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Nathan Boll sets his sights on Mars and beyond

UMW News Bureau

nathan-bollNathan Boll, a mathematics major at the University of Montana Western, took part in a special live viewing of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) landing video feed in Pasadena, Calif on Aug. 5.

The MSL features the Curiosity rover, which is currently conducting unprecedented scientific research on the Red Planet.

Boll is currently finishing an internship with the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL). The internship is sponsored by the Montana Space Grant Consortium. When finished, Boll will have spent 10 weeks working in the Mars Exploration Program (MEP) performing research on Martian geology based on data collected from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

Due to security concerns, the main NASA JPL complex was closed to non-essential staff during the landing, but Boll and nearly 2,000 others watched the landing at an off-site screening hosted by the Planetary Society.

“The crowd roared and everyone was on their feet,” Boll said. “Everybody was screaming and giving high fives just like people in the control room.”

NASA/JPL-CaltechBoll said the scene at the screening during the landing was pandemonium.

“The crowd roared and everyone was on their feet,” Boll said. “Everybody was screaming and giving high fives just like people in the control room.”

The MSL launched in fall 2011 and soon after landing on Mars began a 23-month (one Mars year) long exploration of the planet. The Curiosity rover is equipped with the most advanced scientific machinery ever deployed to Mars and will be collecting data and analyzing samples from drilled cores and rocks collected from the surface of the planet. The Jet Propulsion Lab refers to the rover as “a robotic geologist and mobile geochemical and environmental laboratory.”

Boll arrived in Pasadena in June 2012 and began working in the Planetary Science Division under Matt Golombek and Nick Warner. Golembek was responsible for selecting the MSL landing site.

Boll’s work has involved digitally “sewing” together images from NASA’s Context Imager and High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment cameras. The work focuses on better understanding the geologic and climatic histories of Mars by accurately determining the timescales over which liquid water was present on the surface.

Boll used advanced geo-referencing and statistical software to perform this work. While he had used some of the software at Montana Western, UMW professors Eric Dyreson, Ph.D. and Sheila Roberts, Ph.D. helped Boll before and during his internship to become better prepared. Boll worked with Roberts on a crash course in the geology software before his internship and Dyreson and Boll have corresponded regularly via e-mail during the internship.

“I basically had to learn the software from scratch,” Boll explained. “Although I had used it before, I was using it in ways I hadn’t known were possible. I really want to thank Eric Dyreson and Sheila Roberts for all their help.”

Boll also said the inherent difficulty of studying a distant and foreign planet proved challenging

“Learning as much as you can about a different planet is challenging in itself,” Boll added. “Learning the language of how to just talk about Mars was a challenge as well.”

“It was a profound honor to be made a part of this historic event,” Boll said. “My perspective has changed in that I have a much stronger connection with this kind of work. I feel this could be the direction my career goes. This work could allow me to make a contribution to the country and society as a whole.”

Boll is finished with his data collection work and is currently compiling his final report over the next two weeks. He will present the report at JPL before he returns to Montana Western and will also present the report twice in Montana.

As Boll’s work contributes to the ongoing research at NASA and JPL — and as the Curiousity rover continues its journey across Mars, scouring for data to send back to Earth — Boll will be finishing his own journey at Montana Western as he begins his senior year in fall 2012. His experience in Pasadena left a major imprint on the mathematics major, and he says he plans to begin applying to graduate programs in either aerospace engineering or computer science.

“It was a profound honor to be made a part of this historic event,” Boll said. “My perspective has changed in that I have a much stronger connection with this kind of work. I feel this could be the direction my career goes. This work could allow me to make a contribution to the country and society as a whole.”

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