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Melissa Trainer - This Planetary Scientist's Job is Out of This World
October 21, 2014

[image-69]Name: Melissa Trainer
Title: Planetary Scientist
Organization: Code 699, Planetary Environments Laboratory, Solar System Exploration Division, Science Exploration Directorate

Planetary scientist Melissa Trainer travels virtually to Mars, Titan and other extreme solar system environments.

What do you do and what is most interesting about your role here at Goddard? How do you help support Goddard’s mission?

As a planetary scientist, I conduct laboratory research exploring the chemical processes of planetary environments. My specialty is organic and prebiotic chemistry. I look for the types of molecules that can form in an atmosphere without life that might be important in later forming life.

Currently, I’m looking at Titan, a moon of Saturn. Titan’s atmosphere contains methane. When sunlight from the sun hits methane, the methane reacts to form larger organic molecules which, under the right conditions, then might be capable of forming prebiotic molecules. In a sense, I’m studying the evolution of molecules, the initial steps towards the possible formation of life.

I’m also on the team for the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument, which was built at Goddard. I’m analyzing data from the Curiosity rover to study the atmospheric composition of Mars. I get to look at data no one has ever seen before. We’re finding some things we expected to find based on previous missions, but we’re also finding some unexpected things, which we’re still working on understanding.

I also work on new instrument concepts for future missions. In the past three years, I’ve had to think about how we would explore three very different places. First, I looked at how to send a robotic boat to one of the cryogenic lakes on Titan. Basically, we want to know what is in the lake. We think these lakes are made up of a mixture of methane, ethane and other hydrocarbons, all of which are probably about minus 180 degrees Celsius or minus 288 degrees Fahrenheit. If you put a penny or a plastic spoon into this liquid, it would instantly freeze and crack.

One of the coolest things I’ve done at Goddard was develop a special piece of equipment that essentially sips the cold lake liquid. We had to use special materials to protect against the extreme cold and to make sure that the sipper would actually work in the lake liquid. It took some doing, but we were able to make it work!

Another concept involved sending an instrument on another Mars rover to date the age of the surface rocks. We are still figuring out the age of the Mars’ surface.

Now I’m working on a concept to go to the super-hot, high pressured atmosphere of Venus. We want to know the composition of Venus’ atmosphere. I’m also working on a concept for an instrument to fly by Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon that has a subsurface ocean. We want to know what is in Europa’s ocean.

What is the common theme for these concepts?

The big questions are why the solar system is the way it is and how and where life came to be present. I spend a lot of time on proposing these concepts. While not all of them go forward, it is always exciting to think big thoughts.

[image-96]Do you work in a laboratory?

I work on my computer, but I also conduct experiments in laboratories. For the Titan project, we mix gases and use an ultraviolet lamp, like a black light, to try to simulate the sun hitting the atmosphere and triggering certain reactions. We use a lot of metal containers, metal tubing and metal valves to contain the experiment. Actually, what we do in the laboratory is a lot like plumbing.

How did you become a planetary scientist?

My undergraduate degree is in chemistry and my doctorate, from the University of Colorado in Boulder, is in atmospheric chemistry. Boulder has a great atmospheric science program because it is close to the Aeronomy Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one of the major centers for atmospheric research in the world.

Why did you become a planetary scientist?

I can’t say that I had a specific plan in mind. I just followed my interests and said yes to new opportunities. I think it helps not to be focused on just one end goal for your career. The world of science keeps changing, so you need to be flexible enough to change too. As long as you love what you do and are challenged by it, you will be successful.

What do you like most about working at Goddard?

Goddard is always pretty exciting. I spend my time thinking about how to measure the atmospheres of all of these very different types of planets, so it is never boring!

What maintains your creativity?

Being in a creative environment helps you to be creative. Goddard’s people are really imaginative, whether they have been here for decades or have only recently started. I’m so impressed every day with the talent of the people I work with.

What do you do away from Goddard?

I am the mother of a one-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son. When I’m not at work, I spend most of my time with my family. We like to go camping and hiking and we are trying to teach them about the wonders of the natural world. My son really likes it, and for now daughter gets brought along in a backpack.

Read more Conversations With Goddard

Also read about what our people do Outside Goddard

Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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Melissa Trainer
Melissa Trainer
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NASA/W. Hrybyk
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Melissa Trainer giving a lecture at a recent Goddard event.
Trainer giving a lecture at a recent Goddard event.
Image Credit: 
NASA
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Page Last Updated: October 21st, 2014
Page Editor: Lynn Jenner