Delaware State University researchers will play a small part in a big mission – NASA’s mission to Mars. That is how DSU Vice President of Research Dr. Noureddine Melikechi summarized the university’s involvement with the space mission to the red planet during a packed press conference held Friday on campus.


Delaware State University researchers will play a small part in the big mission known as NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory.

That is how DSU Vice President of Research Dr. Noureddine Melikechi summarized the university’s involvement with the space mission to the red planet during a packed press conference held Friday on campus.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Mars Science Laboratory is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Nov. 25. And it’s going to have a bit of a Hornet flavor about it.

Melikechi and DSU Ph.D. candidate Alissa Mezzacappa are collaborating with NASA to help analyze the data that will be collected by the Mars Science Lab’s Curiosity land rover.

The Curiosity land rover will laser blast the rocky terrain of Mars and break it down into plasma that emits light, Melikechi said. The data collected from that process would then be beamed back to Earth.

Melikechi and Mezzacappa will then help NASA investigate and analyze that data in the Mars Chamber that Mezzacappa built in DSU’s Mishoe Science Center. They will use the tools of physics, chemistry and science to search for the building blocks of life – namely water, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, et cetera, Melikechi said.

If the Mars Science Laboratory launches on Nov. 25, it is expected to land on Mars 127 million miles away from Earth by Aug. 6, 2012.

“The primary objective of Curiosity is, to some extent, simple to say,” Melikechi said. “It’s to re-determine the past and present habitability of Mars. Was there ever life on Mars? Is it possible to have life on Mars? One of the key criterions to do that is actually to know whether there is liquid water on Mars.”

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Furthermore, Melikechi, founder of DSU’s Applied Optics Center, sees the potential connection between the mission to Mars and cancer research.

“What does searching for life or signs of life on Mars and searching for signs of cancers have to do with each other?” he said. “We can rephrase that question. Can we use optical techniques to search for signs of life on Mars? Can we use optical techniques to search for signs of cancer in human beings?

“Both are complex systems; they both have something in common,” he added. “The connection between the two is something called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy technique.”

Both Melikechi, a native of Algeria in North Africa, and Mezzacappa, of Holmden, N.J., will travel to Cape Canaveral for the launch.

Melikechi said Mezzacappa had been involved with DSU’s optics program for three years. She built the Mars chamber on campus that mimics the conditions that will be encountered on Mars.

Mezzacappa is using this experience as the subject of her doctoral dissertation. The dissertation is essentially a book a doctoral candidate must write – then defend to faculty – in order to become a doctor of philosophy.

Mezzacappa thanked Melikechi for this opportunity, and she expressed appreciation for the NASA-URC grant given to DSU two years ago to make all this research possible.

“The funding of the NASA-URC grant allowed me to build my Mars chamber,” she said. “It allowed me to participate in science relative to Mars and allowed me to travel to Los Alamos [National Lab].”

DSU President Dr. Harry L. Williams said the Mars mission was connected directly to the university’s strategic priorities with regard to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“One of the scientists who worked with Noureddine, Dr. Horton Newsom [University of New Mexico], is predicting that one day we will walk on Mars,” he said. “So, for us to have a scientist connected to this project is so important to the university.”

DSU Provost Dr. Alton Thompson said this day was a part of the university’s mission to advance knowledge for more than 120 years.

“As a land-grant university, we are dedicated to teaching the highest standards of excellence and to conduct research that has national, international and now cosmic implications,” Thompson said. “This sustains this university’s core strengths and also enhances our competitiveness amongst our peers.

“Just think. Delaware State University will be forever etched in the scientific history of this nation,” he said.

When asked if they felt the Mars mission made DSU more competitive with the University of Delaware – viewed as top dog amongst colleges in the Diamond State – Williams said DSU does not see this as a competition.

“We’re about serving the state of Delaware,” he said. “The University of Delaware does a great job. But we have the talent here that will compete with anyone in the world. So, we don’t see it as a competition. We’re just showcasing what we have here.”