U of G Research Headed for Mars, Making Headlines

November 25, 2011 - Campus Bulletin

University of Guelph physics professors are making headlines today with their research that will be blasting off into outer space this week. Stories about Profs. Iain Campbell and Ralf Gellert and U of G's role in the Mars Science Laboratory appear in the Globe and Mail and on CBC online news, and there were live television reports on CTV's Canada AM and CBC's morning news. Campbell will also be on CTV National News tonight.

Gellert and Campbell are part of an international group of scientists that developed the new alpha particle X-ray spectrometer (APXS) that is mounted on the arm of Curiosity, a minivan-sized rover that will soon be on its way to Mars.

The APXS is about the size of a soda pop can. It will measure exactly which chemical elements — and how much of each type — are in Martian rock or soil.

Gellert and students Nick Boyd, Scott van Bommel and Glynis Perrett will head this week to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida for NASA’s launch of its international Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission aboard Curiosity. (Video: Gellert talks Mars, APXS with Globe and Mail).

Launch is scheduled to occur this Saturday or as late as Dec. 18. The U of G team will also attend meetings all week to prepare for operation of the MSL after it lands on Mars. Mission scientists aim to learn whether the Martian environment could support microbial life.

The Guelph team helped to develop and fine-tune the APXS, which is Canada’s contribution to the MSL mission.

“The APXS will be one of the many important instruments on this new mission,” said Gellert, principal investigator for an international group of scientists.

During the mission, the Guelph team will support the APXS operations and send instructions for operating the device on the rover. The team will work in a specially equipped room in the MacNaughton Building.

“We’ll run the day-to-day operations and analysis from our centre, and have a direct impact on the rover’s operation,” Gellert said.

“That means our students are sitting in the front row and having very responsible roles in the overall MSL team that is made up of experts from NASA and elsewhere. It’s very exciting for them.”

Boyd, a Guelph physics grad and now a research associate in the department, has helped ready the APXS lab. He is now finishing a master’s degree in the School of Engineering.

Van Bommel, a master’s student, is analyzing data from an APXS instrument on earlier Mars rovers.

Perrett, who completed a B.Sc. in physics, is a PhD student in environmental sciences who helped calibrate the APXS. Working with Campbell and Prof. Susan Glasauer, she will use spectrometer data to study how Martian rocks have formed and changed.

Also involved is Mike Curry, major projects manager in the Physics Department and a former aerospace scientist who has worked on instrumentation systems for the International Space Station.

The journey to Mars will take about nine months. Curiosity will roam the red planet for one Mars year — 23 Earth months.

The minivan-sized rover will be the largest and most sophisticated piece of equipment ever to land on Mars. About twice as long and three times as heavy as previous rovers, it can roll over thigh-high obstacles and travel about the length of two football fields in a day.

The new mission will investigate a new promising landing site, Gale Crater, that shows evidence for clays and sulfate deposits from orbit. Curiosity will explore this region in a similar way as NASA’s twin Mars
Exploration Rovers (MER), which landed on the red planet in 2004.

One of those rovers, Opportunity, continues to send information back to Earth. Gellert is the lead scientist for the earlier APXS instruments on MER.

In 2007, Campbell and physics professor Joanne O’Meara reported results from MER data detecting the first “on-the-spot” evidence of significant amounts of bound water still existing on Mars.

“MSL picks up where MER had to pass,” Gellert said. “MER found many spots that showed clues for possible habitable conditions, but it did not have the analytical instruments that investigate these samples further.”

He added that the APXS itself cannot tell if Mars was habitable. “No single instrument can do this alone. What the APXS does is tell the scientists if the rock was possibly altered in the past, or if it’s a piece of pristine solidified lava and if it is a promising target for a closer look.”

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