|Albert Chen, Professor of Physics|
The Mystery of Mars
August 12, 2004
Exploration is part of human nature. On the winds of Enlightenment exhilaration, Magellan, Columbus and a host of others sailed the earth and chartered its seas and landmasses. With equal inspiration, scientists probed the smallest properties in existence to discover protons, neutrons and electrons. Biochemists unraveled some of the human mystery by defining the double helix, and the creative mind has simulated itself in our present age of computers and robotics. Archeologists unpack past civilizations, and oceanographers delve into underwater secrets. And JFK’s speech to the moon, informed by all the history that Galileo spurred forward, summons a whole new era that has spilt human exploration onto all God’s heavens. With the moon behind us, humanity’s hunt to uncover the mysteries of Mars is in full throttle.
With watchful eyes, Mars has loomed as the devilish red star for many civilizations. Mars has never been liked. The Egyptians called him the “Red One” and the Babylonians thought it to be the “Star of Death.” The Greeks named him Ares representing the god of war and blood, and Rome passes the tradition to our age in the name they espoused to him: Mars. Now, examples range from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds to the Mars Bar to Marvin the Martian. Mars certainly has staying power, and this is especially true with OBU Professor of Physics Yuan-Liang Albert Chen.
While a graduate student, Albert began working with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Since coming to OBU in 1986 as a faculty member, he has continued to work with NASA each summer. His projects include working on the new space shuttle main engine diffuser investigation at Stennis Space Center, and fluid dynamics research for the STARS code at NASA Dryden Flight Center. But much of his work has centered on the Mars program, both at Johnson and the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Albert is excited that Mars has recently experienced renewed interest. “Space exploration (Mars) teaches us to be humble,” he says. “We don’t know everything, and we are not the center of everything going on in the universe. There’s a lot of mystery.”
Humility comes into mind when Albert hesitates to respond to questions of life on Mars, significant amounts of water on Mars, or if there may have been more life in the past. “The orbital parameter is most like Earth’s when you compare it with other planets,” he says. “A Martian day is similar to our 24-hour day, but the year is twice as long. There is some gravity but its measures only about 37.7 percent compared to Earth. There is some air pressure but Earth is 760 mb and Mars is only 6.9. There is much to be researched before we’ll have definitive answers about Mars and what may have happened, if anything, on the planet.”
Albert is hopeful that people will physically make it onto the Mars surface someday, although there are a number of challenges. “With the current technology the flight would take six months to arrive at Mars and the mission would be limited by when the orbit of Mars is closest to the earth,” he says. “That means the mission would be limited to two weeks or last as long as six months. Either way, there is a six-month flight back. That amount of time in space is problematic.”
Specifically, Albert is concerned with the dust on Mars and the characteristics of the dust. “There’s a high concentration,” he says. “It is a different size and mass. One of the other problems is the extensive dust storms that flair up, and we have very little knowledge when and why these storms take place.” While at the Kennedy Space Center, Albert conducted the research on the dust that can cause problems of build-up on solar panels, as well as other dust-related hazards, including charges that can come from the particles.
His work at NASA helps what he does most of the year in the OBU physics classroom. “I ask my students, ‘When you’re in your space suit for several hours, what happens when you have an itch on your face?’ That’s when they begin thinking, and that’s an example of what has to be thought out. NASA places several foam pieces in the mask of the suit that the astronaut can lean his or her face on and relieve an itch.” He encourages students to consider space as a profession, especially space medicine. “It’s a field that we don’t know much about and has tremendous opportunity for growth.” Space exploration has long-reaching effects to life on Earth. Products from the satellite television to bar coding use technologies or materials that were originally developed for the space program. (A host of others are listed below.)
Albert is confident that his work is helping to answer several of the many questions concerning God’s heavens and their exploration. In addition, perhaps his work will benefit everyday life here on Earth in ways we don’t yet realize.
enriched baby food
water purification systems
fire fighter suits
shock absorbing helmets
video game joysticks
database management systems
aerodynamic golf balls
flat panel televisions
food packaging & freeze-dried
fogless ski goggles
quartz crystal timing
pollution measuring devices
automatic insulin pumps
studless winter tires
(Marvin the Martian’s Disintegrating Pistol and army of 10,000 Instant Martians (“just add water”) are not among the developments…yet.)