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SANTA FE, N.M. — A trip to a Boston planetarium at age 7 to see Halley’s Comet set the trajectory of Nina Lanza’s life.
The Mars rover and Los Alamos National Laboratory planetary geologist said she came from a family that loved exploring the natural world. Lanza grew up in Boston, and her parents took her to the planetarium where she attended a lecture and then was given the opportunity to look through a telescope.
“There were all these amazing things,” she said. “I realized that’s what I wanted to do, study these things.”
Lanza is part of the lab’s almost all-woman team that controls the ChemCam instrument that is attached to the Curiosity rover. The instrument shoots rocks with a laser and then LANL team analyzes them. A separate team selects which of the Martian rocks to blast. The instrument was developed in conjunction with
the French space agency, the National Centre for Space Studies.
Lanza said exploring Mars can answer questions about our own planet and the universe.
“It’s a different world,” she said. “There are so many other worlds. What are they? How did they get there?”
The team will also be apart of the new yet-to-be-named rover’s mission. They created a new instrument, called SuperCam, that can do pretty everything the ChemCam does but this tool will also have a microphone. Lanza said this will give scientists more information and in turn a better picture of what Mars is like.
“The microphone is not just to listen to what the aliens are saying,” Lanza joked. “It can help us further analyze the rock.”
Lanza came to New Mexico in 2006 to earn a Ph.D. in planetary sciences at the University of New Mexico. She said she knew the university was working with the lab on the ChemCam and had funding for a student to work on the project. She applied and her career was launched, allowing her childhood dream to take shape.
“I know this is very ‘Star Trek’ of me, but it (Mars rover research) really is very final frontier,” she said. “…You get to see things people have never seen before. It’s so exciting.”
Moving to New Mexico from the East Coast was a big change for the Boston native.
“It was crazy culture shock but one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” she said. “In Boston, you do not make eye contact with strangers. … Here people would say ‘Good morning,’ and I would think ‘What? Are you talking to me?’ It was a friendliness I did not understand. Now I’m that creeper that says ‘Hi’ to everyone when I go back home.”
Mars doesn’t have a monopoly on providing alien rocks to analyze. Earth’s got something to offer too if one knows where to look.
In 2015 and 2016, Lanza traveled to Antarctica to recover meteorites from the ice. She said it’s a great location to find several meteorites at once because they become trapped and preserved in the ice. Over time, the wind acts as a natural excavator, revealing the extraterrestrial rocks. She said the majority of known meteorites on Earth were found in Antarctica.
“We recovered 569 meteorites when we were there,” she said.
UNM Earth and planetary sciences professor Carl B. Agee, who is also director of the Institute of Meteoritics at the college, was the chair of Lanza’s dissertation committee. He called Lanza an outstanding scientist. He said he once joked that Lanza would be running NASA one day.
“What drives her is her passion about her work,” he said. “Her passion to know whether Mars had life or has life now.”
He said she’s a great attribute to the field of science and good at communicating the work she does at many different levels. He said it’s a challenge to get people to care or be interested in what scientists have to say but Lanza is a successful advocate for that.
“Some scientists can be extroverted and speak in jargon,” he said. “Nina has a wonderful, outgoing personality
She may have fulfilled her childhood dream, but her childhood enthusiasm for space and what’s out there has not wavered. The feed of her Twitter account (@marsninja) is filled with tweets promoting planetary science, while her bio offers this: “I shoot the lasers, pew pew.”