The goal is a person on Mars

Tuesday 05 Jul 16
by Morten Andersen


Ellen Renee Stofan is Chief Scientist of NASA, the American space agency. She is a geologist specialising in terrestrial planet geology and graduated from Brown University in 1983.

She earned her doctorate degree from the same university in 1989 for her doctoral thesis on the geology of Venus. She has subsequently participated in a large number of missions exploring the solar system, including the Cassini mission to Saturn (including exploration of the Saturnian moon Titan), a number of missions to Mars, and the Magellan mission to Venus. In the 1989-2000 period, Ellen Stofan worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In 2000, she left NASA to take up a position with the consultancy firm Proxemy Research, but remained associated with the exploration of the solar system. She was the principal investigator for the proposed Titan Mare Explorer mission (TiME), purporting to explore the seas of liquid hydrocarbons on Titan.

In 2013, Ellen Stofan returned to NASA to take up her current position. As Chief Scientist she advises NASA’s director on the organization’s scientific programmes. The interview with Dynamo took place in connection with Ellen Stofan’s visit to DTU Space in January 2016.



Curiosity is a 2.7-metre-long, six-wheel robot, a rover exploring the Gale crater as part of NASA’s Mars mission.

Curiosity explores the climate and geology of Mars, for example by analysing soil samples and rocks. The aim is to find out whether the planet has an environment capable of supporting life, for example whether there are any traces of water. NASA’s next mission to Mars is planned for 2020, and this time the rover will be carrying a camera from DTU Space.

The picture is a selfie taken by the robot at the foot of Mount Sharp on 6 October 2015.

Source: Wikipedia (

While space scientists all over the world are eagerly exploring the solar system, their budgets are under pressure. The solution is closer international cooperation, says Ellen Stofan, Chief Scientist of NASA.

John F. Kennedy had a vision of landing a man on the Moon. But when using the same phrase about the ambitions of today’s largest European space project, yours truly is immediately corrected:

 “I prefer to say that we are working to send a person to Mars.”

Ellen Stofan smiles, but her look is firm. It was big news when, in 2013, she became the first woman to be appointed Chief Scientist of NASA. In the interviews just following her appointment, Ellen Stofan made no secret of the fact that she has often felt she had to work twice as hard as her male colleagues to be taken seriously.

She is now visiting DTU as part of a trip which also takes her to the UK and Norway.

“Gone are the days when the USA could single-handedly take on large-scale initiatives like Kennedy’s famous Moon programme. We need to partner with space scientists in a large number of countries. Danish scientists have helped NASA with many projects over the years, so it is only natural for us to visit DTU now,” says Ellen Stofan. 

Partnerships make up for cuts

And in praising Danish space research, Ellen Stofan is not just being polite.

“First of all, the technical and logistical challenges associated with a manned mission to Mars are on a completely different scale to those involved in a trip to the Moon. We therefore need to involve scientists with very specific competences, no matter where in the world they are. Secondly, the economic realities are different now to back then. No space agency—not even NASA—can count on stable, steadily growing budgets. Therefore, partnerships make sense. In this way, the projects can carry on, even though some of the partners may be looking at cuts to their funding.”

NASA works with ESA, the European Space Agency, of which Denmark is a member, in a variety of fields, and is also engaged in cooperation with Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, especially surrounding the international space station ISS. Moreover, NASA works with, for example, Canada and Japan, and also directly with research groups in various countries. 

Born for space travel

Ellen Stofan is a geologist. And then she inherited an interest in space from her father, Andrew Stofan, a NASA rocket engineer. Aged four, she watched her first space rocket launch.

Choosing terrestrial planet geology as her field of research, she was able to combine her two main interests. Over the years, she has been involved in projects exploring the planets of Venus and Mars as well as Titan, the moon of Saturn. In 2004, NASA’s Cassini mission visited Titan, landing ESA’s Huygens probe on the Saturnian moon. Titan is roughly the same size as the Earth. Titan is of particular geological interest as there are oceans as well as lakes on its surface. However, they do not contain water, but liquid hydrocarbons. 

You get nowhere without engineers

Ellen Stofan was the principal investigator behind a proposed new mission,Titan Mare Explorer (TiME), for a floating lander to be sent to Titan. The proposal was ready in 2011, but lost out to other proposed missions in the solar system.

“The Titan project made me even more aware of the value of research collaboration. The temperature on Titan is only 92 degrees Kelvin (approx. minus 181 degrees Celsius, ed.), which poses special technical challenge. As a geologist, you are going to get nowhere unless you work with engineers who are capable of developing innovative solutions. This is true of a lot of space research,” Ellen Stofan states. 

Looking for life in space

The Chief Scientist hopes that TiME or a similar mission to Titan will be feasible in future. Moreover, she has great expectations for a number of projects exploring the so-called exoplanets, i.e. planets outside our solar system. Hundreds of exoplanets have been found, and very intense efforts are going into finding Earth-sized planets which also have an atmosphere. These exoplanets might be the first planets other than the Earth where scientists succeed in detecting traces of biological activity.

“I’m convinced that we will see very exciting exoplanetary research findings in the next ten years,” says Ellen Stofan.

In addition, she expects a lot of the vehicle—the so-called rover Curiosity—which is currently exploring Mars. The mobile robot is, among other things, looking for signs of current or former life on the Red Planet.

Astronauts or robots?

With these simultaneous projects, a question arises: Considering that NASA and other space agencies face budgetary issues, would it not be smarter to focus exclusively on robots? After all, due to the high safety requirements, manned space travel is an extremely expensive way of conducting research.

"I’m interested in all the planets—including our own, very much so. Take, for example, our understanding of climate change, which is a colossal challenge. "
Ellen Stofan, Chief Scientist, NASA

“It’s true that manned space travel is costly. But we must also acknowledge that there are limits to what the robots can do. For example, the robotic rover Opportunity has now been active on Mars for 12 years. During all those years, it has travelled a total of 27 miles (approx. 43.5 km, ed.). A manned mission would be far more productive because humans are more flexible, more mobile, and more creative. When it comes to something as complex as looking for life on another planet, our capabilities as humans far exceed those of the robots,” says Ellen Stofan.

“Of course, this is not to say that we should give less priority to the robots. After all, there is no way that we can send people out to explore Europa, which is going to be one of the next exciting destinations.”

A slightly surprising statement. But only until you realize that Ellen Stofan is not talking about Europa, but Jupiter’s moon Europa. 

Joint Arctic research

Even though Ellen Stofan’s name is associated, in particular, with the exploration of Mars, Venus, and Titan, there is another heavenly body in which she takes a keen interest.

“I’m interested in all the planets—including our own, very much so. Take, for example, our understanding of climate change, which is a colossal challenge. DTU Space is involved in a number of international projects in this field. When it comes to the Arctic, it is obvious that we have joint interests. The USA because of Alaska; Denmark due to its links with Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Climate change is happening fast and has extensive consequences for the Arctic areas,” says Ellen Stofan.

“Like manning a mission to Mars, understanding climate change is an extremely complex challenge which can only be addressed through international cooperation.”

Visit to DTU Space

DTU Space 

NASA’s Ellen Stofan visited DTU Space, which has been working with NASA for many years, among other things developing star cameras for the Juno mission.

During her visit to DTU in January 2016, Ellen Stofan gave a talk for, among others, DTU’s students.











Dr. Ellen Stofan (centre) with Provost Henrik Wegener and Head of Department Kristian Pedersen, DTU Space.