U of G Device 'Phones Home' From Mars

August 09, 2012 - In the News

“Guelph, we have contact.”

The University of Guelph-designed alpha particle X-ray spectrometer (APXS) mounted on the arm of Curiosity, a minivan-sized rover that touched down on Mars this week, has “phoned home.”

NASA confirmed today that the APXS and all other devices on the robotic vehicle Curiosity — officially called the Mars Science Laboratory — are now working.

“How do I feel? My nerves were shattered from all the eight months of flight and the ‘seven minutes from hell’ descent,” said Iain Campbell, a physics professor emeritus and member of the Guelph research group that developed the APXS device.

“Now, like the rest of the team, I am pretty high. APXS is the ‘senior’ instrument on MSL — the only one which has been to Mars before — and we will work closely with several complementary instrument teams.”

The team is headed by physics professor Ralf Gellert, who was also the lead scientist for APXS systems used on twin NASA rovers launched in 2003. Besides Gellert and Campbell, the team includes research associate Nick Boyd, graduate students Glynis Perrett and Scott van Bommel, and post-doc Irina Pradler.

The team witnessed the landing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. They will spend about three months at the JPL working on Mars time before returning to Guelph (a Mars day is 40 minutes longer than on Earth).

Back at U of G, they will run day-to-day APXS operations and analysis from a specially equipped room in the MacNaughton Building.

“This is the biggest research venture in the University of Guelph’s history, drawing worldwide attention to Guelph,” Campbell said.

“I hope we can build on this success and accelerate progress towards our goal, and that of the Canadian Space Agency, of establishing a centre of excellence in planetary instrumentation and exploration here. But right now, we are at a fascinating place on Mars that has seen tremendous environmental change — and we have work to do.”

Funded by the space agency and built by Canada’s MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., the APXS is a key part of gleaning information on Mars’s ancient history.

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. Scientists hope it will tell us about changes in soil and rock on Mars, and provide clues about the planet’s suitability for life.

Since 2005, Gellert has been the lead scientist for the APXS systems that were mounted on NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) that landed on the red planet in 2004 and later detected evidence of water. Campbell, Gellert and colleague Prof. Joanne O’Meara announced the finding in a 2010 paper on the first “on-the-spot” evidence for water on Mars bound up in subsurface salty soil churned up by the rover Spirit.

Back at home, U of G’s involvement in the current Mars mission continues to make headlines.

Gellert was featured Monday in a story in the Globe and Mail that looks at the work that will now begin following Sunday’s successful landing on the red planet. He is also featured in a news article distributed by the Canadian Space Agency.

Leading up to the landing, Gellert appeared on CTV's National Newsdiscussing the research and was part of a CBC online news story. He was also featured Friday in a story and video in the Globe and Mail about the rover and Mars mission. (Watch the video here).

Prof. Iain Campbell
Department of Physics
519-824-4120, Ext. 52325
519-916-848-5327 (cell)

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or lhunt@uoguelph.ca, or Shiona Mackenzie, Ext. 56982, or shiona@uoguelph.ca.

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