Chevrier, research associate professor at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences

Carson chose the U of A to pursue her doctorate while researching within the field of astrobiology, which she said is not offered as commonly as other topics. She had become interested in work by the U of A’s Dr. Timothy Kral focusing on methane-producing microorganisms as possible life forms existing below the surface of Mars. After learning more about Kral’s work and looking into resources ACSPS offered, the choice to continue her education at the U of A was an easy one, Carson said.

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Alyssa Carson, graduate assistant and Ph.D. student in Space and Planetary Sciences

Besides offering an array of research areas, such as astrobiology, planetary geomorphology, small spacecraft development and operations, and galactic and extragalactic astronomy, the U of A offers hands-on experience many other space programs do not provide. It also offers high-end technology within the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Planetary Simulation, which aids students in their research.


“The research I am doing now would not have been possible at my previous university,” Carson said, “so I am very lucky that the (University of Arkansas) has so many resources and tools to provide students the opportunity to do such amazing research.”

Dr. Vincent Chevrier, an associate research professor at ACSPS and director of the Keck Lab, said the interdisciplinary professors truly set the program apart from others across the U.S., as they don’t target one branch over another. The program also offers six simulation chambers within the Keck Lab — two for Mars, one for Venus, one for Saturn’s moon Titan and two for the outer solar system — that emulate different planetary surface environments. The Titan simulator is the largest simulator in the world to focus on Saturn’s giant moon.


Within these simulation chambers, impressive research is being conducted on liquid water and possible brines on Mars. Carson has also used the Mars chambers to research bacteria on its surface.


“Having the opportunity to do this experimental work and have chambers that kind of align with different projects is super unique,” Carson said. “They are really great resources and open the door for more experimental research that I don’t think would have been at many other universities.”

Most recently, Chevrier used the Titan chamber to understand biochemistry in hydrocarbon lakes, which he said is an entirely new study. The procedure is very precise and includes simulating the moon’s atmosphere and correct temperature — around -292 degrees Fahrenheit, per NASA — condensing liquids and injecting them with prepared molecule compounds, and transporting the liquids into the chamber.


“I am a skeptic when it comes to life on other planets, but having some biochemistry — any chemical reaction — is interesting in those environments because it is nothing like we can have on Earth,” Chevrier said. “Because the temperature is so different, the liquids are so different, the chemistry is so different, nothing is like what we know on Earth.”


With the freedom research in an academic setting provides, some of the topics or work by students may be entirely new to NASA methods, Chevrier said. This means, once a student gets to NASA, their ideas could have an influence on research at the organization.


One thing that makes students at the U of A likely candidates in the NASA hiring process is their understanding of overcoming failure regarding hands-on experiments. Chevrier said students have to be prepared that their data may not align with their hypothesis; the ability to push through frustration and find a solution is what prepares them for NASA better than other programs.


A student performing an experiment in the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Planetary SImulation in 2019

ACSPS’ success is all in the numbers. Four of the five most recent doctoral alumni — all women — found work at NASA. Carson looks to join those women in the future, continuing to advocate for women in STEM and encouraging children to follow their dreams as she did.


“Especially being in the Space and Planetary Sciences program, I think when I first came, I was actually very surprised at how many women there were pursuing Ph.D.s,” Carson said, “and I think that was very encouraging just to know there were so many people doing these cool projects, and they were fulfilling their own interests.”


As the program continues to bring on passionate students, much is to be explored and researched at the center. And who knows, maybe in 10 to 15 years the University of Arkansas will have its own mission to space, as Chevrier hopes.

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