U of G Helps Get the “Scoop” on Mars

December 04, 2012 - Campus Bulletin

A University of Guelph-designed device has helped in the first-ever full analysis of Martian soil.

NASA announced this week that instruments on its Mars Curiosity rover — including the Guelph-built alpha particle X-ray spectrometer (APXS) — have found a complex chemistry within scoops of Martian soil.

“It’s a significant technological and analytical achievement,” said Iain Campbell, U of G physics professor emeritus and a member of the Guelph research group involved with the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission.

Water, sulphur and chlorine-containing compounds were among substances in a sample analyzed in the rover’s internal laboratory. Curiosity is the first Mars rover able to scoop soil into its belly for analysis of such things as chemistry and mineralogy.

NASA says detecting these substances this early in the mission shows the laboratory’s capacity to analyze diverse soil and rock samples over the next two years.

This particular sample from a drift of windblown dust and sand called “Rocknest” contains fine sand particles.

The APXS instrument — mounted on Curiosity’s arm — confirmed the elements and texture of Rocknest resemble those at sites visited by earlier Mars rovers.

NASA’s current MSL mission is assessing whether the Gale Crater offered a habitable environment for microbes. A critical part of the mission, the pop can-sized APXS measures which chemical elements — and how much of each type — are in rock or soil. Scientists hope the device will tell us about changes in Martian geology and provide clues about the planet’s suitability for life.

The APXS was built by an international group of scientists headed by U of G physics professor Ralf Gellert. Since 2005, Gellert has been the lead scientist for the APXS systems on NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers that landed in 2004 and later detected evidence of water.

A U of G team runs day-to-day APXS operations and analysis from a specially equipped room in the MacNaughton Building. Besides Gellert and Campbell, the Guelph team includes operations manager Nick Boyd, graduate students Glynis Perrett and Scott van Bommel, and post-doc Irina Pradler.

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