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The Quest for Answers
Who are NASA's Earth and Space Science Explorers?

The middle school students who track weather to study its effect on bursting tree buds. And the scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. But also the teacher whose class shares Earth science data with students around the world. And the engineer who designs robotic instruments to probe hard-to-reach planets. All of these people are Earth Explorers, Space Science Explorers or both. The Earth Explorers and Space Science Explorers series features NASA explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

Man standing near science fair exhibits under a tent

Mehdi Benna is an engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. He visited the University of Maryland Science Fair to judge entries and speak with students. Image Credit: NASA

How did the solar system form? How has it evolved since its beginning?

Mehdi Benna started asking questions about outer space as a child. Benna was fascinated with everything related to space. In his spare time, he often flipped through the books his mother used to teach physics, looking at the images they contained.

But the big questions Benna asked were never answered -- at least, not to his satisfaction.

Benna wanted to find those answers. He hoped to work on the problems faced by planetary scientists, but there was no "space engineering" major in college. So Benna studied engineering and looked for space-related applications of what he had learned.

Now he gets to search for those answers every day working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Artist's concept of the Mars Science Laboratory rover on Mars

Mehdi Benna helped develop the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument on the Mars Science Laboratory rover. Image Credit: NASA

"I enjoy the variety and the endless scientific problems that I encounter ... It seems like every day brings new engineering challenges to overtake and new science puzzles to solve," Benna says.

Benna helps develop the instruments used on a variety of NASA spacecraft. His work began at NASA when he was doing postdoctoral research on the dynamics of gases escaping from comets. Later, he helped develop the Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM, instrument. SAM is a chemical laboratory that will help analyze the composition of Martian gaseous and solid samples when the Mars Science Laboratory rover is deployed on the surface of Mars in August 2012.

Benna is working on two instruments that will be used on the LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) and MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) spacecraft. The two spacecraft will travel to the moon and Mars, respectively, and study their very thin atmospheres.

Colorful diagram of the different densities of protons from the solar wind around the planet Mercury

Mehdi Benna studies the movement inside Mercury's atmosphere. Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/Medhi Benna

Benna is part of NASA's MESSENGER team, which is investigating the planet Mercury. He is studying the dynamics of Mercury's magnetosphere. He hopes all his work will "advance the understanding of our solar system, what it is made of, how it formed, and how it evolved."

Benna's work constantly leads him to new questions. He thinks it is important to never stop asking them. "The essence of the scientific quest resides in our ability to ask questions," Benna says, "and most great discoveries were triggered by simple but profound questions."

Related Resources:
› The Earth's Magnetosphere   →
› Mars Science Laboratory
› LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) Mission
› MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) Mission
› Space Explorers Series
› NASA Career Resources

Brandi Bernoskie/Institute for Global Environmental Strategies