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Out & About: Dartmouth scientist to share Mars research

  • Marisa Palucis, assistant professor of earth sciences at Dartmouth, is one of the scientists studying information relayed by the Mars rover Curiosity. (Courtesy of NASA)

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 7/10/2019 8:00:13 PM
Modified: 7/10/2019 9:56:08 PM

WEST LEBANON — As America celebrates the milestone achievement of the Apollo 11 moon landing, 50 years ago this month, it might seem like the most exciting days of the American space program are behind us.

But important discoveries about space are still taking place, like the recent revelation that water — and possibly even microbial life — existed on Mars in the past.

This information comes to us courtesy of the Mars rover Curiosity, the latest in a series of motorized vehicles NASA has sent to gather data about the red planet.

Marisa Palucis, assistant professor of earth sciences at Dartmouth, is one of the scientists studying information relayed by Curiosity.

Palucis and her team of graduate students will discuss their recent findings on Monday, July 22, at 1 p.m. at the Kilton Public Library in West Lebanon.

Attendees will also be able to try on a virtual reality headset and experience what it’s like to visit Mars (recommended for ages 8 and up).

“When you put on the headset, you’re like Matt Damon in The Martian,” Palucis said. “You feel like you’re walking or hovering around the landscape of Mars. You’re looking at the mountains and the valleys.”

Curiosity is the largest rover that’s ever been landed on Mars — “about the size of a Prius,” according to Palucis. It was also the most difficult one to place on the planet’s surface. On previous missions, rovers have been parachuted down with balloons, but Curiosity is so big it had to be lowered by a kind of space crane.

The process was fraught, Palucis said, in part due to the built-in delay involved in receiving information from Mars.

“The rover talks to satellites orbiting Mars, then the satellites relay information to satellites orbiting Earth,” she said. “Everything has to align.”

The first discovery Curiosity made was a big one.

“The crater it landed in once hosted a large ancient lake,” Palucis said. “It was at a time when we thought water was much more scarce on Mars, so it was a surprise when we found evidence for a lake.”

Not only that, but based on its chemistry, geology and mineralogy, the lake would have had a neutral pH, which would make it hospitable to life.

Now Palucis and other researchers are studying geological formations in the crater to see if they can find evidence for microbial life.

“Because Mars doesn’t recycle rocks the way Earth does, we have the whole geological history to observe, the origin of life and how it evolves with a planet,” Palucis said. “Rocks on Earth erode, they go into ocean basins and get pushed into the Earth’s mantle, and it erases all the evidence of what happened during that time period.

“Mars doesn’t have plate tectonics, so it’s a great place for studying really, really old rocks.”

The Mars rover program at Kilton Library is only one of a variety of space exploration programs taking place around the Upper Valley this summer.

Here are a few more to check out.

Mobile planetarium show in Thetford

Thursday, July 11, at 2 p.m.

Thetford Elementary School, 2689 Route 113.

The Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury presents traveling planetarium shows at 2 and 3 p.m. Sponsored by the Latham Memorial Library. Free. Space is limited. Register for one of the shows by emailing 802-785-4361.

Talk: “How Apollo 11 Got to the Moon” in Norwich

Wednesday, July 17, 6:30- 7:30 p.m.

Norwich Public Library, 368 Main St.

Norwich resident Dan DeMars shares his knowledge of space flight, NASA, astronauts and the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Free. 802-649-1184.

StarLab traveling planetarium in Windsor

Thursday, July 18, 1:30-3:30 p.m.

Windsor High School, 127 State St.

Learn about the constellations of the Milky Way star field at this presentation by Vermont Institute of Natural Science. Two 45-minute sessions. Free. Seating is limited; call to pre-register. 802-436-2473.

Film: “Apollo 11” in Hanover

Thursday, July 18, 7:30-9:30 p.m.

Hopkins Center for the Arts, 4 E. Wheelock St.

Featuring never-before-seen large-format film footage, this documentary puts the audience in the control room, in the cockpit and on the moon to appreciate the science, collaboration and courage behind one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. $5-$10. 603-646-2422.

50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in Norwich

Saturday, July 20, 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m.

Montshire Museum of Science, 1 Montshire Road.

Celebrate the anniversrary of the lunar landing with a day of science activities. Learn about the technology used to send a person to the moon, watch astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take their first lunar steps, explore the universe with guest scientists, eat space-age treats and take part in space-inspired hands-on science activities. $15$18, under 2 free. Visit for more information. 802-649-2200.

Apollo 11 moon landing celebration in Windsor

Saturday, July 20, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

American Precision Museum, 196 Main St.

The American Precision Museum celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon with STEM activities for all ages. High school students are invited to build and race lunar rovers and to 3D print and launch compressed air rockets. Free. Pre-registration is recommended. Call 802-674-5781 or visit

Kids: Apollo 11 and therapy dog birthday party in Grantham

Saturday, July 20, noon- 1:30 p.m.

Dunbar Free library, 401 Route 10.

Games, activities and treats to celebrate the birthday of Maggie the therapy dog and the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Free. 603-863-2172.

Moon landing
celebration in Warren, N.H.

Saturday, July 20, 4-7 p.m.

Warren Town Hall, 19 Water St.

Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains celebrate the anniversary of the 1969 milestone with lunar science activities and presentations by local space experts, scientists and historians. Visitors can view the town’s Cold War-era Redstone rocket, similar to the one that sent the first American into space and laid the groundwork for taking humans to the moon. Free. 888-474-9686.

Meet the astronaut:
Jay Buckey in Hanover

Thursday, July 25, 6:30-7:30 p.m.

Howe Library, 13 South St.

Buckey, who was a payload specialist on the Space Shuttle Columbia, recounts his experience. Recommended for ages 8 and up. Free. 603-643-4120.

Kids’ science workshop in Thetford

Friday, July 26, 3 p.m.

Latham Memorial Library, 16 Library Road.

Educator Kurt Valenta presents “The Story of Air as it Occupies Space,” a hands-on workshop for ages 5 and up. Part of the “Universe of Stories” summer reading program. Free. 802-785-4361.

McAuliffe Shepard
traveling planetarium
in West Lebanon

Monday, July 29, 1-4:30 p.m.

Kilton Public Library, 80 Main St.

Take a peek at the night sky. Viewings at 1, 2:15 and 3:30 p.m. No small children. Pre-registration required; call to sign up. Free. 603-298-8544.

Film: “Apollo 11”
in Woodstock

Saturday, Aug. 17, 5-6:30 p.m. and 7-8:30 p.m.

Billings Farm & Museum, 69 Old River Road.

This documentary features never-before-seen large-format film footage of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s historic trip to the moon. $5-$11. Part of the Woodstock Vermont Film Series. Reservations are strongly recommended. Tickets available at or by calling 802-457-5303.

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