When Raquel Nuno isn’t hunting for atmospheric water vapor on Mars, she’s constructing a massive super computer in the basement of UCLA’s Geology building. Nuno, a recent UCLA graduate with an interest in planetary science, analyzes data collected by NASA’s two Viking spacecraft that orbited Mars from 1976-1980. She hopes to pinpoint areas where excess water vapor in the Martian atmosphere might trigger the formation of Recurring Slope Lineae, mysterious dark streaks that appear on crater rims and canyon walls during the warmest Martian seasons. These features, first observed by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2010, may indicate the presence of flowing liquid water beneath Mars’ surface. “We think Recurring Slope Lineae could mean there is current hydrological activity on Mars,” said Nuno. “The question we are trying to answer is: where is this water coming from?” To locate potential water sources, Nuno and her advisor, Professor David Paige, have been looking for areas on Mars where the water content in the air is higher than average. Nuno presented her results during a talk at the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Science meeting in Reno, NV in October of 2012.
Nuno, who moved to the United States from Portugal at age eleven, is the first person in her family to earn a college degree. Her unlikely path to planetary science began when she joined the United States Air Force out of high school, working as a medical laboratory technologist. While in the military, Nuno took classes at six different colleges and universities before enrolling as an undergraduate student at UCLA, her “favorite so far.” Nuno hopes to pursue a career in academia and she hopes to inspire the next generation of scientists and researchers through teaching. “Teachers were very important in shaping my interests and career goals,” she said. “I would like to have that sort of positive impact on other students.”