They work in the same campus building. They have the same goal. And now Stephen Bougher and Michael Liemohn are competing against each other for a multimillion-dollar grant from NASA.

Sarah Royce
Engineering professors Stephen Bougher (right) and Michael Liemohn (left) with a globe of Mars. The two men are members of University-based teams competing for grants to send probes to explore the Red Planet. (BEN SIMON/Daily)

Bougher and Liemohn are members of two separate University teams, each with a directive from NASA to build instruments to study the upper atmosphere of Mars.

The competition began about nine months ago, with over 20 teams vying for NASA funding. NASA selected two of the teams to receive initial funding of $2 million. Both of them happen to be from the University.

The teams have until late 2007 to refine their proposals, when NASA will select one to be part of a $475 million project to design and build the instruments slated to orbit Mars in late 2011.

Bougher and Liemohn are both researchers in the Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences department.

Bougher’s project – headed by Alan Stern at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. – is dubbed The Great Escape.

Liemohn is part of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution team, which is led by Bruce Jakosky at University of Colorado at Boulder.

The instruments will gather data on the structure and dynamics of the upper atmosphere of the Red Planet. Orbiting at more than 100 kilometers above the surface, the instruments will measure the effect of charged particles from the sun – called solar wind – on the atmosphere.

“Both proposals are quite similar,” Bougher said.

No matter who wins, the scientists said the mission will benefit the University. Because two University teams are competing for the funding, the ultimate decision will “bring something to Michigan no matter what,” Bougher said.

The University will receive $4-5 million. Both teams also include graduate students.

The mission is scheduled for late 2011, aiming for a window of time when the paths of Earth and Mars are sufficiently aligned to enable the launch and subsequent orbit. The window opens every two years.

During the mission, the winning team will conduct data collection and analysis at the University.

Friendly competition does not bother those involved.

“We’re all friends here,” Liemohn said, “but we operate under strict silence.”

Because of the competition, neither team was willing to disclose the specifics of their instruments.

“It’s fun to be working on this project and have two teams working on it in the same building,” Bougher said. “We have to watch what we talk about over lunch.”

Measurements taken by the mission will be the first of their kind.

They will give insight into the process by which the Red Planet lost much of its atmosphere and probably most of its water.

As charged particles of solar wind bombarded the atmosphere, Mars’s water evaporated into space. The loss of atmosphere left the planet’s surface a frozen wasteland.

Data from the mission could also help shed light on Earth’s potential atmospheric changes. Earth retains its atmosphere because it is protected by a strong magnetic field from its core. Mars has no such core, but the atmospheric data gathered by the mission is still relevant. Mars is most similar of the all planets to Earth, making it useful to compare the two.

Both scientists considered the 2011 mission a promising beginning for the study of Mars. They said NASA’s selection of two such similar proposals signifies its commitment to understanding Mars’ climate and atmospheric evolution.

Bougher hinted – only half-joking – that the research could also have an impact on future terraforming of Mars, a long-time sci-fi fantasy involving reshaping the planet into a habitable environment that may be realized with the help of an atmospheric study.

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