News & ToursApril 22, 2015

She played golf on Mars...sort of

What is it like to play golf on Mars? Well, no man or woman has yet to take that exceedingly giant leap (with apologies to Neil Armstrong), so for now one can only speculate. Or simulate.

Jocelyn Dunn, a PhD candidate in Purdue University's School of Industrial Engineering and a former college golfer, recently did the simulation.

Dunn is chief scientist on an eight-month, NASA-funded Mars simulation mission on the northern slope of Mauna Loa (elevation 8,000 feet) on the Big Island of Hawaii. She brought with her a 7-iron and a few golf balls and recently donned the space suit and went out and hit some balls.

Dunn, confined in the space suit, was able to hit the ball only about 90 yards, rather than the 135 she ordinarily would hit a 7-iron.

"Using simple projectile motion to analyze the corresponding differences in club head speed, I lost about 6.8 m/s (15.2 mph) from swinging in a spacesuit," she wrote on her blog, fivestarview.blogspot.com.

Dunn, meanwhile, had watched the Masters telecast and noted that Jordan Spieth's average driving distance at Augusta National was 295 yards, which would equate to 635 yards on Mars. She also took each of Augusta National's 18 holes and computed what the yardages would be were the course built on Mars (the par-5 second, for instance, would play 1,235 yards on the Red Planet).

"The physics of golf is actually simpler on Mars," she wrote on her blog. "Without an atmosphere, Mars has just 1% of Earth's air density. Thus, aerodynamic forces such as lift and drag are trivial on Mars with magnitudes less than 10e-6. Simple projectile motion equations that only consider gravity are appropriate for computing the trajectory of a golf ball on Mars. Opposed by only about 1/3 of Earth's gravity, every Mars explorer could hit the ball further than PGA Tour players on Earth!"

Just a guess, but her distance control probably is pretty strong.

Dunn grew up in Sebring, Fla., with a family of golfers, including a father who built a makeshift driving range on their ranch, complete with yardage markers up to 250. She eventually took a job in the pro shop at River Greens Golf Course in Avon, Fla. One day, the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University golf team was there competing and she was introduced to its coach, Maria Lopez.

"In high school, I practiced golf nearly every day and took every math class available," she said via email because the simulated Mars mission includes a simulated 20-minute communications delay that precludes phone calls. "I was headstrong with the goal of earning a university scholarship to compete at golf and study aerospace engineering."

She received her scholarship to Embry-Riddle in Daytona Beach, earned her aerospace engineering degree, then went to Purdue and earned her Masters degree in biomedical engineering.

Her last full swing before beginning the Mars mission nearly produced an albatross. It was a 3-wood second shot to a par-5 that lipped out, she said (see photo below).

She won't play again until her mission is complete. But then? "After finishing my PhD, I want to start practicing regularly again and competing in USGA qualifiers," she said, noting the U.S. Women's Amateur is on her radar. "I want to see how good I can get with the maturity that I have now. I believe I will have an inner calm and more steadfast confidence in the midst of competition."

As for her career goals, they're lofty. "I've found my work on this simulated Mars mission deeply interesting and compelling, and consequently intend to apply for NASA's next round of astronaut selection," she said.

Follow @JohnStrege

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