Brooklyn-born scientist helped make Mars landing a reality

August 8, 2012 By Raanan Geberer Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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When the “Curiosity” rover landed on Mars on Sunday night, delighting viewers worldwide with its parachute-aided landing, it was the culmination of an effort in which a Brooklyn-born scientist played a crucial role.

Joel Levine, a graduate of Jefferson High School and Brooklyn College, was on a panel of scientists and engineers who selected the various instruments that would go onto rover to collect information. Although he retired from NASA in July after 41 years, he still works closely with NASA in his capacity as a research professor at the College of William and Mary.

While NASA sent two earlier rovers, “Spirit” and “Opportunity,” to Mars in 2003, “This is the biggest spacecraft we’ve sent yet,” said Levine.

“Because it’s so big, 2,000 pounds, it can carry a lot of different instruments we couldn’t bring to Mars in the past,” Levine, speaking from his home in Virginia, told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

“The science will be tremendous. There will be a chemistry lab on the rover, instruments to measure weather, to look for the presence of organic materials.” This information will all be sent back to Earth, with the aid of satellites that are orbiting Mars and have powerful antennas for transmission.

Levine said that while the rover was built to last two years, “our past experience shows that these probes exceed their nominal lifetime. Their nominal lifetime is two years, but they may last 10 years.”

This isn’t the first time that Levine has been involved with things Martian. In 1970, after he was hired by NASA, he was assigned to the Viking Mars project. This program came to fruition in 1976, when two space probes, Viking 1 and Viking 2, touched ground on the red planet.

Levine and his team provided the calculations about the atmospheric structure of Mars that was responsible for that mission’s success.

Later, in 2007-08, he served as program scientist for the Mars Scout Program, a NASA initiative that sent a low-cost robotic device, the Phoenix, to research the history of water on the planet.

Levine graduated from Jefferson in 1960 and Brooklyn College in 1964, then received several graduate degrees before ultimately receiving a Ph.D in planetary science in 1970.
Dr. Joel Levine gives the commencement speech at Brooklyn College on June 1, 2011.  NASA photo
He first became hooked on space in sixth grade at P.S. 182 in East New York when he saw, in a textbook, the first photos of Mars taken through the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory, the biggest telescope in the world at that time.

“Then, in high school,” he said, “I took the IRT to Flatbush and went to Brooklyn College, when they had an open night in their observatory. They had a telescope there, and that’s where I looked at Mars for the first time.”

Nowadays, when he’s in the New York City area, he still visits Brooklyn, including his native East New York. “The area looks better now than it did then,” said Levine, who watched it deteriorate in the 1960s.

Last year, he returned to Brooklyn College to be the keynote speaker at commencement and to receive a Distinguished Alumnus Award.

At the graduation, he began speaking about another scientific project he had been involved in  the famed rescue of 33 trapped Chilean miners in 2010.

“I helped design the rescue vehicle that brought them to the surface,” he said. “When I mentioned that in my speech, many of them started cheering and stood up.”

Asked about his future plans, Levine said he plans to keep teaching at William and Mary and work with NASA to develop the ARES (Aerial Regional-scale Environmental Surveyor) project.

That project, he explained, involves developing a robotic, rocket-powered airplane that can fly through Mars’ relatively thin atmosphere.

Comparing it to Curiosity, he said that in its lifetime, the rover will travel perhaps 20 miles. In comparsion, the ARES plane will be able to travel 450 miles in one hour.

The science behind this, of course, is beyond the comprehension of the great majority of people in Brooklyn and everywhere else. We wish Dr. Levine good luck in all his endeavors.

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