Sciences and Exploration Directorate

Brief Bio

J. L. McLain is an experimentalist with a background in gas-phase ion chemistry and charged-particle surface interactions. His research combines lab-based measurements with orbital and suborbital mission data on the chemistry and dynamics of the interplanetary space environment. His goal is to focus on the construction, calibration, and successful scientific return of spaceflight instruments to study the dynamics and evolution of planetary atmospheres and surfaces. Dr. McLain has built and calibrated 5 spaceflight instruments that have flown on sounding rockets, four Miniaturized Low Energy Neutral Atom Imagers and a Cubesat Electron Spectrometer. Dr. McLain is currently building and calibrating 9 spaceflight Search Coil Magnetometers.

Dr. McLain's lunar research was recently highlighted on a new media series, "On the day and life of a NASA Scientist."

Current Projects

SMART Mission


Currently, Dr. McLain is working on building and calibrating a suite of Search Coil Magnetometers. The Tri-axial Search Coil (TASC) unit is an orthogonal set of AC magnetic field sensors capable of detecting the B-field vector of an electromagnetic plasma or radio wave. Dr. McLain will support the TASC build in sensor development, calibration, and integration for the upcoming sounding rocket mission called Beam-PIE (PI. Rob Pfaff), and a DARPA funded mission called SMART.

Lunar Environment And Dynamics for Exploration Research (LEADER)

Plasma Processes

Dr. McLain is the NASA GSFC Experimental lead for the LEADER project. Dr. McLain utilizes several surface science techniques to study volatiles on lunar soils retreived during the Apollo missions. Over the last decade the discovery of water ice and possibly CO2 frost at the poles of the Moon has renewed the quest for establishing access to these resources. The discovery of CO2 and water by missions such as LRO, LADEE, and MESSENGER has created numerous questions about how and where these volatile species originated.

The Sodium and Potassium Cycle in the Exosphere and on the Surface of Mercury and the Moon: Synthesis of Experiments, Data and Models


Dr. McLain is the Experimental Lead on a Solar Systems Workings project with M. Sarantos (PI) to study UV photon stimulated desorption of Na and K from lunar soils and Mercury analogs as a function of wavelength and soil temperature. We plan use these findings to build new models of how the space environment interacts with the surfaces of the Moon and Mercury, which we can use to better predict the processes and behaviors around similar bodies.

The Effects of Space Weathering: Lab Analysis of Neutral/Ion Sputtering on Lunar Soils

Space Weather

The goals of this research is to determine the relative and absolute solar wind sputtering “heavy” ion yields on a suite of lunar soils. We will characterize the composition and kinetic energy (velocity) distribution of sputtered and low energy reflected neutrals from several different lunar soil types based on maturity and mineralogy. These data are needed to understand the fate of these particles and to compare to remote sensing data (Sarantos, Killen et al. 2012) and references therein.

Visualizing Ion Outflow via Neutral Atom Sensing-2 (VISIONS2) Sounding Rocket Mission Miniaturized Imager for Low Energy Neutral Atoms (MILENA 1, 2 and Tech. Demo)

Earth's Ionosphere

Dr. McLain was a co-I on the recently launched VISIONS 2014 and VISIONS2 2018 sounding rocket missions. For these missions, we built four similar MILENA instruments (Miniaturized Imager for Low Energy Neutral Atoms). The primary science goals of VISIONS was to identify how, when, and where ions are accelerated to velocities sufficient (≥ 5 eV) to reach high altitude acceleration regions in the auroral zone below 1000 km, following substorm onset.  We reported in Collier et al. 2015, our initial results from the VISIONS rocket that flew through and near several regions of enhanced auroral activity and sensed regions of ion outflow both remotely and directly. Additional observations were made with VISIONS2, which is part of the Grand Challenge Initiative-Cusp, an international collaboration to explore the polar cusp-where Earth’s magnetic fields bend down to meet the poles and solar wind particles can enter our atmosphere. The Grand Challenge is a collection of 9 missions and 12 rocket launches. 


Research Astrophysicist

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center - Greenbelt, MD

2020 - Present

Associate Research Scientist

University of Maryland College Park - NASA GSFC

2019 - 2020

Assistant Research Scientist

University of Maryland College Park - NASA GSFC

2016 - 2019

Visiting Assistant Research Scientist

University of Maryland College Park - NASA GSFC

2014 - 2016

NASA Postdoctoral Fellow

Oak Ridge National Labs - NASA GSFC

2012 - 2014

Postdoctoral Fellow

Georgia Institute of Technology - Atlanta, GA

2009 - 2012


Ph.D. Physical Chemistry, University of Georgia, 2008
Bachelors in Chemical Engineering, Auburn University, 2001


Outstanding Teaching Award,  Analytical and Physical Chemistry Lab, 2005

Special Act Award, Astrochemistry Lab, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, 2014

Robert H. Goddard Exceptional Achievement for Science Award to DREAM2 Center for Space Environments, 2019

Selected Publications


Rowland, D., M. Collier, J. Keller, et al. R. Pfaff, J. Klenzing, J. McLain, J. Clemmons, and J. Hecht. 2022. Imaging Low-Energy Ion Outflow in the Auroral Zone Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences 9 [10.3389/fspas.2022.809367]

Mclain, J. L., M. Loeffler, W. M. Farrell, et al. C. I. Honniball, J. W. Keller, and R. L. Hudson. 2021. Hydroxylation of Apollo 17 Soil Sample 78421 by Solar Wind Protons Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets []

Farrell, W. M., J. L. McLain, J. R. Marshall, and A. Wang. 2021. Will the Mars Helicopter Induce Local Martian Atmospheric Breakdown? The Planetary Science Journal 2 (2): 46 [10.3847/psj/abe1c3]

Rhodes, D. J., W. M. Farrell, and J. L. McLain. 2020. Tribocharging and electrical grounding of a drill in shadowed regions of the Moon Advances in Space Research 66 (4): 753-759 [10.1016/j.asr.2020.05.005]

Farrell, W. M., D. M. Hurley, M. J. Poston, et al. P. O. Hayne, J. R. Szalay, and J. L. McLain. 2019. The Young Age of the LAMP‐observed Frost in Lunar Polar Cold Traps Geophysical Research Letters 46 (15): 8680-8688 [10.1029/2019gl083158]

Farrell, W. M., J. L. Mclain, and J. Marshall. 2019. Titan's Atmospheric Electricity: The Reaction of the Atmosphere to Electrical Stress Journal of Geophysical Research - Planets

Anderson, C. M., D. Nna Mvondo, R. E. Samuelson, J. L. Mclain, and J. P. Dworkin. 2018. The SPECTRAL Ice Chamber: Application to Titan's Stratospheric Ice Clouds The Astrophysical Journal 865 (1): 62 [10.3847/1538-4357/aadbab]

Farrell, W. M., D. M. Hurley, V. J. Esposito, J. L. McLain, and M. I. Zimmerman. 2017. The statistical mechanics of solar wind hydroxylation at the Moon, within lunar magnetic anomalies, and at Phobos Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets 122 (1): 269-289 [10.1002/2016je005168]

Farrell, W. M., J. L. McLain, M. R. Collier, and J. W. Keller. 2017. The Martian dust devil electron avalanche: Laboratory measurements of the E-field fortifying effects of dust-electron absorption Icarus 297 90-96 [10.1016/j.icarus.2017.06.001]

Anderson, C. M., R. E. Samuelson, Y. L. Yung, and J. L. McLain. 2016. Solid-state photochemistry as a formation mechanism for Titan's stratospheric C4N2 ice clouds Geophysical Research Letters 43 (7): 3088-3094 [10.1002/2016gl067795]

Bennett, C. J., J. L. McLain, M. Sarantos, et al. R. D. Gann, A. DeSimone, and T. M. Orlando. 2016. Investigating potential sources of Mercury's exospheric Calcium: Photon-stimulated desorption of Calcium Sulfide Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets 121 (2): 137-146 [10.1002/2015je004966]

Collier, M. R., D. Chornay, J. Clemmons, et al. J. Keller, J. Klenzing, J. Kujawski, J. McLain, R. Pfaff, D. Rowland, and M. Zettergren. 2015. VISIONS remote observations of a spatially-structured filamentary source of energetic neutral atoms near the polar cap boundary during an auroral substorm Advances in Space Research 56 (10): 2097-2105 [10.1016/j.asr.2015.08.010]

Farrell, W. M., J. L. McLain, M. R. Collier, et al. J. W. Keller, T. J. Jackson, and G. T. Delory. 2015. Is the electron avalanche process in a martian dust devil self-quenching? Icarus 254 333-337 [10.1016/j.icarus.2015.04.003]

Gilbert, J. A., D. J. Gershman, G. Gloeckler, et al. R. A. Lundgren, T. H. Zurbuchen, T. M. Orlando, J. McLain, and R. von Steiger. 2014. Invited Article: Characterization of background sources in space-based time-of-flight mass spectrometers Review of Scientific Instruments 85 (9): 091301 [10.1063/1.4894694]

Professional Societies

The Planetary Society

2010 - Present

American Geophysical Union

2013 - Present

Special Experience

NASA Planetary Science Winter School 2015

Goddard Space Flight Center Training Program

Class 4 Laser User Authorization, NASA GSFC 2014

Ionizing Radiation: Electron and Ion Source User Authorization, NASA GSFC 2013

High Power Radio Frequency User Authorization, NASA GSFC 2019


Selected Public Outreach

Public Outreach

2014 - Present

NASA Public Outreach, Kids Center at AwesomeCon 2015 and 2019.
NASA GSFC, DREAM2Explore Teacher Professional Development Workshop, 2015.
NASA GSFC Child Development Center, Astronomy Day, 2014.