Opportunities Out of this World

By James Baratta ’22, January 22, 2021
Antara Sen ’23 reaches for the stars through involvement with NASA research.

Antara Sen ’23 was only months into their first year at Ithaca College when they reached out to Beth Ellen Clark, professor and chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, to express their interest in NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission.

For six months, Sen, a dual physics and mathematics major, carried out a study that explored the spectral color characteristics of boulder textures on the mission’s target – asteroid Bennu—studying “mudpie” laboratory simulations of the surface composition of the asteroid.

The mudpies are a series of laboratory simulations of Bennu’s surface that were synthesized using a clay mineral called saponite along with either graphite or carbon lampblack. The proportions of clay to carbon were based on previous studies of Bennu’s surface. The components were first mixed together in powder form, then mixed with water to create slurries before being baked.

This allowed them to manipulate the textures of the optical surface – and describe the color consequences.  This work helped to explain the color variations observed across the asteroid Bennu.

 “I’d suggest one idea and [Antara] would implement it right away and come back to me with 10 new ideas for next steps.  This is more than meeting me halfway – this is like being pulled along. Working with Antara is like positive momentum exchange… and perpetual motion!”

Beth Ellen Clark, professor and chair, Department of Physics and Astronomy

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) mission recently acquired materials from the surface of Bennu, a primitive asteroid classified as a B-type (a type that is closely linked to carbonaceous chondrite meteorites). On Oct. 20, 2020, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft touched down on Bennu and collected “an abundant sample” of the asteroid, according to a NASA press release. The spacecraft will return the sample to Earth in 2023.

Clark is used to being approached by students who want to get involved in research. What took her by surprise, however, was how quickly Sen took to the work.

“I usually start by giving students something like a basic programming assignment, and usually it takes them all semester,” Clark said. “But not with Antara. I’d suggest one idea and they would implement it right away and come back to me with 10 new ideas for next steps.  This is more than meeting me halfway – this is like being pulled along. Working with Antara is like positive momentum exchange… and perpetual motion!”

The research on Bennu has been illuminating for Sen.

“In the one year that I’ve been at Ithaca College, I have done things I previously would have considered unimaginable—and the sole reason is this department. I truly believe that my life would be drastically different without each and every person in [the] Department of Physics and Astronomy.”

Antara Sen ’23

“We have been able to infer that boulder types on Bennu are compositionally distinct and show a large range in textural variation—those are our key findings," Sen said. "We've also been able to understand a little bit more about the composition of materials we might find on Bennu’s surface.

Sen will publish these findings in a paper that is provisionally titled Spectral Effects of Varying Texture and Composition in Two-Component Mudpie Simulations: Insights for Asteroid (101955) Bennu.”

Clark sees the current research being an important piece in a bigger puzzle about the universe.

“We only have samples from a handful of asteroid parent bodies in our whole meteorite collection,” she said. “But from these meteorites, we have learned a lot about our early solar system and about how planets form; we even learn about pre-biotic organic molecules and water.  What we learn from the samples of Bennu will be important in so many ways, and we have lots of theories to test based on our orbital observations.” 

The duo’s collaboration shows that when professors like Clark work together with students who have Sen’s ambition and willingness to get involved, amazing opportunities can result.

“Our students are the workforce of tomorrow — with my own children included — they will make the world a better place, and build on everything we’ve done and take it somewhere we can’t even imagine. It’s totally thrilling.”

Beth Ellen Clark

“In the one year that I’ve been at Ithaca College, I have done things I previously would have considered unimaginable—and the sole reason is this department,” Sen said. “I truly believe that my life would be drastically different without each and every person in [the] Department of Physics and Astronomy.”

“Our faculty have cultivated a culture of support and encouragement which has now become a deep-seated part of the IC physics experience. As students, we feel confident in trying something new. This is what makes us good researchers."

In addition to illuminating the past, the experience working with students like Sen has given Dr. Clark a bright outlook on the future.

“Our students are the workforce of tomorrow — with my own children included — they will make the world a better place, and build on everything we’ve done and take it somewhere we can’t even imagine,” she said. “It’s totally thrilling.”