Ancient Life on Mars? U of G Grad Aims to Find Out

Waiting for news of the safe landing of NASA’s latest Mars rover in mid-February, U of G physics grad Dr. Chris Heirwegh had a discomfiting thought: If the mission failed, what would he be doing next?

As a scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, Heirwegh had spent nearly five years helping to prepare a high-tech instrument carried aboard the Perseverance rover. The rover touched down in the red planet’s Jezero crater on Feb. 18.

PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) is designed to help look for signs of ancient life on Mars. Carried on the rover’s robotic arm, the device aims X-ray beams into rock to scan for trace inorganic elements.

Along with a second device that looks for organic molecules, PIXL will give scientists a “bio-signature” of any fossilized microbial remains in the rock.

Heirwegh and his JPL colleagues will analyze data being sent home from the instrument and maintain the instrument from 300 million miles away during the rover’s planned three-year mission.

Monitoring the rover landing last month – an intricate operation involving a sky crane that lowered Perseverance to the planet’s surface – Heirwegh felt “pretty relaxed but excited.”

Only later, he says, “It hit me how much was going to happen, how much strain and stress there was on the instrument going through the landing process, hoping everything would work out all right. You never know.”

He and his wife, Meagan, and their six-year-old daughter, Harper, watched the landing at home while Chris was on a web call with his JPL team. Meagan completed a master’s degree in molecular and cellular biology at U of G in 2011.

“All of a sudden, it was done, and we were cheering,” he says. The family celebrated with a rover-themed cake.  

As a PhD student and post-doc at U of G, Heirwegh studied X-ray fluorescence with emeritus physics professor Dr. Iain Campbell.

Earlier, U of G physicists led by Dr. Ralf Gellert calibrated scientific instruments for the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity Mars rovers; Heirwegh was involved in analyzing data from those missions.

He expects to start seeing PIXL data from Mars in late spring.

Originally from Simcoe, Ont., Heirwegh studied medical physics for his master’s degree at McMaster University. In a Hamilton Spectator article this year, he said he had thought he might become a pharmacist like his dad. But he wanted to learn more about the physics behind medical imaging.

After completing his doctorate at U of G in 2014, he did a post-doc here before heading to Caltech for another post-doc at JPL in 2016.

Referring to his U of G supervisor, Heirwegh says, “Iain was very influential in helping to shape my career, not just learning physics but helping me navigate more practical elements of conducting a working career as a research scientist. I feel very grateful for the guidance he gave me.”

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