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 asked many questions about outer space when he was young. Benna was fascinated with everything related to space. His mother, a physics teacher, encouraged his interests. Physics is the study of forces and motion. He often looked at the pictures in her students' books.

But some of Benna's questions were never answered -- at least, not in enough detail.

Benna wanted to find those answers. He hoped to work on the problems faced by planetary scientists. In college, Benna studied engineering. He looked for ways to apply what he knew to space.

Now he gets to search for those answers every day working at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "I enjoy the endless scientific problems that I encounter. It seems like every day brings new challenges and puzzles to solve," Benna says.

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

Currently, Benna is learning about parts of the solar system with the instruments that he helps to develop for spacecraft. Because of his instruments, he and other scientists are learning about Mars, the moon and Mercury. He helped develop the Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM, instrument. It is part of the Mars Science Laboratory rover named Curiosity. SAM will help analyze gases and solids on Mars when Curiosity lands 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 instruments will help study the very thin atmospheres of the moon and of Mars. LADEE will go to the moon. MAVEN will study Mars. Benna is also part of NASA's MESSENGER team, which is investigating the planet Mercury. He hopes all his work will advance the understanding of our solar system.

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's work constantly leads him to new questions. He thinks it is important that we never stop asking them: "Most great discoveries were triggered by simple but profound questions."

Related Resources:
› MAVEN Movie Trailer
› Curiosity Rover Trailer
› SAM Overview: The Habitability of Mars video
› MESSENGER For Students   →
› So, You Want To Build A Satellite?
› So, You Want To Build A Satellite: Part Two
› 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
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