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Student Helps NASA Thwart Microbial Hitchhikers on Future Mars Missions

Pitt senior Emily Klonicki

Pitt senior Emily Klonicki (right) donned a "bunny suit," or cleanroom suit, this summer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. With Ryan Hendrickson (left), a planetary protection engineer, she used an electron microscope to test whether particles of various sizes would breach a filter that’s going up on a payload on the Mars 2020 rover.

Emily Klonicki spent the summer before her senior year studying planetary protection at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. And several times since then, she said, she's spent time explaining that it has nothing to do with guarding Earth from aliens. 

“The goal is to limit the bacteria or organics from Earth that make it to Mars,” the microbiology major and civil and environmental engineering minor said.

Imagine a rover arriving on the Red Planet. The spacecraft that carried it also brought tiny bacterial spores from Earth, some of them eight times smaller than a red blood cell.

“Freeloaders,” Klonicki calls them.

Some of these microbes are robust enough to withstand the force and heat of liftoff, entry, descent and landing, not to mention ultraviolet radiation and interplanetary space travel — but they’re planet-specific, she explained. If Earth materials make it to Mars, they could obscure or alter the data from samples used to determine whether there ever was — or could be — life on Mars.

“We’re looking at preventing a forward and backward contamination of microbes and organic particle spores,” Klonicki said. “There’s a bunch of different ways to approach the problem.”

One way, specific to the Mars 2020 mission, involves a payload called MOXIE, a system about the size of a car battery that breathes like a tree.

“MOXIE collects CO2 (carbon dioxide) from the Martian atmosphere, then electrochemically splits the CO2 molecules into oxygen and carbon monoxide,” said Klonicki. If it works, it will prove that the toxic gas in Mars' atmosphere can be turned into breathable oxygen to enable future human exploration. The resulting oxygen also can be made into liquid oxygen to refuel for a potential future mission’s return to Earth. Mars 2020 is a one-way trip.

Klonicki explained that the system acts as a giant air filter. As the rover works and heats up, compressed air inside will need to escape, without letting loose any microbial hitchhikers from Earth that may have stowed away. MOXIE’s filters serve as a planetary protection checkpoint. They also decrease particle buildup from the Martian atmosphere inside the rover.

At NASA, Klonicki was tasked with designing the testing protocol for the MOXIE filters.

“Although we’ve used them in other contexts, these filters haven’t been tested extensively from our planetary protection perspective,” said Ryan Hendrickson, a planetary protection engineer who worked with Klonicki at the laboratory, which is based out of the California Institute of Technology.

Most of the NASA group comes from either a hard engineering background or a hard microbiological one, he said. “We needed someone with experience in both to go in and start to test these filters to see how consistent they were with preventing biological materials from getting through.”

To develop a standard testing procedure for the integrity of MOXIE’s filters, Klonicki said she drew on knowledge from her microbiology and environmental engineering classes at Pitt. She also pulled from skills developed during several years of undergraduate research in David Sanchez’s lab.

At this point, Sanchez, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Swanson School of Engineering, said “she pretty much works as a graduate student and is able to help train younger students” on bioelectrochemical experimentation and data analysis. “She has a positive effect on all the teams she works on and is a wonderful team player.”

As Klonicki’s mentor, Hendrickson agreed. She ran tests “every which way you could think of … and was actually able to complete a very significant portion of the work — much more than we had anticipated or planned on. I was very impressed with Emily,” he said.

With a knack for experimental design, it was hard to come back to school post-NASA, Klonicki said. “I love learning, but it felt like I had a really big purpose there, even in some small way, working on these filters. I’m part of a team that’s literally sending a rover to Mars for sample return.”

“It was the greatest experience I’ve ever had,” she said.

Now a few months from graduation, she’s weighing her options and reflecting on a collection of college experiences.

As a sophomore, Klonicki placed second overall in the Randall Family Big Idea Competition for a project using microbial fuel cells as a cheap alternative for charging small electronics in developing communities. Building on that project with Sanchez, she was named a University Innovation Fellow in 2016.

“When you do extracurricular activities that Pitt provides outside of the classroom, it gives you a more holistic approach to real-world applications,” Klonicki said.

Student Helps NASA Thwart Microbial Hitchhikers on Future Mars Missions was originally published on the University of Pittsburgh website.