NASA scientist develops techniques for the detection of organic compounds in meteorites
by: NASA Aaron Burton in his lab.

If you are turning hydrogen into water you wouldn't think that there would be an explosion because it's becoming wet.

The unexpected inspiration of an Oregon City student who became a NASA scientist, this simple revelation hit German scientists and The Hindenburg with a ball of fire in 1937.

Aaron Burton, a researcher at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., visited Clackamas Community College on Oct. 25 to tell the story of how he discovered his love for chemistry after pursuing two other majors there.

Burton graduated from the college in 2002 and told current students that chemistry instructor Nicolas Hamel also inspired him with the science behind the warnings on packets of faux sugar.

'Every time I learned something, I realized I wanted to learn something more, not just to pass the next test,' Burton said.

Beside chemistry and biology, Burton said the most helpful class he took was public speaking with Kelly Brennan. 'It's important to be able to communicate in science and in most jobs - it also helps if you want to do karaoke,' Burton said.

The most difficult class he took at CCC was technical writing. 'It was the only time I ever wanted to quit because I was working graveyards (shifts) at Fred Meyer when my computer crashed and I had to go anyway,' Burton recalled. He managed to get off his shift early, redo the assignment and has since learned to save his work frequently.

Finding meteorites

Burton started at Portland State University in the fall of 2002 and received his bachelor's in biochemistry in 2005. He began graduate school there studying the molecular evolution and characterization of RNA enzymes.

During the last three years of graduate school, through receiving his Ph.D in chemistry in 2010, a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship supported Burton.

Through a NASA postdoctoral program fellowship administered by the Oak Ridge Associated Universities, Burton develops techniques for the detection of organic compounds in meteorites. An asteroid that fell in 2008 in the Nubian Desert of Northern Sudan was the first asteroid to be followed from detection in space to landing on earth. It was estimated at 80 tons in space, but less than 100 pounds made it to the ground.

'If there's a particular meteorite I want, I have to hope there's already one on Earth or do a meteorite dance and hope one will come down to my specifications,' Burton said.

Burton's project is a capsule scheduled to launch in 2016 that will check out an asteroid that has a 1-in-1,000 chance of hitting Earth in 2182. Particles of a comet trapped in NASA's aerogel discovered first evidence of amino acids, the building blocks of life, outside of Earth. Later this year, another Mars rover is heading into space.

'This is the best chance we have to see whether there are molecules on Mars that would show there was life on it,' Burton said.

Burton lives in Crofton, Md., with his wife, Kyra, and their daughter Avalee.

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