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Retired NASA Scientist Probed Alien Atmospheres, Wins Award
A retired NASA scientist whose instruments probed the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn's largest moon, Titan, will receive an award for his work.

Photo of Dr. Hasso Niemann Image right: Photo of Hasso Niemann. Credit: NASA

Hasso Niemann, who recently retired from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., will receive the Al Seiff Memorial Award on June 25, 2007, during a technical meeting in France. The award honors researchers for outstanding contributions to the understanding of atmospheres of planets or moons through the use of high-speed probes that enter those atmospheres.

"Niemann devoted his career to the development of mass spectrometer technology and harnessing its capabilities to measure the composition of unknown planetary atmospheres," said Jim Arnold, who retired from NASA Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley as chief of the Space Technology Division. Mass spectrometry is a method that scientists use to reliably identify ionized molecules by measuring their mass. Arnold - now a scientist with the University of California, Santa Cruz -- nominated Niemann for the award.

"Atmosphere entry probes present a unique opportunity for performing qualitative analysis of extraterrestrial atmospheres in cases where remote sensing alone may not be sufficient and measurements with balloons or aircraft (are) not practical," Niemann and others observed during a technical presentation.

Galileo arrived at Jupiter on Dec. 7, 1995, entering orbit and dropping its instrumented probe into the giant planet's atmosphere. Image left: Galileo arrived at Jupiter on Dec. 7, 1995, entering orbit and dropping its instrumented probe into the giant planet's atmosphere. Credit: NASA

Al Seiff, for whom the award is named, spent most of his career at NASA Ames and was a colleague of Niemann's. Niemann, the first recipient of the award, began collaboration with Seiff on the 1971 Planetary Atmospheric Experiments Test (PAET), which demonstrated a probe could return accurate data about Earth's atmosphere. Years later, Seiff served as the principal investigator for the atmospheric structure investigation of the Jupiter Galileo entry probe that analyzed the structure of the huge planet's atmosphere.

"Hasso Niemann was the clear leader in upper atmosphere Earth and planetary neutral mass spectrometry investigations for more than 30 years,” said Dr. Paul Mahaffy, chief of the Atmospheric Experiments Laboratory at NASA Goddard. “Of particular note is Hasso's ground breaking work in securing fundamental measurements of the Jovian atmosphere in December 1995 with the Galileo Probe Neutral Mass Spectrometer. A highly successful Venus orbiter mass spectrometer and Titan Probe measurements are also among his numerous contributions to planetary science."

Niemann served as the principal investigator for the Galileo Probe's mass spectrometer. The probe entered Jupiter's atmosphere at 29.2 miles per second (47 kilometers per second) and parachuted downward. Niemann and his team designed, built, tested and calibrated the probe's mass spectrometer at NASA Goddard.

The spectrometer made the first direct measurements of the Jovian atmosphere. The instrument measured methane and traces of other organic molecules, ammonia, water vapor, hydrogen sulfide, phosphine and rare gases. Scientists also found that Jupiter's atmosphere was drier at the probe entry site than they thought it would be.

Niemann was the principal investigator for the gas chromatograph mass spectrometer that rode the Huygens Probe, which entered Titan's atmosphere Jan. 14, 2005. The Huygens probe, released from the Cassini spacecraft, made the first direct measurements of Titan's surface and lower atmosphere. Readings confirmed that the moon's atmosphere is mostly made of nitrogen and methane, and found the surface was likely rich in hydrocarbons.

Niemann will receive the award during the fifth International Planetary Probe Workshop, scheduled to take place June 23 - 29, 2007 in Bordeaux, France. Niemann also will deliver the keynote address at the workshop.

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Nancy Neal Jones
NASA Goddard