Mars in New Mexico: A Geologist in Paradise

By Nicola Shannon

On the morning of their second day at the Potrillo volcanic field, the RIS4E team set up its equipment on a low ledge at the brink of the vast Kilbourne Hole. Elizabeth Rampe, a NASA geologist, looked out across the ashy crater.

She pulled back her shoulders, straightened her back, slowly raised her hands toward the sky, then brought them together in front of her chest. Rampe stood in this yoga-like position for a few seconds, then broke into laughter and turned to join the rest of the team as they prepared for the day’s research.

It was a less-than-serious salutation to the sun, but Rampe, 33, a planetary geologist based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, says she’s always had a genuine fascination with the natural world. Growing up in Denver, she hiked and camped. Her father was a biologist and her mother an archaeologist, and Rampe says she had a special affection for dinosaurs. Now she hikes and runs, teaches spin classes, and recently started taking hot yoga—good preparation, she says, for the scorching trek into the New Mexico desert with the RIS4E team.

“I love my job,” Rampe said, beaming. “It does not feel like work most of the time.”

Geologist Elizabeth Rampe takes notes at Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Katherine Wright)

Rampe did seem relatively cool and collected as she and Butch Wilmore, an International Space Station astronaut and Rampe’s field partner, performed their mock EVAs around Kilbourne Hole. It was their job to scout out an area, decide on a place to park their imaginary rover and embark on a timed spacewalk taking notes, context photographs, and marking where they wanted measurements to be made by handheld instruments. The two even spoke into GoPros as they went, mimicking the verbal note taking of astronauts in space.

This was not Rampe’s first experience with what are known at NASA as analog missions—on-site research in areas that are geologically similar to the surfaces of Mars, the moon and near-Earth asteroids. In fact, it’s what got her involved with RIS4E. “It’s a pretty small community of people who do analog work,” she said, adding that she has worked with Kelsey Young, the deputy field lead on the RIS4E team, and knows her well.

In 2010, Rampe joined two RIS4E scientists—field lead Jake Bleacher of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and geologist Jose Hurtado of the University of Texas at El Paso—on a NASA team informally known as Desert RATS, for Desert Research and Technology Studies. During these analog missions, the team of scientists tested equipment and EVA strategies in the desert heat of Flagstaff, Arizona. Rampe was a member of the overnight strategic team, which analyzed the day’s data and chose the next EVA sites. The following year, she worked with Desert RATS in the science backroom at Johnson Space Center while the analog tests were carried out in Flagstaff, testing the limitations of delays in verbal communication. And in 2012, back in Houston, Rampe and the Desert RATS team conducted virtual experiments tied to a shift in NASA’s focus to asteroids.

Now Rampe is re-focused on Mars and the moon. She is the deputy principal investigator of CheMin, a chemistry and mineralogy X-ray diffractometer on the Mars Curiosity Rover. With this instrument, Rampe studies the Red Planet’s early history, which was very different from the way it looks now, according to the photos of Mars the rover sends back now.

“Three and a half, four billion years ago, Mars was much more Earth-like,” Rampe said. “It had rivers and lakes, steams, rolling water, glaciers, it probably snowed, and there were volcanoes.”

This ancient Mars landscape may have been habitable, but Rampe doubts it will ever be in the same way again. By studying the traces of Mars’ past left behind in its mineralogy, guesses can be made about what changed and what life forms might have existed in its past.

The CheMin instrument studies the mineralogy of samples by X-ray diffractometry, shooting samples with X-rays to study their mineral components. Ironically, Rampe also started her work in planetary geology with X-ray diffractometry, doing some tests for her adviser as an undergraduate at Colgate University.

Geologist Elizabeth Rampe descends into Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Kayla McKiski)

But X-ray diffractometry has its limits, as does working with a rover. In almost five years, Rampe’s instrument on the Curiosity Rover has analyzed only about 15 samples. It takes time to chose where to look for a sample, chose the sample itself, plan, drill, and analyze it. This is where the human side of exploration comes in, and why Rampe is excited about working with these analog missions.

Although human exploration is far from simple and also has many limitations, it’s much easier for a human to decide where to go, what samples to collect and what needs to be done to collect them. Rampe is interested in seeing more analog work like RIS4E and NEEMO, an underwater NASA analog project in which “aquanauts” study coral and where pure science research is playing a larger role in the goals and structure of the project.

For now, Rampe is excited to see where NASA’s work leads. “Our solar system is just incredible,” she says. “So many diverse bodies to explore and I’m so grateful to be a part of it.”

