NASA Johnson Space Flight Center
A Different Kind of Rock Collector
By Anthony DeNicola
Curators bring to mind art galleries or museums of historical artifacts, while geologists might evoke images of adults playing in the dirt. For Cynthia Evans, NASA geologist and manager of astromaterials curation at Johnson Space Center, these two worlds overlap.
On the RIS4E project, Evans is a member of the X-ray fluorescence (XRF) team with Kelsey Young, a post-doc and the field team’s deputy leader. XRF measurements provide information about the chemical composition of a given area of surface rock and are an effective means of identifying samples of interest. There are many in the lava fields of Kilauea, where the expansive and undulating rock formations manage to impress a geologist with more than 20 years of field experience in many parts of the world.
“This is a spectacular landscape,” Evans said. “I have been to lava flows before but I’ve never seen anything like this where you have lava flows on top of older lava flows on top of ash flows, on top of more flows.”
Evans has experience with XRF from her role as principal investigator on development of the Geolab Glovebox, a prototype laboratory facility that included, among other instruments, an XRF scanner. Its goal was to allow scientists to conduct analysis of rock samples on the surface of the Moon, Mars or other planetary bodies.
“We wanted to have a facility that would enable us to perform some preliminary examination of samples,” Evans said of Geolab. “Not detailed studies, but being able to triage the samples that you have found in the field.”
Evans’ day job is not too dissimilar from her field work.. She is responsible for the management and curation of seven different astromaterial sample collections, including archives of lunar, meteorite and cosmic dust.
While geology may have kept her eyes focused primarily on the ground, Evans couldn’t help but think that other planets needed geologists too, and in 1987, she applied to NASA’s astronaut program. She was called in for an interview, but the life of a space cowgirl was not to be. Instead, because of her geological experience, NASA later offered her a position in the geosciences department at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Few astronauts have backgrounds in geology so they generally don’t have the background to know what to look for in samples. But they will need the right instruments and training to maximize the amount of meaningful data they gather while in space. The mission of RIS4E is to help lay the groundwork now for missions that could be a decade or two away.
“It is part of the reason why these tests are so important,” Evans said. “Astronauts can only carry so much and it is important that each and every piece of gear serve a meaningful purpose.”
For geologists like Evans, the mission remains the same whether on the surface of the Earth, the Moon or Mars.
“Inevitably you want to take these samples home,” Evans said. “That is true for every field geologist on planet earth and certainly any expedition that goes to the Moon, Mars or someplace else.”