Pinnick plays key role in future exploration of Mars

“The path to NASA started at Minot State. I took a really great analytical chemistry course. It was the first time I had ever taken a class in instrumental analysis.”
Veronica (Cavallo) Pinnick '04, Goddard Space Flight Center

By Dan Fagan
University Communication Assistant

GREENBELT, Md. – Approximately five miles from the heart of Washington, D.C., in the town of Greenbelt, Md., is a peculiar complex comprised of an amalgam of white and brick buildings. Named after the famed rocket propulsion pioneer Robert H. Goddard, the Goddard Space Flight Center is a haven for NASA scientists and engineers to create and develop cutting edge equipment to advance human knowledge and exploration of space.

Somewhere in the maze of hallways, lecture halls, and laboratories, in a cloistered testing room, Veronica (Cavallo) Pinnick ’04, a research associate specializing in scientific instrumentation, can be found testing equipment that will soon be flown into outer space to aid exploration missions destined for far-off planets.

In June 2018, Pinnick completed her work on a highly advanced mass spectrometer for the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA) that will be sent into space in 2020 as part of the ExoMars Rover’s mission to Mars.

“The mission’s goal is looking for molecules that indicate life,” Pinnick said. “The idea is that we use this tool to look for complex biological molecules, something that looks like life, anything that indicates that life has been there in the past.”

After eight years of work on MOMA, Pinnick’s contribution to the 2020 Mars mission is now complete. Now she can only watch as scientists at the European Space Agency take over and integrate MOMA into the next stage of planning and preparation.

“I’m doing everything I can to let it go,” Pinnick admitted. “I’m a bit of a control freak, so it’s a huge challenge. My entire heart and soul and brainpower for the past decade went toward thinking how to build, design, test, and qualify it. It’s a labor of scientific love.”

While Pinnick is looking forward to the 2020 mission, she can’t help but look back on the journey to her current place in time.

“The path to NASA started at Minot State,” Pinnick said. “I took a really great analytical chemistry course. It was the first time I had ever taken a class in instrumental analysis.”

Pinnick had always enjoyed chemistry but scientific instrumentation awakened her to the role of being a liaison between science and engineering.

After graduating with a chemistry degree from Minot State, she attended Texas A&M where she completed a doctorate in analytical chemistry. It was at Texas A&M that she studied under renowned professor Emile Schweikert, a leading researcher in time-of-flight mass spectrometry. Pinnick was tasked with developing instrumentation that could measure nano-particle materials.

“So I basically spent my entire Ph.D. building this instrument, testing the methodology, then, after four-and-a-half years, taking six months worth of measurements,” Pinnick recalled gleefully.

Upon completing her Ph.D., she had offers from major companies around the country including a lucrative offer from tech giant, Intel. But, after interviewing at Intel, she admitted, “It just didn’t feel right.”

Instead Pinnick took a shot on a post-doctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. Under the guidance of professor Bob Cotter, Pinnick had a chance to work on the development of a mass spectrometer for NASA.

“I guess I proved myself useful because they agreed to take me on as a staff scientist after my post doc was over,” Pinnick said.

From that point forward, Pinnick worked on the mass spectrometer for MOMA. The design process alone took years. This was followed by years of testing and revamping. Equipment that is sent into space is required by NASA guidelines to undergo extensive testing to simulate impact, temperature fluctuations, weathering, and various other elements of space.

Pinnick and a team of other scientists were tasked with participating in the simulation testing. The testing ranged from ensuring functionality in severe temperature changes to violently shaking the equipment to assess its durability.

MOMA is the most advanced particle-gathering instrument sent into space to date. Designed specifically for exploration on Mars, it is built to withstand the harsh environmental conditions on the red planet. Most importantly, the ExoMars Rover will have the capability of drilling two meters below the surface to extract samples that are untarnished by atmospheric chemicals that can cause the break down of molecules, rendering them useless to analysis.

Space exploration is an extremely expensive endeavor with a significant failure rate, and Pinnick is well aware that years of her hard work are dependent on the efforts of her peers in the science community, not to mention space itself.

“The integration and test schedules we make for ourselves are all dependent on the alignment of the planets, and we have a launch window when Mars and Earth are in alignment at their closest points in their orbit, and if we don’t hit those launch windows, it’ll be another two years before we can hit it again,” Pinnick said. “It’s critical to hit those launch dates.”

Regardless of the outcome of the 2020 Mars mission, Pinnick said she is motivated by the other scientists she works with in their goal of growing humanity’s understanding of the universe. And, of course, the prospect of the mission succeeding is something that Pinnick can’t help but be optimistic about.

“The scientific discoveries that will no doubt happen when this lands on Mars and starts drilling, are things that will be read about in textbooks a hundred years later,” she said. “It is truly the frontier of scientific understanding."

About Minot State University
Minot State University is a public university dedicated to excellence in education, scholarship, and community engagement achieved through rigorous academic experiences, active learning environments, commitment to public service, and a vibrant campus life.

Published: 12/04/18   

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