12/02/2014 Libby Sternberg

High-Flight Research

This magazine article is part of Autumn 2014 / Issue 79

Professor Stanley Mertzman helps NASA develop a better understanding of the Red Planet

  • Stanley Mertzman, Dr. Earl D. Stage and Mary E. Stage Professor of Geosciences Stanley Mertzman, Dr. Earl D. Stage and Mary E. Stage Professor of Geosciences Image Credit: Dave DeBalko

As his family gathered in June for a weeklong vacation in North Carolina, Stanley Mertzman prepared for a 40-plus mile bike ride—one he commonly makes during his family’s annual trip to the Outer Banks. This time it was Friday the 13th, “with a full moon, no less,” he says wryly.

Mertzman, F&M’s Earl D. Stage and Mary E. Stage Professor of Geosciences, is an intrepid surveyor of rough terrain whose work has resulted in the geological mapping of mountains, volcanoes and rocks on Mars. But during his bike ride in June, he missed seeing a pothole in the shadows. The bike struck the hole and flipped, tossing the professor through the air and causing a compound fracture of his right elbow, a punctured lung and broken ribs. Mertzman has no recollection of the two or three seconds between hitting the pothole and slamming into the pavement, but he knows his helmet—which now hangs on the wall of his office in the Hackman Physical Sciences Building—saved his life.

After two hours of surgery to insert wires and pins, followed by a night in the hospital, he returned to his family’s beach house the next day. Two weeks later, he was back in his lab at F&M, crushing 54 rock samples for NASA while wearing a cast, believing that his research couldn’t wait for a few bones to mend.

Mertzman’s passion for research, specifically the analysis of rocks on Mars and other cutting-edge, high-profile projects in geology, is legendary. His research is part of a long record of geological study in which Mertzman and his students have participated, work in which numerous organizations and institutions—including NASA—have collaborated.

The research has implications more than tens of millions of miles from Earth, as Mertzman’s analysis of the chemical composition of rocks on Earth helps planetary scientists develop a better understanding of the Red Planet. F&M recognized the high level of his research last spring by awarding him the Bradley R. Dewey Award for Outstanding Scholarship.

At the outset of his career, however, it seemed Mertzman was destined to slip “the surly bonds of Earth” as a pilot. He’d secured a coveted, highly competitive slot in the United States Air Force Academy through hard work and his local congressman’s nomination, and he was eager to take the first steps toward an airman’s life.

That was not to be. A medical examination determined he was color blind and not qualified for a pilot’s chair. Devastated by the news, Mertzman left the academy and entered the University of Dayton instead, but with no clear direction. A chemistry professor helped put him on track, and he began the career trajectory that landed him at F&M.

He now conducts research, as the Bradley R. Dewey citation explains, that is a “marvelous example of using analytical techniques and a fundamental, deep knowledge of minerals and rocks to explore another planet.”

Searching for Clues on Earth

Mertzman doesn’t actually go to Mars, of course. And neither does Mars come to him. He and Richard Morris, the NASA planetary scientist based in California with whom Mertzman works, don’t actually handle any of the few existing samples from the Red Planet. Their scientific study is done through painstaking inference.

“With the exception of six dozen meteorites whose point of origin was the surface of Mars, NASA has yet to return any Martian rocks to Earth,” Mertzman says. Instead, NASA scientists use the Mars rovers to study the planet from afar, using scientific instruments to capture images and other critical data.

NASA’s Morris says his collaboration with Mertzman began in 1997, when he had a need for chemical analyses of rock and soil samples from various locations on Earth. “I asked some of my colleagues here at the Johnson Space Center for recommendations; they informed me ‘Stan’s the man,’” Morris says. “It is now 17 years later, and Stan has analyzed more than 1,000 samples for me as a part of our collaboration. The number of samples speaks to the high quality of his work.”

Morris says the chemical analyses have been used as part of the calibration process for science instruments on rovers that have landed on Mars, most recently the ChemCam—Chemical Camera—instrument on the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity. The instrument shoots a laser at a rock and analyzes the light produced to determine chemical chemical compositions.

The lasers that bombard the Martian rocks provide the clues to their composition. “That irradiation shoots back a spectrum,” Mertzman says. “Then Dick Morris will say ‘this looks like that mineral here on Earth.’ He’ll send me steel boxes of those similar rocks to crush and analyze.”

Mertzman uses various instruments at the College to analyze the chemical composition of the samples, including an X-ray fluorescence vacuum spectrometer and X-ray diffractometer— essential tools in mineralogy and geochemistry. He works closely with his daughter and lab technician, Karen Mertzman ’96 (pictured below), to prepare the samples for analysis by crushing and melting them into small discs.

After the X-ray analysis, Mertzman is able to tell NASA if the Mars rocks are, in fact, similar to the ones on Earth, and which specific rocks they most closely resemble.

The goal of NASA’s project is to assess the history of environmental conditions at sites that may once have been wet and favorable for life. “How did Mars end up with no oxygen, no life?” Mertzman asks. “How is it different from Earth, and why are the rocky planets in general so different?”

While Mars doesn’t have oxygen, it does have an atmosphere. This makes it more challenging to study its geological makeup, since that atmosphere can affect the rocks over time, just as Earth’s atmosphere has affected bits of meteorites that exhibit strong evidence that they “splashed off” Mars, Mertzman says. The moon, by contrast, has no atmosphere, so its rocks, some of which were retrieved from moon landings, haven’t eroded or weathered.

“What we are trying to work out,” says Mertzman, “is the geological history of Mars. We’re looking at the how and why. I’m part of the how.”

Nothing in Stasis

Mertzman is proud of the College’s role in providing analyses that are outstanding in the field. “We’ve developed a reputation for delivering both very precise as well as very accurate data,” he says, pointing to a blackboard cataloguing names of around 30 professors and academic and research institutions he’s collaborated with on various geological projects. The impressive list includes American, Canadian and Australian research universities, as well as private corporations and U.S. agencies, including NASA, the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, the Idaho Geological Survey, and Armstrong World Industries.

Mertzman’s area of specialty, in fact, has not been planetary science, but the Cascade volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest. Working with F&M students, he’s successfully studied large swaths of Oregon’s geological history, a task requiring not just intellect but also stamina, as he’s traversed rugged terrain. More than a dozen of his geological maps are available through the Oregon State Geological Survey.

The professor regularly takes F&M students with him on his geological adventures, an experience he treasures—and one he didn’t expect when he first began as a one-year visiting professor at F&M in 1972.

“I thought I’d be here a year and move somewhere else, doing research,” he said. But the quality of the students he encountered at F&M made it too hard to move on, especially when he was able to take a couple of those students with him on field work in northern California. When the College offered him a full-time position shortly thereafter, he enthusiastically took it.

His students enjoy him, too. As the Dewey citation reads: “He is legendary for his teaching style…Students report that Professor Mertzman’s classes are among the most difficult, yet rewarding, at F&M.”

Mertzman started his career wanting to burn holes in the sky. Instead, he ended up exploring the surface of Earth and now Mars. He’s enjoying the ride—even when there are potholes along the way.

“F&M is looking for people doing quality teaching and quality research and not sacrificing one for the other. That keeps things alive,” he says. “Nothing is in stasis. It’s always changing. I haven’t retired yet because I still really, really enjoy what I’m doing.”

  • Karen Mertzman, laboratory technician, and Stanley Mertzman, Dr. Earl D. Stage and Mary E. Stage Professor of Geosciences Karen Mertzman, laboratory technician, and Stanley Mertzman, Dr. Earl D. Stage and Mary E. Stage Professor of Geosciences Image Credit: Dave DeBalko
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