Dec. 5, 1996
Vol. 16, No. 7

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    Out of this world!

    College student assists on project headed for Mars The U.S. Mars Pathfinder spacecraft, scheduled to blast off Dec. 4 from the Kennedy Space Center for its seven-month journey to the "red planet," contains more than just the Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer designed and built by University scientists. It holds some of the dreams -- and a lot of the hard work -- of Johnathan Barnes, a third-year student in the College.

    Barnes, as the research assistant to Thanasis (Tom) Economou, Senior Research Associate in the Enrico Fermi Institute, has worked on the spectrometer since his first year at Chicago. As the only assistant on the project, Barnes is doing graduate-level research for Economou, who designed and built the spectrometer with Anthony Turkevich, the James Franck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Chemistry.

    "When I arrived on campus my first year, I needed work, so I looked for any internship I could find," Barnes said. "I think that Tom hired me primarily for my computing skills."

    This is quite an understatement, since Barnes' primary job is creating the computer simulations that will be used to process the information sent back to Earth from Mars after the Pathfinder probe lands on July 4, 1997. Barnes has also worked on modifying a $3,000 computer program purchased by Economou, redesigning it to analyze the material from Mars.

    A native of rural West Virginia, Barnes acquired his sophisticated computer skills on his own time while still in high school. "There's a lack of things to do in rural West Virginia," he said.

    Barnes applied to the University based on its reputation in physics and its Common Core. "All the other places to which I applied had 'tech' in the title," he said. "Chicago was my first-choice school because it required students to take courses other than science, like History of Western Civilization, one of my favorite classes."

    During his work on the Mars project, Barnes has had opportunities to participate in interesting lab experiments -- including working with radioactive materials -- that are rare for undergraduates.

    "This is not a typical set-up, since most undergraduate interns work for or under graduate students, and I work on my own directly with Professors Economou and Turkevich," he said.

    If there is any down side, it's that Barnes has what he calls a "sleepless" summer ahead.

    "I really haven't been out of Chicago for more than a week or two at a time since I started working on this project. Once the probe starts to send back information, I'm going to be working almost constantly" to make sure the computer programs are working right, he said.

    "It will be a hassle, but I'm not complaining," he said. Barnes will not only be able to use some of this work for his B.A. thesis, but also be able to "visit" Mars, as it were.

    "A gold plate featuring all the names of all the people who have worked on the project will be on the side of the instrument that lands on Mars. My signature is going to be on Mars," Barnes said. "Wow."

    -- Jeff Makos