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Siena professor plays role in historic Mars rover launch

Tom Coohill, 79, is an expert in ultraviolet
Tom Coohill
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Tom Coohill

Categories: News, Schenectady County

LOUDONVILLE — Tom Coohill is thanking his lucky stars after a whirlwind Thursday morning.

Following the nail-biting launch of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover — a historic mission which scientists are hoping will bring back the first soil samples (and perhaps, fossils) from Mars, with a return date set for 2031 — the Siena physics professor is still pinching himself. He just became part of history at age 79, after NASA invited him to join a committee to ensure that the OS is sterile when it lands back on Earth. Coohill designed, and is having built, an ultraviolet chamber for conducting research, which is also needed for the second and third launches to follow.

“I never thought I’d get to be a part of it,” said Coohill, a Loudonville resident who last year was selected to join the committee. “I didn’t know enough about the mission to know that there’s much more ultraviolet on Mars than there is on Earth, really. And that’s why it became important. Not that I could contribute to building rockets and all that stuff. But my expertise is UV, so I could make a contribution in that shape.”

Coohill, who has been at Siena since 1998, participated in “life-changing” research for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1980s and has since built a wider expertise in ultraviolet light effects on living things.

Coohill said the samples the rover collects from Mars will be brought back in “little tubes,” about the length of a pen but a bit wider. The three dozen tubes will be full of soil, rocks and other samples taken after drilling, and will be launched from the surface of Mars in a container the size of a basketball. Now that the first step is complete, Coohill is hopeful that getting the “basketball” figure back to Earth will be a slam dunk.

“That’s never happened,” Coohill said. “We’ve never had — even from the moon — anything launched from another heavenly body without a human doing it.”

The complex return mission will include the sample-filled container going into orbit, another satellite launch to scoop it up and then NASA ultimately bringing that satellite back to Earth. And that doesn’t even include the launches for satellites that will specifically communicate with the rover. There will be four launches in total, which Coohill said is “pretty darn exciting.”

“If everything goes on time, and you know, you can’t plan things 11 years in advance, but if everything goes by the book, the samples should land in August of 2031,” Coohill said. “Now,if it happens to land on August 25, 2031, that’s my 90th birthday. For some reason I haven’t lost any interest yet, so we’ll see how far it goes.”

Coohill remembers asking NASA why they wanted a 79-year-old professor on the team. “They said that doesn’t matter. ‘Work as long as you can on this project.’ So anyway, I said, ‘All right, if you don’t care, I don’t care.’”

But Coohill really cares about the mission.

“I would like to see fossils, at least that’s the baseline,” Coohill said. “We expect we can find some fossils, or we hope we can find them. And that would say that life exists in other places, not just Earth. And the fact that the fossils could have existed 4 billion years ago, and there are some people who think life on Earth was seeded by life on Mars.

“So a lot of those questions might get answered by those samples. Those are the big, philosophical questions. … Now suppose, just suppose, they come back with some living forms from Mars. Wow, that would really blow our mind if something up there is living under the surface. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but it’s nice to think about.”

Coohill knows his involvement in the mission is thanks to a careers-worth of studies and, while he’s grateful for even having the opportunity to be involved, he wants locals to know one thing: It doesn’t matter what age you’re over, you can help launch a rover.

“You never know when opportunity’s gonna knock,” Coohill said. “But when it knocks you have to be prepared for it.”

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