On Wednesday 14 October 2009 Pierre-Yves Meslin received the "Le Monde de la recherche Universitaire" prize for his thesis on Martian radon conducted at the IRSN between 2004 and 2007. The prize enables him to publish an article on his work in the French daily newspaper Le Monde, like the four other prize-winners.
Le Monde de la recherche universitaire prize was created in 1997 for human and social sciences (jury presided over by the philosopher Edgar Morin), then extended in 2005 to the so-called "exact" sciences (jury initially presided over by Hubert Curien, and presently by Pierre Léna, a member of the Academy of Sciences). Each year it rewards five young French-speaking researchers in each domain, whose thesis work is "likely to influence our scientific, economic, social and/or artistic environment".
Pierre-Yves Meslin defended his thesis entitled "Radon, a geophysical tracer of the Martian environment: a study of its transportation, first evidencing of it and development of instrumentation to measure it", in May 2008 at the Pierre & Marie Curie University. Cofinanced by the CNES, this work resulted in the discovery of polonium-210 on the soil of Mars thanks to the utilization of unexploited data from the alpha spectrometers of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers sent to Mars by the NASA. Pierre-Yves Meslin has thus established indirect proof of the presence of radon in the atmosphere of Mars, and the key to the interpretation of the data transmitted by the gamma spectrometer of the Mars Odyssey orbiter to establish a Uranium chart for the planet. He was also able to deduce that the soil in the low latitudes of Mars was not as dry as the lunar soil, a conclusion that ties in nicely with the NASA's Mars program baptized "Follow the water!".
Although the radon detector presented in the thesis and baptized NITON has not been included in the payload of the Mars Science Laboratory probe scheduled for launching in 2011, Pierre-Yves Meslin's demonstration of the scientific potential of "Martian radon" puts the instrument in a good position for future NASA or ESA missions. The instrumental developments to expect from it - including reliability, precision and miniaturization – should bring significant advances in the field of portable alpha dosimetry equipment.
Pierre-Yves Meslin is a graduate of SUPAERO, the French aeronautics and space engineering school, and holds a Master's degree in Sciences of the atmosphere and space obtained from Michigan University in Ann Arbor. He is currently conducting post-doctoral work in the Laboratory of Dynamic Meteorology at Jussieu, Paris, where he is working on models of the general circulation of the Martian atmosphere, of the same type as those used to represent or predict the dispersion of pollutants on a regional or global scale in the terrestrial atmosphere.