KU doctoral student develops radar to find water on Mars
What started out as a dissertation project for a University of Kansas graduate student may soon help scientists determine if there is water on Mars.
Carl Leuschen, a graduate student in electrical engineering, has developed a surface-penetrating radar to explore Mars' subsurface. The radar -- about the size of a shoebox -- could serve as a prototype for NASA scientists to refine.
The interest in what lies underneath the planet's surface comes after a trio of images pointed to the existence of water on the planet at some point. The Mars Global Surveyor satellite recently photographed cracks on the surface that are representative of a freezing and thawing pattern, and a channel in the middle of a canyon that could have been carved out by a river. Another photo shows a ring or indentation on the surface, which could have been produced by an asteroid that hit the land with moisture in it, Leuschen said.
The presence of water could help scientists chronicle the planet's past and investigate the feasibility of future manned missions, which is why Leuschen submitted his idea to NASA. The agency gave him a three-year fellowship that paid for his research. He researched, designed and produced the compact radar system, which links to a 3-meter antenna that takes the underground measurements.
"The requirements for the size of the radar were set by the space available within a rover or lander that would allow other equipment to fit inside of it," Leuschen said.
Other research labs are creating similar systems that will provide the foundation for future radar systems, Leuschen said, adding that the radar that actually travels to Mars will be the size of a cell phone.
Leuschen said the project allowed him to showcase what he had learned in the lab and the classroom as both a researcher and a student in the Information and Technology Telecommunication Center at KU.
"I have had a well-rounded education in simulation, theory and hardware design," Leuschen said. "It gave me a chance to see how remote sensing is used in fields that range from environment concerns, such as global warming and land mines, to space exploration."
Chris Allen, director of the Remote Sensing Lab (RSL) at KU, said he was impressed with the level of research Leuschen had conducted.
"Carl has done a fantastic job," said Allen. "Using data from a variety of sources, he has put together a credible model for signal propagation through Mars' crust. This work has great value to the Mars research community."
To ensure that it worked properly, Leuschen and his colleagues took the radar to Alaska for field tests last summer. Scientists believe that the Alaskan ground, which contains layers of permafrost in its subsurface, resembles Mars' soil.
For a week, they gathered measurements, all the while not knowing whether the radar worked. When the group returned to Lawrence, Leuschen entered the data into the computer for more than an hour before he discovered that the radar operated correctly.
"It was pretty nice. I felt like I'd done enough work to earn my Ph.D.," Leuschen said. "The results that we got agreed with what similar experiments had shown."
Leuschen had the benefit of knowing what was underneath the Alaskan ground along with its composition. He does not possess that same knowledge of Mars' soil, which made it difficult to create the radar. He had to deal with many unknowns, such as soil composition.
Leuschen successfully defended his research earlier this week and will graduate in December. He has taken a position with Johns Hopkins University as a member of its professional staff. There, he will continue working with radar and remote sensing.
"It is a pleasure to have Carl as a graduate student, and he is a credit to KU and RSL," said Prasad Gogineni, Leuschen's faculty adviser and Deane E. Ackers distinguished professor of electrical engineering and computer science. "His work on simulation and design of subsurface radars for Mars is already widely recognized."
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