Mars in New Mexico: A Geologist in Paradise

By Nicola Shannon

On the morning of their second day at the Potrillo volcanic field, the RIS4E team set up its equipment on a low ledge at the brink of the vast Kilbourne Hole. Elizabeth Rampe, a NASA geologist, looked out across the ashy crater.

She pulled back her shoulders, straightened her back, slowly raised her hands toward the sky, then brought them together in front of her chest. Rampe stood in this yoga-like position for a few seconds, then broke into laughter and turned to join the rest of the team as they prepared for the day’s research.

It was a less-than-serious salutation to the sun, but Rampe, 33, a planetary geologist based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, says she’s always had a genuine fascination with the natural world. Growing up in Denver, she hiked and camped. Her father was a biologist and her mother an archaeologist, and Rampe says she had a special affection for dinosaurs. Now she hikes and runs, teaches spin classes, and recently started taking hot yoga—good preparation, she says, for the scorching trek into the New Mexico desert with the RIS4E team.

“I love my job,” Rampe said, beaming. “It does not feel like work most of the time.”

Geologist Elizabeth Rampe takes notes at Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Katherine Wright)

Rampe did seem relatively cool and collected as she and Butch Wilmore, an International Space Station astronaut and Rampe’s field partner, performed their mock EVAs around Kilbourne Hole. It was their job to scout out an area, decide on a place to park their imaginary rover and embark on a timed spacewalk taking notes, context photographs, and marking where they wanted measurements to be made by handheld instruments. The two even spoke into GoPros as they went, mimicking the verbal note taking of astronauts in space.

This was not Rampe’s first experience with what are known at NASA as analog missions—on-site research in areas that are geologically similar to the surfaces of Mars, the moon and near-Earth asteroids. In fact, it’s what got her involved with RIS4E. “It’s a pretty small community of people who do analog work,” she said, adding that she has worked with Kelsey Young, the deputy field lead on the RIS4E team, and knows her well.

In 2010, Rampe joined two RIS4E scientists—field lead Jake Bleacher of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and geologist Jose Hurtado of the University of Texas at El Paso—on a NASA team informally known as Desert RATS, for Desert Research and Technology Studies. During these analog missions, the team of scientists tested equipment and EVA strategies in the desert heat of Flagstaff, Arizona. Rampe was a member of the overnight strategic team, which analyzed the day’s data and chose the next EVA sites. The following year, she worked with Desert RATS in the science backroom at Johnson Space Center while the analog tests were carried out in Flagstaff, testing the limitations of delays in verbal communication. And in 2012, back in Houston, Rampe and the Desert RATS team conducted virtual experiments tied to a shift in NASA’s focus to asteroids.

Now Rampe is re-focused on Mars and the moon. She is the deputy principal investigator of CheMin, a chemistry and mineralogy X-ray diffractometer on the Mars Curiosity Rover. With this instrument, Rampe studies the Red Planet’s early history, which was very different from the way it looks now, according to the photos of Mars the rover sends back now.

“Three and a half, four billion years ago, Mars was much more Earth-like,” Rampe said. “It had rivers and lakes, steams, rolling water, glaciers, it probably snowed, and there were volcanoes.”

This ancient Mars landscape may have been habitable, but Rampe doubts it will ever be in the same way again. By studying the traces of Mars’ past left behind in its mineralogy, guesses can be made about what changed and what life forms might have existed in its past.

The CheMin instrument studies the mineralogy of samples by X-ray diffractometry, shooting samples with X-rays to study their mineral components. Ironically, Rampe also started her work in planetary geology with X-ray diffractometry, doing some tests for her adviser as an undergraduate at Colgate University.

Geologist Elizabeth Rampe descends into Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Kayla McKiski)

But X-ray diffractometry has its limits, as does working with a rover. In almost five years, Rampe’s instrument on the Curiosity Rover has analyzed only about 15 samples. It takes time to chose where to look for a sample, chose the sample itself, plan, drill, and analyze it. This is where the human side of exploration comes in, and why Rampe is excited about working with these analog missions.

Although human exploration is far from simple and also has many limitations, it’s much easier for a human to decide where to go, what samples to collect and what needs to be done to collect them. Rampe is interested in seeing more analog work like RIS4E and NEEMO, an underwater NASA analog project in which “aquanauts” study coral and where pure science research is playing a larger role in the goals and structure of the project.

For now, Rampe is excited to see where NASA’s work leads. “Our solar system is just incredible,” she says. “So many diverse bodies to explore and I’m so grateful to be a part of it.”