As NASA’s Curiosity rover sits on the dusty surface of Mars, three Canadian scientists are getting ready to control the SUV-sized vehicle and analyze the data it collects.
“I think we’re going to see something that’s going to blow our minds up there,” said Mariek Schmidt, a Brock University volcanology professor chosen to be a part of the Mars Science Laboratory team.
NASA selected Schmidt and two other Canadian scientists, John Moores from Western University and Richard LeVeille from the Canadian Space Agency, from hundreds of applicants. They’ll join a team of 29 scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena in September.
Their mission: control the Curiosity rover by writing code and sifting through its data, which will be transmitted more than 50 million kilometres from Mars to Earth twice a day.
But the data won’t be obtained until September. During August, Curiosity won’t move from the spot where it landed. Instead, it will snap photographs and download code necessary for its mission.
In September, Schmidt’s job starts. She’ll review the data, which will show chemical and mineralogical changes that Martian rocks have experienced over millennia.
Schmidt hopes to prove the theory that life once existed on Mars, but that’s not her main goal.
“The more important goal is to determine whether or not it’s a habitable environment and if it can be habitable in the future by humans,” Schmidt said.
To determine if Mars can host people, Curiosity will need to find clay.
“That’s the big one. The reason why clay samples are important is that they’re hydrated minerals. They form under specific conditions that are likely more neutral conditions that are more favourable to life.”
Finding water also means there will be a source for humans if they one day colonize the Red Planet.
The data will come from the Canadian-made Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer, or APXS.
About the size and shape of a Rubik’s cube, the APXS was designed by University of Guelph professor Ralf Gellert and was pieced together by MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., the same company that built the Canadarm.
Gellert designed Curiosity’s APXS from an earlier model he built for the Opportunity rover, which landed on Mars in 2004. This time, it’s faster.
“We can now measure very quickly — in minutes or hours — five times faster than the Opportunity mission,” Gellert told the Star from California.
The APXS will determine the chemical composition of rock and soil samples, look for signs of water and perform sample triage for other on-board laboratory instruments.
Five students from the University of Guelph were with Gellert during Curiosity’s nerve wracking landing. They will work alongside the scientist during the mission.
“I felt it was good for the students to feel the excitement down here right from the start,” Gellert said.
The Canadian team will move the APXS control station piece by piece from Pasadena to Guelph in the late fall. They’re aiming to receive data from Mars directly to their headquarters at the University of Guelph by the end of the year.
In another Canadian twist, NASA named Curiosity’s Martian landing patch Yellowknife on Friday to honour the capital of the Northwest Territories. NASA said the city has been “the starting point for many of the great geological expeditions.”
The Canadian Space Agency paid $17.8 million for the APXS. The Curiosity rover cost NASA $2.5 billion (U.S.).
“By paying for this, it opens the mission to the Canadian science community and we can use our technology to get our scientists into those missions,” said Stéphane Desjardins, director of space exploration projects at the Canadian Space Agency.