Above: University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa undergrad Schelin Ireland at her NASA-JPL workstation where she ran tests on SHERLOC. Photo: NASA-JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr.

Schelin Ireland (left) and Marianna Oka (right—a student of Kamehameha Schools’ Kapalama campus), got suited up for a space walk outside the HI-SEAS habitat on Mauna Loa during the 2015 PISCES STARS Program.

Schelin Ireland (left) and Marianna Oka (right—a student of Kamehameha Schools’ Kapalama campus), suited up for a space walk outside the HI-SEAS habitat on Mauna Loa during the 2015 PISCES STARS Program.

A UH Mānoa geology and geophysics student and STARS program alumnus spent the summer helping NASA prepare a life-hunting instrument for its upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission. Schelin Ireland of Kailua-Kona interned at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California as part of a team working on SHERLOC, or the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals instrument.

During her internship—provided through Hawaii Space Grant—Ireland tested the prototype version of SHERLOC in the lab, making calibrations to prepare its successor for launch next summer. She also applied her geology knowledge to compile a database of organic and inorganic materials that will help researchers interpret the data they get back once the Mars 2020 rover arrives on the Martian surface.

SHERLOC will be the first instrument of its kind on Mars capable of detecting and extracting data from microscopic particles in search of life on the Red Planet. Up until now, NASA’s Curiosity rover has been using infrared spectroscopy to study the Martian surface. In contrast, SHERLOC uses UV Raman spectroscopy, beaming a laser at samples of interest to seek out signs of biological life—now or in the past.

Ireland’s internship—supported through a Hawaiʻi Space Grant—was right in line with her future goals. In a NASA interview, she said she aspires to be a planetary scientist and astronaut. Ireland graduated from the same school that Hawaiʻi’s first astronaut attended— Konawaena High School (KHS).

“One thing that inspired me when I was in high school was knowing that I attended the same high school as Hawaiʻi’s first astronaut, Ellison Onizuka,” she said in the interview. “It would be an honor to follow in his footsteps and become Hawaiʻi’s first female astronaut.”

While a student at KHS, Ireland attended the PISCES STARS (STEM Aerospace Research Scholars) program—a hands-on summer workshop to encourage young women to pursue STEM careers. The program’s activities included an overnight stay on “Mars” at the Hawaiʻi Space Exploration and Analog Simulation (HI-SEAS) habitat on Mauna Loa and a mock rover mission with PISCES’ planetary rover, Helelani.

“The PISCES STARS program was a very important experience for me to find what I am passionate about in science,” Ireland said. “It has led me to choose a path and has helped guide me in the directions I want to move towards, including getting the internship at NASA JPL.”

The staff at PISCES is thrilled to see Ireland moving toward her dreams and contributing to the next big Mars mission. Congratulations!