Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

April 21, 2004

U of G computer program to aid Mars rovers

Software developed by researchers at the University of Guelph will help the Mars rovers with their discoveries of the Red Planet.

A computer program created by a team led by physics professor Iain Campbell will be used to help sift through findings from Mars, including determining the former existence of water.

Two decades in the making, the PIXE (proton-induced X-ray emission) software package called GUPIX was initially developed for decidedly more down-to-earth applications. It has been used for analyzing trace elements in rock and soil samples, particulate air pollution, biomedical samples and archeological artifacts.

The team never imagined it would called on to help lend insights about another world. “This is one of the most exciting times in my scientific career,” said Campbell, a U of G professor for 36 years.

The U of G researchers became involved through scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, who built the rover’s alpha particle X-ray spectrometer. The device identifies the chemical components in rock and soil by bombarding a sample with alpha particles and X-rays, then detecting the characteristic X-rays bouncing back from the surface (the nickname for its precursor on the Mars Pathfinder was “the sniffer”).

It takes sophisticated software back here on Earth to interpret the results, and the German group is turning to the U of G software. John Maxwell, a Guelph software consultant who works with Campbell, has been refining the computer package to process the results beamed back from the rover.

Melissa Omand, a U of G physics graduate working under Campbell – with the help of physics professors Bernie Nickel and Joanne O’Meara – undertook a major computer simulation effort to predict exactly what the rover’s sniffer should “see” when exposed to a particular type of rock. The device sends back chemical signatures for such elements as sodium and iron in the soil and rocks. The simulation results were delivered to Germany last week.

“Our newly modified Guelph software is the most accurate means to interpret these signatures and gives them a good handle on the elements,” Campbell said. “We’re trying to refine the software now so that features from water can be analyzed more accurately. Can we simulate the scatter effects and predict the results you’d get if there was water in the rock?”

Based on promising results from their simulations, Campbell said the software will help NASA scientists make more refined data analysis, especially as they continue searching for signs of water on Mars.

Prof. Iain Campbell
Department of Physics
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 52325/58397

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