School of Science's Alice Baldridge Receives NASA Grant

School of Science Professor Alice BaldridgeSaint Mary’s Professor of Geological Sciences Alice Baldridge has been selected to participate in a NASA project that will conduct fundamental and applied research about the Moon, near-Earth asteroids, Mars, and their near-space environments. Baldridge is a member of one of eight research teams that will collaborate on research into the intersection of space science and human space exploration, as part of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI).

“The discoveries these teams make will be vital to our future exploration throughout the solar system with robots and humans,” said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

SSERVI will support the new teams, which include scientists and student researchers from across the nation, for five years at a combined total of about $10.5 million per year. The work is funded by NASA’s Science and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorates and will take place in cooperation with U.S and international partners.

Baldridge will serve as a co-investigator on the Remote, In Situ, and Synchrotron Studies for the Science and Exploration 2 (RIS4E2) research team. Baldridge’s research forms part of a larger NASA grant awarded to Stony Brook University (SBU). Under the leadership of Timothy Glotch, a professor of Geological Sciences at SBU, the RIS4E2 team composed of scores of researchers and students will investigate how planetary environments impact human health by looking at the chemical reactivity of regolith in association with animal cells and tissues. As a co-investigator, Baldridge will participate in additional RIS4E2 research that will analyze how remote sensing datasets can be confirmed through laboratory experiments, analyses, and field deployments. 

Teaming up with Co-Investigator Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist of Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA, Baldridge’s research team will analyze how data gathered from remote objects, such as satellites, can be confirmed in the field and through laboratory experiments and analysis. Baldridge’s team will examine surfaces on Earth that are environmentally similar to the Moon and Mars. “The purpose of the research is to look at lunar analog surfaces in order to better understand how remote sensing data relates to what is actually on the surface,” said Baldridge.

“We've put satellites in orbit around the Moon, around Mars, and we map the composition of the surface, the texture of the surface, the heat properties of the surface. But we also have instruments that the astronauts are going to be using [on the surface], and we want to be able to tell the astronauts where to go to best look for interesting things; surfaces that have water, heat, or interesting mineral compositions. So, that’s sort of the main purpose of our team’s science goals, to guide astronauts on how to best do science on the lunar and Martian surfaces,” Baldridge added.

“Professor Baldridge is a remarkable researcher and educator,” said Saint Mary’s School of Science Dean Roy Wensley. “Her participation in the RIS4E2 initiative not only underscores her national standing as a scientist, it provides extraordinary opportunities for undergraduate students who work with her. We are extremely proud of her contributions to this significant NASA research project.” 

With the nation recognizing the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing on July 20, Baldridge said NASA’s recent announcement of the multi-institutional space exploration research grant is not only timely, it is extremely encouraging. “The fact that NASA is funding these trips means that they’re serious about going back to the Moon. They wouldn’t be funding human exploration grants if that wasn’t something that was part of our near-term plan.”

Baldridge’s scientific research includes a history of studying lunar and Martian surfaces. Prior to joining SMC, she worked on the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) on the Mars Odyssey Spacecraft and as a science team member and primary uplink and downlink lead on the Mars Exploration Rovers. “I’m really excited to be involved in a NASA grant again,” she said. And this time around, the School of Science associate professor says she’s even more enthused because she can recruit Saint Mary’s students to participate in her space exploration research. 

As a result of $116,000 in NASA funding, over the next five summers, Baldridge and two undergraduate researchers will use state-of-the-art devices to conduct fieldwork at a volcanic crater in southern New Mexico, and analyze their findings in the labs of Brousseau Hall. “If I take different students every year, that’s up to 10 students getting experience doing fieldwork and seeing how NASA works.” In addition, her student researchers will attend annual meetings of the SSERVI Exploration Science Forum at the NASA Ames Research Center. 

“I love teaching, and I love showing my students how to collect that data. So, I’m excited to combine those two things but also in a project that has a specific purpose. Start off by sending humans to the Moon, and then onto Mars!” Baldridge said with a smile. 

SSERVI was created in 2014 as an expansion of the NASA Lunar Science Institute. It supports scientific and human exploration research at potential future human exploration destinations under the guiding philosophy that exploration and science enable each other. For more information, review the recent announcement  NASA Selects Teams to Study Our Moon, Mars’ Moons, and More.