Technology & Science

Mars-bound rock analyzer a 'new step' for Canada in space

A University of Guelph professor's contribution to a NASA mission to Mars marks another milestone for Canadian involvement in international space research and exploration.
Grad student Nicholas Boyd, left, and principal investigator Ralf Gellert, both of the University of Guelph, prepare for the installation of the alpha particle X-ray spectrometer sensor head during testing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Ralf Gellert can be excused if he is looking at this week's planned launch of an Atlas rocket to carry a high-tech device he designed to Mars as somewhat routine.

That's because the University of Guelph physicist knows that it will be the landing — in 8½ months — that will be the risky bit.

Once Curiosity does land on the Red Planet, however, the APXS (alpha particle X-ray spectrometer) Gellert designed is expected to play a significant role in the mission to determine if Mars has ever been able to support life.

University of Guelph physics professor Ralf Gellert was part of the German team that designed the previous Mars rover APXS instruments. ((Courtesy University of Guelph Physics Department))

APXS, which was built by Richmond, B.C.-based MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., will be used to identify chemical elements in Martian rock and soil. It marks another milestone for Canadian involvement in international space exploration.

"It’s a new step of having Canadian scientists being involved in this high-level, surface exploration on a different planet," Gellert said. "I think it’s a very interesting thing."

The cost of building APXS, from concept through development and support of the first phase of operation, was $17.8 million.

"For a small investment on this mission, we’re getting access to the major science mission on Mars, so Canadian scientists will have access to data and the whole mission," says Stephane Desjardins, space exploration projects portfolio manager at the Canadian Space Agency.

The agency is investing much of the stimulus money it received from the federal government in the development of new technologies that would be needed on international missions such as the one sending Curiosity to Mars.

APXS, says Desjardins, is a "powerful" instrument that is "absolutely necessary" for the Curiosity mission, and a perfect project for the agency.

"This is exactly the way we want to fit into space exploration."

APXS isn't Canada’s first involvement in Martian missions. For the Phoenix Mars lander, which arrived on the Red Planet in 2008, Canada provided the metereological station.

But APXS "will be even more important because we’re going to be able to contact the surface of Mars" directly, says Desjardins.

"It’s one of the first instruments that the rover will be using when approaching a new area or new rock. It's an instrument that is very easy to use that can give results fairly quickly."


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When those results come back to Earth, Gellert and his team won't be the only scientists from a Canadian university who are taking a close look at the data. 

Mariek Schmidt, a volcanologist and geologist at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., was thrilled this week when she received an email from NASA telling her that she would be part of the team interpreting the data and helping guide the rover from Earth.

"I will live on Mars time," the assistant professor says of the three months she will spend at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. after the rover's expected landing in August.

After that, it will be teleconferences, email and web-based communication to try to understand the information gathered by Curiosity.

"I'm hoping we can learn about how climate affects the alteration of rocks," she said. "If we understand alteration of rocks, then we can understand how that's linked into climate and whether or not [Mars] could potentially have supported life."

New and improved version

The APSX on Curiosity is a more advanced version of instruments on the two older Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Gellert was part of the team behind the earlier devices, which were built in Germany.

Schmidt also was involved with the earlier APSX and helped analyze its data when she was a post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

She relishes her opportunity to be part of the latest project, so much so that she ran around her department at Brock looking for someone to share her good news with after getting the email from NASA on Wednesday.

"It's exciting that Canada can become involved in this. The goal is eventually for Canada to play a more active role in the exploration of Mars and maybe eventually even send up our own mission. So getting scientists involved and building instruments is just all part of that end goal."

In 2004, Gellert’s team was selected by NASA to develop the improved device. It was delivered to NASA in late 2008, but a 2009 launch date for the mission was pushed to fall 2011.

In August, Gellert went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to assemble and install the device's radioactive source, which will shoot alpha particles at rock samples on Mars.

While it has been a long wait for Gellert and his team at Guelph, he says everyone is now very excited.

Once Curiosity arrives on Mars, the rover will be operated from Pasadena. Gellert and his team will be there for the landing. After 90 days, APXS operations will be gradually transferred back to Guelph.

Gellert's interest in space research started with watching TV shows like Star Trek, which helped prompt a desire to know more about the reality behind spaceships and where they might explore.

"It's simply the coming together of engineering, science in different branches like physics, like geology, like astonomy," he says. "Exploring is in every human. You always want to know what is behind the next mountain and going from Earth to the moon, to Mars, beyond."