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NIU alumni and NASA researchers to present at stargazing STEM Café

August 9, 2021

Christine Knudson

When Christine Knudson and Marco Castillo began their degrees in geology at NIU, little did they know they would eventually be working on Mars. Both alumni now work at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, as part of teams who are exploring the planet through remote instruments.

These two researchers will join Argonne National Laboratory physicists Amy Bender, Ph.D., and Lindsey Bleem, Ph.D., and NIU STEAM educator Jeremy Benson at a free STEM Café on August 12 to introduce stellar science subjects such as Mars Rover technology and the Big Bang. Then the audience will head outside to view the brilliant Perseid meteor shower.

Knudson, who graduated from the NIU Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences with a B.S. in 2012 and an M.S. in 2014, works primarily on tasks related to the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (SAM) on the Curiosity Rover.

“I’m involved with the day-to-day mission operations for the SAM instrument, serving as a Payload Downlink Lead (PDL),” Knudson says. “When on shift it is my responsibility to check the health of the SAM instrument, assess the completeness of all data products, and to report the instrument status so that operations on Mars can continue as scheduled.”

Knudson also gathers and analyzes analog materials on Earth – in other words, materials that are similar geologically or environmentally to those found on Mars.

“I’ll be talking about rover operations on Mars and why field work in Mars analogous locations on Earth is so important for data interpretation,” Kundson says. “The Curiosity rover is still exploring Mars and doing great science even after nine years on Mars! We haven’t stopped driving, drilling, photographing or analyzing the rocks along our path and we still have so much to look forward to.”

Marco Castillo

Fellow NIU alumnus Marco Castillo (B.S. 2012, M.S. 2015 in Geology and Environmental Geosciences) works as a geologist and instrument development scientist in NASA’s Planetary Environments Laboratory. His work focuses on the development of life detection instrumentation for future missions to Mars and other planetary bodies, through design, build-up and laboratory testing of these instruments.

Castillo will discuss NASA’s Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA) instrument on board the European Space Agency’s ExoMars2022 rover (set to launch in summer of 2022) and its role in searching for evidence of ancient life on Mars, as well as the DRAGONFLY mission to Saturn’s moon, Titan, and the Dragonfly Mass Spectrometer (DraMS) instrument on board.

“I hope to give a better understanding of the types of instrumentation that are being developed for these missions to other planets and moons in our solar system, and how they are used in the search for evidence of past life on other planets,” Castillo says.

Amy Bender

Joining Knudson and Castillo will be Argonne National Laboratory physicists Amy Bender and Lindsey Bleem, who will discuss their experiences of examining the universe through the South Pole Telescope. The audience will learn how they’re analyzing cosmic microwave background from the Big Bang explosion 14 billion years ago to probe big questions about the origins and future of the universe.

“The South Pole Telescope (SPT) is a millimeter-wavelength telescope [that] observes the cosmic microwave background, the relic afterglow of the Big Bang explosion 14 billion years ago,” Bender and Bleem say. “We will describe some of the big questions about the universe we are probing, from its earliest moments to its ultimate fate. Along the way we will also provide some insights on what it’s like to travel to, live and work at one of the most remote research stations on Earth.”

Lindsey Bleem

Finally, NIU STEAM educator Jeremy Benson will introduce the audience to lunar rocks and meteorites on loan from the Johnson Space Center Educational Loan Program – which will be available for viewing before and after the program. He’ll also prepare the audience for stargazing by introducing the whats and whys of the Perseid meteor shower and sharing what to watch for in August’s night sky.

Every year NIU’s stargazing STEM Café corresponds with the height of the Perseid meteor shower, when meteors radiate from the Perseus constellation and appear throughout the sky. This year, we’re in for a special treat since the moon will be nearly dark, leading to an especially bright show.

This hybrid STEM Café will take place on Thursday, Aug. 12, in person at Open Range Southwest Grill (1 Golfview Ln., Sugar Grove, IL 60554) AND streaming online. The NASA samples and food will be available starting at 6:30 p.m., the speakers will begin at 7 p.m., then the audience will head outside to view the brilliant Perseid meteor shower.

Jeremy Benson

Registration is free and open to the public. Food and drink are available for purchase from Open Range Southwest Grill. Learn more and find registration links for the online and in-person events at

Northern Illinois University STEM Cafés are part of NIU STEAM and are designed to increase public awareness of the critical role that STEM fields play in our everyday lives. They are supported by Bayer Fund and Thermo Fisher Scientific. For more information, visit or contact Judith Dymond, Ed.D., at 815-753-4751 or [email protected].