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UNM Scientist Nabs Presidential Award

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If evidence of life on Mars is discovered one day, Francis McCubbin won’t be surprised.

His research at the University of New Mexico suggests that Mars – once thought to be a dust-dry planet – could be a pretty wet place.

“You probably wouldn’t have to go deeper than a couple of meters to reach the right set of conditions to have liquid water,” McCubbin said. “That’s not very deep at all.”

Honorees with N.M. connection
2011 Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers.
Six researchers with New Mexico ties will be among the 96 U.S. researchers honored next week in Washington, D.C. The award is the highest honor awarded by the U.S. government to scientists and engineers in the early stages of their research careers. Recipients and their areas of study are:
n Stan Atcitty, a researcher for Sandia National Laboratories, for his work with power electronics.
n Amy J. Clarke, a materials scientist for Los Alamos National Laboratory, for her work with uranium alloys.
n Justin Hagerty, a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who earned three degrees at the University of New Mexico, for his work studying the early evolution of the moon.
n Francis McCubbin, a senior research scientist for the UNM Institute of Meteoritics, for his work on the geochemistry of the inner solar system.
n Dan Sinars, a researcher at Sandia National Laboratories, for his work with plasma physics.
n Matthew Squires, a scientist with the Air Force Research Laboratory space vehicles directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, for his work with controlling laser-cooled atoms.

McCubbin, 29, is among 96 U.S. researchers who next week will receive the 2011 Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers. A senior research scientist for UNM’s Institute of Meteoritics, he is among six scientists nominated by NASA for the award, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on researchers in the early stages of their careers.

New Mexico is well represented among the award’s recipients. McCubbin is one of six researchers with New Mexico ties so honored this year.

A geochemist, McCubbin’s research focuses on the role of water, the essential requirement for life, in the formation of planets in the inner solar system.

He wants to help settle a scientific debate about whether water was a part of planets at their origin, or added later, he said. Some widely repeated theories suggest that asteroids brought water to a dry Earth.

“A lot of the research that I’ve been doing is hinting that we can get a lot of water inside of planets during their formation,” he said.

Water accumulates in volcanic magma and is carried to the planet’s surface as water vapor, which can condense into liquid water, he said.

Research by McCubbin and others suggests that, even in supposedly dry places like the moon, a large amount of water is locked in rock.

“It was widely reported for over 40 years that the moon was bone dry,” he said.

But McCubbin’s analysis of lunar rocks found that the moon has about five times more water than anyone expected.

The research also shows that Mars may rival Earth in the amount of water it contains and that some could exist in liquid form close to the planet’s surface.

“Mars was also believed to be pretty dry,” he said. “But now we’re finding that it has at least as much, if not more water, locked in its interior” than Earth.

McCubbin’s studies of Martian rocks suggest that volcanic activity brought water to the planet’s surface as recently as 150 million years ago.

Water evaporates quickly in Mars’ low-pressure atmosphere, but liquid water may lie just below the surface, he said.

The research suggests a possibility that Mars supports life, he said.

“We’re never going to know until we actually go there and bring samples back,” he said.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal