Rowan's first geology head on a space case

Rowan's first geology head on a space case

GLASSBORO - Harold Connolly will wait seven years for his asteroid samples to return from space on a $1 billion mission.

In the meantime, the bow-tied geologist and admitted geek, is building a geology department at Rowan University from the ground up.

Two days after Connolly moved into his Rowan University office earlier this month, his NASA space mission took flight.

While the rocket speeds 23,000 mph toward the Bennu asteroid, an energetic Connolly can't just sit back and wait for his rock samples to return in 2023.

The first-ever Geology Department chairman will be plenty busy in his third-floor Robinson Hall office on the university's Glassboro campus, creating the department's undergraduate curriculum kicking off in 2017, and master and doctoral programs.

Connolly came on board Sept. 6. two days later Osiris-Rex, a $1 billion NASA mission to Bennu, was launched from Cape Canaveral in the "most beautiful launch" Connolly's ever seen.

The former City University of New York professor is the lead sample scientist for the mission that aims to map the asteroid, collect at least 60 grams — about the size of a clump of 60 raisins — worth of samples, and return it to Earth.

The rocket will reach Bennu in 2018. The flight returns to Earth's atmosphere in 2023, parachuting the specimen into a Utah desert.

Connolly is part of the team developing the mission since 2008. He will coordinate the cataloging of samples and international efforts to study the bits harvested from Bennu.

In a nutshell, the Camden-born, Barrington-raised scientist is researching the reason our planet exists.

Meteors — or, bits of asteroids — contain information about how the universe formed. The space matter falls to the Earth pretty frequently. Scientists, however, can't pinpoint which asteroids the meteors chunks come from. This mission — and a similar one by Japan's NASA counterpart Connolly also works with — links samples directly to the asteroid. Findings will help scientists understand more about how the universe was created billions of years ago, and give more information about asteroids and how they move through space, Connolly explained.

"I am an explorer of space and time," he said.

"Geologists are kind of like the modern day lords of time. Our work is always looking backwards as well as forward."

Once the samples are returned to Earth, Connolly hopes to bring some to Rowan. In the meantime, the chairman will incorporate updates on the mission in courses in the budding geology department.

"I was really motivated to come here," the South Jersey native said.

After all, his love for geology and paleontology sprouted at Washington Township High School in the late 1970s, in his first Earth science classes. He graduated Haddon Heights High in 1983 and went on to earn his bachelor's, master's and PhD from Rutgers University in Camden and New Brunswick.

He's taught at CUNY and remains an associate researcher at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

He found the job through a Facebook post about Ken Lacovara's role as founding dean of Rowan's College of Earth and Environment and the university's procurement of a Mantua quarry-turned Rowan Fossil Park.

Finally, South Jersey had everything Connolly needed to come home to his roots.

"I was really motivated to come here," he said.

"To build a geology department and to work with somebody like Ken Lacovara. And to come home. It was ideal."

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Date Published: Thursday, September 22, 2016 - 14:15
Source URL: Courier-Post