David Grinspoon, PhD

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Dr. David Grinspoon is interested in the cosmic context for life, so he studies the climate history of planets and the factors that influence the origin and evolution of life on Earth and elsewhere.  He pursues these interests by participating on spacecraft teams at NASA and the European Space Agency, and through constructing computer models of planetary climate evolution.



Mars Science Laboratory

Mars Science Laboratory, aka the Curiosity rover, is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program. Following in the tire tracks of the successful Spirit, Opportunity, and Sojourner rovers, Curiosity will be substantially larger and more capable. About the size of a Mini Cooper and nuclear powered, Curiosity picks up where the previous missions left off, looking to see if Mars ever had an environment capable of supporting life, and if so, where we might look for it in the future.

Curiosity will use 10 science instruments to examine rocks, soil, and the atmosphere. Dr. David Grinspoon of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science is a coinvestigator on one of these instruments, known as the Radiation Assessment Detector, or RAD. The goal of RAD is to take the first-ever measurements of radiation at the surface of Mars. By measuring things like cosmic rays and gamma rays, Dr. Grinspoon can learn about the Martian environment and its history, as well as the possibility of life both in the past and perhaps even the present.

"On Earth, radiation is important for the evolution of life. It can kill, but radiation also causes mutations that are necessary for the evolutionary process. So it's not completely our enemy," Dr. Grinspoon said.

Knowing the amount of radiation present at the surface of Mars also has other implications, specifically for human safety.

"When humans eventually go and live and explore on Mars, we're going to need to understand the radiation better. For example, how deep underground would a human or organism have to go in order to survive? How much dirt would they bury their habitat under?" Dr. Grinspoon said.

The mission is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in late 2011, and arrive at Mars in August 2012.

Photo Credit: NASA

NASA Astrobiology Institute Titan Team

The NASA Astrobiology Institute is a multidisciplinary, multi-institution organization dedicated to understanding the role of life in the universe. The Titan team is a group funded for five years to understand organic chemistry on Saturn's moon Titan, which has many similarities to the chemistry on early Earth that led to the origin of life.

"Titan is a strangely earth-like place, even though it's a billion miles from the sun and frightfully cold. But it has a thick, nitrogen-based atmosphere that's like ours, and it's the only other one we know of. Plus, thanks to the spacecraft Cassini, we know that Titan is young and active with rivers and lakes of liquid methane as well as meteorology.So Titan has much of the same activity as Earth, only with different materials," Dr. David Grinspoon, curator of astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science said.

Dr. Grinspoon is a coinvestigator on the Titan science team and is particularly interested in possible metabolisms for life on Titan.

"In other words, if there were bugs or creatures or bacteria on Titan, what would they eat, what kinds of chemicals would be in the environment that would serve as an energy source? I've identified some promising nutrients, and I'm doing studies of how much of that stuff would be available, and how much energy would be released," said Dr. Grinspoon.

He also is the head of Education and Public Outreach (EPO) for the team, which means he works with educators and communication specialists to teach the public about Titan and the work the team is doing. There are several Museum-related projects, including the development of a new Planetarium show involving visuals and live music, a Space Odyssey stage show, and a Titan-themed lecture series.

Photo Credit: NASA 

Venus Express

Venus Express, launched by the European Space Agency in 2005, is the first weather satellite at the planet Venus. Thanks to a set of state-of-the-art instruments for planetary investigations, it is digging into the secrets of the Venusian atmosphere, and studying its complex dynamics and chemistry, as well as the interactions between the atmosphere and the surface.

Dr. David Grinspoon is an interdisciplinary scientist on the team, and only one of two Americans to hold the position. His job is to float between the smaller teams organized around each onboard scientific instrument and coordinate the ideas, observations, and interpretations for the larger group.

"It's always exciting to be part of an active mission that's getting new data from another planet, but in the case of Venus Express, it's also interesting in terms of the international cooperation," Dr. Grinspoon said.

The team has already made some intriguing discoveries, such as evidence of lightning on Venus.

"There's a magnetometer on board, which is a radio instrument that hears the static of lightning. Think of when you're driving along in a storm with your AM radio on, and you hear a ksssh ksssh-it's like that," said Dr. Grinspoon.

More recently, Venus Express has taken an image of the surface of the planet using infrared cameras. The cameras found relatively young lava flows, which seems to demonstrate that Venus is still geologically active, or in a sense, alive.

Photo Credit: ESA


Junior Astronauts

Grades 2 & 3

Explore being an astronaut as you learn about space travel in Space Odyssey.

Steven Lee, PhD

Department Chair & Curator of Planetary Science

Space Adventurers

Ages 4 & 5

Travel through space with us to discover what's in our solar system.

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