The Catholic University of America

Nov. 30, 2009

From Earth, CUA Scientist Will Study the Atmospheres of Mars and Venus


Vladimir Krasnopolsky

Mankind's understanding of the atmospheres of Mars and Venus will continue to grow through NASA's new three-year $285,000 grant to CUA Research Professor Vladimir Krasnopolsky. His research program will study the chemical composition of these atmospheres as they vary during different seasons and at different latitudes of these planets.

This is a continuation of a previous three-year NASA grant in which Krasnopolsky - a faculty member in CUA's physics department and its Institute of Astrophysics and Computational Sciences - studied the two planets and published scientific articles establishing the first accurate measurements of oxygen and carbon isotopes, high-altitude ozone, carbon monoxide and methane in the Martian atmosphere.

In 2004 he had published the first-ever article establishing the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere. "I'm following NASA's goals for the study of Mars," he says. "The study of methane has a high priority to NASA because the methane could possibly have been generated by some microbial life-forms."

His research has applications to Earth's atmosphere. For instance, he will continue to study hydrogen and chlorine balancing taking place in the atmospheres of Mars and Venus. Similar phenomena occur in Earth's atmosphere, where they reduce the abundance of ozone. Studying the processes on another planet could give insight regarding the Earth.

Krasnopolsky studies extraterrestrial atmospheres using an Earth-based device: NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

Although the European Space Agency now has a satellite orbiting Venus, the CUA astrophysicist says there are some advantages to using Earth-based observational tools. "That's because Earth-based spectrographs are heavy and complicated, while spacecraft instruments must be light-weight and therefore rather simple. We get higher-resolution spectroscopy from the Hawaii facility than can be produced from a spacecraft."

A spectrograph is an instrument used to measure properties of light over a specific portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. In this case spectrographic analysis identifies specific elements and molecules in the atmospheres of other planets.

MEDIA: For more information, contact Katie Lee or Mary McCarthy in Catholic University's Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600.