CSU’s McCarty Secures Second NASA Internship

McCarty_CameronCOLUMBUS, Ga. — Cameron McCarty, a senior astrophysics and planetary geology major at Columbus State University, has already tracked comets for NASA.

Now, he’s shooting for the moon.

On June 1, the Columbus native will begin a 10-week internship at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. He will be doing lunar regolith analysis, which is the study of that heavenly body’s soil and rock composition.

“I’ll be working with lunar soil doing microwave analysis with it, or I’ll be doing (work with) thin sections of rock brought back from the moon,” McCarty said. “They’re testing how sunlight heats up lunar soil. Lunar soil is pointier. It’s sharper than soil here on Earth because of weathering. They think that it might heat up differently because the smaller, sharper particles can heat up faster. They’re testing that to see if that actually happens.”

Those thin sections of rock were brought back from the moon by astronauts on Apollo 15 in 1971.

”I’d be identifying different types of minerals in that rock,” he said.

And he will be looking at it in a new way as well. The usual method has been to use optical light to identify elements. This time, McCarty said, he will use X-rays to determine composition of the rock.

“With that, we will also determine the composition of the moon in a different way than we have previously done,” McCarty said. “That’s significant. Since we (astrophysicists) believe the moon was formed when a small protoplanet — a planet in the stage of formation — hit Earth about 4.6 billion years ago, the moon was sort of flung off the Earth. A protoplanet hit the Earth and then a piece smacked off and that became our moon.”

That means that, by analyzing the structure and composition of the moon, ”we can also help to figure out the composition of the Earth,” McCarty said. “There might be some minerals that are capable of holding water or minerals that we may want to mine in the future. Those are all good aspects of looking at lunar geology.”

Before his internship officially begins, McCarty will be one of four NASA interns at Marshall to represent their intern program at the Citizens for Space Exploration 2014 Washington D.C. Fly-In on May 20-23.

The Huntsville interns will be part of a larger group of people from across the country who share enthusiasm for the work NASA does. Sponsorship includes a $750 stipend to cover each participant’s travel expenses. The citizens group, which has organized the fly-ins for 20-plus years, is a coalition representing economic interests in several locales with strong NASA connections, including Cocoa Beach, Fla., and Houston, Texas.

“(The fly-in) is very exciting for me,” McCarty said. “I’ll be attending meetings with congressmen and getting a tour of Capitol Hill. During that time I'll be talking to congressmen about the benefits of NASA and space travel.”

McCarty, who has one semester of coursework remaining before graduation, had an internship last fall doing comet analysis with Bill Cooke, NASA’s lead scientist in the Huntsville-based Meteoroid Environment Office. Second internships with NASA offices are rare. A grant helps the agency pay for a first internship, but a second internship has to be paid out of a specific office's budget.

During McCarty first internship he was looking at different comets as they came close to the Earth. As part of their work on the near-Earth environment, they tracked Comet ISON as it approached the sun and monitored how it was shedding material.

ISON didn’t survive its encounter with the sun, but McCarty’s skills at tracking and photographing the comet enhanced his reputation. McCarty’s image of the famous comet, taken using NASA's 20-inch robotic telescope in New Mexico, is still displayed on NASA's website dedicated to Comet ISON (http://www.nasa.gov/cometison/).

McCarty's ISON images were the second time in a seven-month period where his work was featured on a major NASA website. His image of a May 10, 2013 solar eclipse, taken in Australia as part of the webcast expedition by CSU’s Coca-Cola Space Science Center, was featured as NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day  (http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap130511.html).

In April, at CSU’s annual Scholastic Honors Convocation, McCarty was named the top physics student in CSU’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences. For more information on its astrophysics and planetary geology major, as well as other degree options, visit http://ColumbusState.edu/ess.

# # #