BROOKSVILLE — For most of her life, Patricia Gavin has looked to the cosmos with a sense of curiosity.
As an amateur teen astronomer, Gavin would look into a telescope at the planet Mars with amazement and wonder: "How could there not be life out there?"
Years later, the 25-year-old Hernando Christian Academy graduate is anxiously waiting to see what answers to that question will be gotten from Curiosity, NASA's newest Mars exploration rover. And to make the journey even more compelling for Gavin, the craft will be carrying a computer chip with her name digitally inscribed on it.
"It's something I just never dreamed of at all," Gavin said last week from the University of Arkansas campus, where she is currently earning a doctorate at the university's Center for Space and Planetary Sciences. "This is something very important to space exploration, and it's kind of neat to be included in it."
Although she wasn't part of NASA's Curiosity development team, Gavin spent the summer in a space science internship at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. — builder of the 2,000-pound craft — and observed the final preparations that were being made for its journey to Cape Canaveral, from where it was launched Saturday.
"They had a portal to the clean room where I could watch nearly every day," Gavin said. "It's was an awesome thing to see."
As a result of her visits, Gavin's name — along with other visitors to the laboratory — was added to a microchip placed inside the craft.
Gavin, who grew up in Nobleton, has been involved in advanced space studies since high school. After receiving a degree from the Florida Institute of Technology in 2005, she was offered a full scholarship to Arkansas, where she was quickly targeted by professors to take part in planetary research projects with NASA.
Four years ago, Gavin received significant recognition in the space science community through a research a project that set out to explain how Martian soil got its distinctive red hue.
Using spectrographic data collected by two of NASA's early rovers, Gavin was able to re-create Mars' unique atmospheric conditions in a laboratory. Her findings, which were ultimately supported by experiments by other scientists, were presented at the American Astronomical Society's annual meeting in 2007.
Curiosity's 354-million mile journey to the red planet will take about eight months. Once deployed on the surface, the lander will begin searching for organic material, methane, carbon-rich soil, signs of water and other evidence that the planet can support extraterrestrial life.
Gavin, who will have graduated by the time the rover begins sending back data, hopes she can be part of some of the experiments using Curiosity's data.
"I can't think of anything more exciting," she said. "We'll be learning things about Mars for years to come."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]