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10/11/2012 4:29:00 PM
SMA grad works with NASA Mars rover team
St. Mary’s Academy alumna and space scientist Dot DeLapp stands with a life-size model of the Curiosity rover.
St. Mary’s Academy alumna and space scientist Dot DeLapp stands with a life-size model of the Curiosity rover.

Since the Curiosity rover landed on Mars in August, St. Mary's Academy alumna and space scientist Dot DeLapp has been living on Martian time.

Rather than 24-hour days, DeLapp deals in sols, each of which lasts 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds. Scientific activity will take place primarily during the daylight portion of the sol. Because sunrise on Mars shifts by about 40 minutes a day, DeLapp's circadian rhythms are being put to the test.

Sleeplessness is a small price to pay though to be part of NASA's latest mission. DeLapp is working with a team of scientists from throughout the United States and France to process the soil and rock data being transmitted back to Earth from Mars by a combination camera and laser-induced spectrometer mounted on the rover.

"It's been great," says DeLapp. "We are basically splitting the roles between the French and the U.S. scientists. That's been a really fun experience, meeting them and learning some French. The entire mission and working with the team has been very exciting."
Until Nov. 5, DeLapp will split her time between the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. After that, operations will move back to "Earth time," and DeLapp will return to Los Alamos full time.

DeLapp's team's objective is to analyze rocks and soil and look for the chemical ingredients of life — oxygen, nitrogen, carbon and/or hydrogen — to determine whether life ever existed on Mars, or if the planet can sustain life in the future.

"Mars is the most similar planet to Earth. It has atmosphere, it has cold, it has warmth, it has seasons," DeLapp said.

Data collection is expected to continue for about two years. Working on the rover is a career highlight, said DeLapp, whose past NASA projects include the Mars Odyssey satellite, the Lunar Prospector mission and the Cassini mission on Saturn.

DeLapp's alma mater honored her with the 2012 St. Mary's Academy Award for Achievement in Science or Medicine in recognition of her exceptional work in the field of space science and computer programming.

DeLapp, a 1980 St. Mary's graduate, credits a computer-programming class she took from Holy Names Sister Shirley Krueger with setting her down her career path. "Because of that class, my second major in addition to theater at the University of Portland was computer applications. That was a springboard," DeLapp said.

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