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William & Mary professor continues streak of helping with Mars exploration

Joel Levine helped select the scientific payload
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Posted at 11:05 AM, Feb 18, 2021

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. - NASA's Perseverance rover landed on Mars Thursday, and the journey of hundreds of millions of miles through space and the mission ahead is in part thanks to the work of a William & Mary professor and his students.

Joel Levine is a research professor in applied science at William & Mary, as well as a consultant for the NASA Engineering and Safety Center at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton.

Levine spent 41 years working full-time for NASA and has a long history of being involved with the Mars missions and space exploration, enlisting the help of William & Mary students along the way.

Before Perseverance landed on the surface of Mars Thursday afternoon, Levine admitted earlier he would be watching nervously.

"I know what has to happen precisely at the same time, at the correct time, and the order, and it's very nerve-wracking," he said.

"The supersonic parachute that will open up, a 70-foot parachute, will slow down the spacecraft that comes into Mars at about 12,000 miles per hour. In seven minutes, it has to land. It lands between one and two miles an hour," Levine explained in an interview Thursday morning with News 3 anchor Todd Corillo.

"That seven minutes is called 'seven minutes of terror' because the spacecraft has to go from 12,000 miles an hour down to one or two miles an hour. There are probably well over a thousand things that have to work at the precise time within a fraction of a second to be successful. It is a unique procedure, and the United States is the only country in the world that successfully soft-landed on the surface of Mars," he continued.

More than just understanding what is going on during the mission, Levine played an important role in selecting what's landing on Mars with Perseverance.

"In 2014, I was asked to serve on the committee that selected the instruments that will land on Mars later today. There were probably over 50 experiments and instruments, and we had to pick the top 12 or 13."

Levine says the instruments on Perseverance will help to answer one of the most vexing questions humans have asked: Are we alone?

"The instruments will tell us whether there is any evidence for life on Mars, in the past or in the present," Levine said. "We're very interested to know whether life is widespread in the solar system in the galaxy and beyond, and this mission today will provide a lot of information to tell us about the likelihood of life presently or in the past on Mars."

Throughout the years, Levine has made it a point to include William & Mary students in his research.

In 2017, NASA asked Levine to organize a workshop on Martian dust and how it might impact robotic and human exploration. Several William & Mary students took part in the workshop at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

For years, students in the William and Mary planetary geology course have also been investigating possible landing sites for the first human mission to Mars.

"They spend almost half the term doing a geological analysis of the terrain and and where they should travel, what they should do and so on."

A year ago, Levine worked on another NASA workshop entitled "Lunar Dust and Its Impact on Human Exploration."

The proceedings book from that workshop was recently published and examines what has been learned about lunar dust, the impact on human health and how to reduce effects for future human exploration.

The work is crucial for the return of manned missions to the moon, planned for 2024.

At a conference on the subject in February 2020 at the Johnson Space Center, a number of William & Mary students participated and presented papers.

"What we're trying to do at William & Mary is to get students, both undergraduate and graduate, that have an interest in planetary exploration and NASA and give them an opportunity to do independent research...and to get involved in a meaningful way with the U.S. space program."

Levine has also been involved in the 2012 Curiosity rover mission as well as the 2014 Mars Atmospheric and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) Mars orbiter.

Now that he can add Perseverance landing on Mars to the list, Levine is hopeful.

"I'm very optimistic that we'll be celebrating later this afternoon," he said before the landing, adding, "I think that when we land on Mars, we're going to learn about Mars, but I think we're also preparing for the security and the future of the United States of America."

Watch Todd Corillo's full interview with Professor Joel Levine in the video player above.