Published: April 7, 2020
An illustration of Mars' atmosphere escaping into space during a solar storm.

Mars' atmosphere escapes into space during a solar storm. (Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

This release was adapted from an announcement published by NASA. See the original story here

A CU Boulder researcher studying how Mars lost much of its water and atmosphere over billions of years has received one of NASA’s most prestigious awards for early-career scientists.

Mike Chaffin

Mike Chaffin

This week, NASA selected Mike Chaffin and five other researchers to receive funding through the Planetary Science Early Career Award (ECA) program, which supports outstanding early-career individuals and allows them to play an increasing role in the planetary science community. The ECA program is new to the Planetary Science Division (PSD) and is the successor to PSD’s former Early Career Fellowship program.

“Receiving the award is a huge honor, and totally unexpected,” said Chaffin, who earned his PhD at CU Boulder in 2014 and is now a research associate at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at CU Boulder. “I'm really excited to put the funds to use and continue to support my graduate students in their excellent work.”

Chaffin’s research seeks to understand the evolution of planetary atmospheres in our solar system, and funding from the ECA program will allow him to conduct a new series of studies to explore processes that affect hydrogen loss from the Martian atmosphere. The ECA funding will also allow for the development of interactive planetary science courses to be used for both the students at CU Boulder studying planetary science as well as the general public.

The goal of the ECA program is to advance the research and professional development of exceptional early-career scientists by granting up to $200,000 to each of the selected scientists. These awards will allow the promising individuals to continue their work and meaningfully contribute to the planetary science community.

“At NASA, we know how important this new program is to the early-career scientists in our community, and to the future of planetary science as a whole,” said Shoshana Weider, ECA program lead. “We had excellent candidates this year, and I’m excited to see what these six principal investigators will achieve in the next stages of their careers.”

Chaffin also hopes to explore how planets lose not just air, but also their oceans. A large percentage of the Red Planet’s surface, he explained, may have been covered by water roughly 4 billion years ago. 

Nick Schneider, a professor in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at CU Boulder and LASP, was not surprised by the honor.

“It’s been a great pleasure to work with Mike since he was a graduate student,” Schneider said. “His creativity and hard work have caused a paradigm shift in the study of Mars’ atmosphere, and it’s wonderful to see his potential recognized by NASA.”