[meteorite-list] New Mexico Scientist Makes Impact
From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Thu Apr 22 09:46:24 2004
Highlands Scientist Makes Impact
By Joseph Ditzler
September 16, 2000
It's a long way across space from the Las Vegas campus of New Mexico
Highlands University to the dry gulches of Mars and the ice-bound surface of
But it's a short trek in Eileen Ryan's imagination.
The 40-year-old expert in the physics of asteroid collisions and co-chair
of the newly created Highlands physics department believes those far-flung
reaches hold some truths about the tenacity of life.
"Not really a lot of people have gotten very far in it at all," Ryan said
Tuesday. "We've been doing several different approaches to show how small
bodies collide in the solar system, what happens when two things hit each
Highlands announced in August that Ryan's work had attracted a $240,000
grant from the NASA Johnson Space Center to study how life in the universe
begins and develops.
Ryan, a research scientist for 13 years at the Planetary Science
Institute in Tucson, is considered an authority in her field, said institute
senior scientist Stuart Weidenschilling.
"It's not something that's a common topic at the dinner table," he said.
Nonetheless, "she's made a considerable contribution to the theory of
"Hypervelocity impact" is another term for what happened 65 million years
ago, when some scientists postulate a meteorite slammed into the Yucatan
Peninsula, or in 1994 when the fragmented Comet Shoemaker-Levy collided with
Jupiter. The theorized prehistoric cataclysm in the Yucatan may have spelled
the dinosaurs' quick demise, according to one theory. Hubble Space Telescope
photographs of the Shoemaker-Levy collision enthralled people with visions
of explosive impacts that would have consumed our planet.
Ryan, however, studies the impacts of smaller bodies, such as asteroids
and comets. Her work at Highlands could extend that study to what happens
when collisions occur with planets such as Mars and moons such as Europa,
which orbits Jupiter.
Discovery of what may be a liquid ocean beneath Europa's surface ice, as
well as the possibility that Martian rocks retrieved in Antarctica hold
fossilized microbes, fueled speculation that life may exist or has existed
elsewhere in our own solar system. Also, astronomers have found evidence of
Jupiter-size planets orbiting distant stars, raising the possibility of life
beyond our solar realm.
"NASA has to be concerned about what the public is interested in, which
has to be factored into its areas of research," Ryan said. "To be able to
understand how life develops is important to our understanding of our place
in the universe.
"It also helps us understand how Earth got to be the way it is."
Some scientists theorize that microscopic life may ride aboard
interplanetary missiles and survive the fiery atmospheric entry and
terrestrial impact to thrive in new and hopefully friendly environments.
The NASA start-up grant to Highlands permits Ryan to explore what happens
to microbial life forms during collisions by asteroids and comets with other
bodies, she said. The Johnson Space Center is a grant partner.
Her first endeavor, scheduled for a NASA facility at White Sands this
year, will be smashing iron-rich rocks similar to those from Mars into one
another and into target material, starting at speeds of 31/2 miles a second.
Afterward, Ryan and her research colleagues will examine the leftovers to
determine what microbes survive, how they survived and where those microbes
that survived were located on the rock, she said.
Ryan - who co-chairs the physics department with her husband, William,
38, a high-energy particle physicist - said she left the Planetary Science
Institute for academia in search of a more reliable source of income.
Instead of relying on grants, she draws a regular salary now.
Highlands proved a good fit, she said. The student-faculty ratio is low,
which allows more individual attention per student; academic standards "are
actually tougher on average than many other programs in the country;" and
Highlands affords undergraduates experience in research programs, such as
Ryan's, a perquisite usually reserved for graduate students, she said.
University spokeswoman Anne S. Clancy added that Ryan's work is not the
only program funded by NASA grants. Highlands and nine other universities
have been involved in an ongoing program to develop optical devices for the
space agency. NASA also helped found a program that encourages Native
American students to excel in math, science and engineering courses.
One reason Highlands attracts such largess is its large minority student
enrollment - currently 60 percent Hispanic, she said.
Received on Mon 14 May 2001 12:04:20 PM PDT