NASA awards Western $302,000 contract

From left, Mike Kraft, Kristiana Lapo and Melissa Rice pose next to the goniometer on Tuesday, Oct. 29. // Photo by Claire Ott

By Ana Soltero

In early October, NASA revealed it has a contract with Western. 

NASA awarded Western and First Mode, a Seattle-based engineering firm, $302,000 to help build a 3D goniometer that will aid in Mars research. 

“A goniometer, in its most general sense, is just any tool that lets you measure precise angles or position things precisely at different angles to each other,” said Kathleen Hoza, a systems engineer at First Mode. “The simplest example would be a protractor that you use to measure an angle.” Hoza graduated from Western with a masters in geology in summer 2019. 

The goniometer will aid in the investigation of what the spectra, the way that light reflects off of surfaces, of rocks is like when viewed at different angles.

WWU’s goniometer on Tuesday, Oct. 29. // Photo by Claire Ott

“When you look at rocks that have different textures or different coatings on them, when you look at them at different times of day, whether the rover is looking straight down, at a rock or looking at a rock out towards the horizon, the way the light is reflected off of the rock changes,” said Melissa Rice, an associate professor in the geology department. 

Rice said nobody has done the detailed lab work to figure out how much rock surfaces are changing and why. She said this is what sparked the idea of creating a 3D goniometer three years ago. 

The 3D version will allow for measurements and observations to be taken from all angles, like creating a bubble around the rock where any point in that bubble would be measurable with this tool.

The team for building the goniometer will consist of graduate students and faculty. As of now, the faculty portion of the team consists of Melissa Rice, Mike Kraft, a research associate and scanning electron microscope technician, and Sean Mulcahy, an assistant professor in the geology department.

From left, Kristiana Lapo and Melissa Rice share a conversation near the goniometer at WWU on Tuesday, Oct. 29. // Photo by Claire Ott

Both geologists, Rice and Kraft, have done Mars-related research.

“My [expertise] is in characterizing material. I run the electron microscope labs,” Kraft said. “And as a geologist, I studied weathered rocks that have changed in response to just being exposed to the environment.” 

When characterizing rocks, they are trying to find out what chemicals are on, added or removed from the surface, Kraft said. 

“The end goal is to be able to improve our understanding of surface conditions on Mars… and to understand more about how weathering impacts chemistry and the microstructure of rocks,” Hoza said.

Western houses a 2D goniometer on the bottom floor of the environmental science building. The goniometer is able to measure angles like a protractor—from side to side. This 2D version is the prototype for the one that is being built with the money granted by NASA. 

Hoza got involved in building this prototype over two years ago through her master’s thesis. Her thesis was to build the 2D goniometer and to do some preliminary studies of weathered rocks that were similar to those found on Mars.

“For a 2D version of this, you could imagine a flat protractor with a light source and a detector moving around, but only on that flat protractor,” Hoza said.

Towards the end of Hoza’s degree, Rice began to reach out to First Mode to build the 3D goniometer.

“My masters research was basically used as a pilot study for this new project that is going to be the next level of detail and the next level of rigor in being able to investigate how the reflectance spectra of these rocks do change with the viewing geometry,” Hoza said. 

Since graduating, Hoza has started work at First Mode and is assisting in the design and fabrication of the 3D goniometer. 

“I always knew I wanted to do things related to space exploration,” Hoza said. “To me, the universe is just an incredibly beautiful place. It is amazing and I want to learn as much about it as possible.”

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