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Mission possible

Case-trained scientists are helping NASA explore Mars for signs of life

The nation was riveted as the Perseverance rover descended to Mars February 18 at the end of a parachute. But few watched as intently as the Case alumni at Gooch & Housego, a global leader in photonics technology in the Cleveland suburb of Highland Heights.

Katie Colbaugh ’13, MS ’15, and Matt Whittaker ’96, MSE ’00, PhD ’07, are crystal growth scientists. They grew crystals that were packed aboard Perseverance to help analyze soil and send the images back to Earth. Their experiments could speed the answer to the mission’s key question: did the Red Planet once support life?

The rover will collect rocks that will be returned to Earth 10 years from now, but the work of the Case alumni will help scientists to analyze pictures much sooner. Their crystal is a core component in the rover’s SuperCam, which can analyze the chemical makeup of Martian soil on the spot.

“If there was life present, they might have left traces of evidence,” Colbaugh explained to News 5, the ABC affiliate in Cleveland.

She described feeling a “wow factor,” knowing that a crystal she helped grow is now a part of the exploration of Mars.

“I think we lose sight of the exciting technology that we’re doing here because we’re used to it and we’re here every day, and so an event like this was certainly exciting for all of us here,” she said.

Gooch & Housego’s Highland Heights facility is one of the few places in the world growing crystals to use for such devices.

“It’s very exciting to see the rover land,” Whitaker agreed, “but it’s the people that are going to be working in the rooms analyzing data for years to come where all of the discoveries are going to start.”

He said he’s looking forward to the data and research to follow.

“I can tell you that everybody who works in this facility was at home watching that landing, and I was too and it was really exciting,” said Whittaker, who earned all three of his Case degrees in materials science. “This is just the beginning of the science. The engineering challenge to get here was extremely impressive and they pulled it off, it looked like perfectly, but now — to me — is when the fun part of the details and all the analysis starts.”

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