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NMSU astronomy department head receives NASA recognition

New Mexico State University astronomy department head Jim Murphy was recently recognized by the NASA Phoenix Lander mission for outstanding performance and his lasting contribution to the success of the Phoenix Mars lander.

James Murphy, New Mexico State University department head and professor of astronomy at the College of Arts and Sciences recently was recognized for his contributions to the NASA Mars Phoenix Lander mission. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

A representative from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory awarded a certificate in late September for Murphy's research support of the surface environment characterization of Mars and for the design and operations of future spacecraft that could potentially land on Mars. Basically, Murphy's research focuses on the atmosphere of the planet Mars and its climate, weather and wind patterns.

"I was glad to offer something and see the mission succeed. If I can have a tiny, tiny part in that, that's great," Murphy said. Murphy's input was one of many sought by NASA based on his involvement in previous Mars Exploration Rover and Mars Pathfinder studies.

The Phoenix lander is one of six in history that has successfully set down on Mars and is the prequel to the next anticipated landing scheduled for 2010 known as the Mars Science Lab.

By using mathematical computer models that represent Mars' atmosphere, Murphy contributes to the NASA studies and has been contributing research to NASA for Mars landers since 2004. Studies he has done assist NASA in determining if the landers will be able to survive the extreme temperature conditions on Mars without being damaged. Lander characteristics that are considered in response to Murphy's input include insulation to prevent the lander from becoming too cold, and ventilative cooling by wind, which helps prevent the lander from becoming too hot during the martian afternoon. The environmental conditions vary greatly depending on where the craft lands on the planet, Murphy said.

Murphy has been teaching at NMSU for 11 years, and is in his 4th year as a department head. He is also the faculty adviser to the NMSU student government component representing the astronomy department. He plans to continue his involvement in future NASA projects, specifically the Mars landers.