Quirks & Quarks

Meet the Canadian engineer who will help guide NASA's new rover on Mars

Raymond Francis, originally from Sudbury, Ont., plays a key role in operating the new Perseverance rover — including shooting its laser.

Raymond Francis has a key role in operating the new Perseverance rover — including shooting its laser

Artist's image of NASA's Perseverance Rover, which will land on Mars on Thursday (NASA/JPL)

When NASA's Perseverance rover lands on the Red Planet next Thursday, it will be the third space probe to arrive in a little more than a week. The United Arab Emirates orbiter, Hope, arrived at Mars last Tuesday, and China's Tianwen-1 probe, which carries a lander, entered orbit soon after.

Perseverance will be the last to arrive of this little fleet of probes, but it will be the first to land. A large team will follow the rover's every movement for the 650 days the mission is initially planned to last. Perseverance is NASA's most ambitious rover yet, and will land in the most challenging Martian terrain ever targeted. 

One member of the core Perseverance team who's looking forward to the landing with eager anticipation is Canadian engineer Raymond Francis. He's had the extraordinary opportunity to be involved in Mars exploration from very early in his still-young career. 

He spoke with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald about his career, his ties to Canada and the Perseverance rover.

Francis is a science operations engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

I am sure Thursday has been marked on your calendar for some time now. How is the excitement level for you? 

I'm very excited and so is everybody on the team, where we're really looking forward to it. 

How did you get involved with NASA and the Mars missions? 

Some years ago I was doing a PhD at the University of Western Ontario in robotics for planetary exploration, which sounds very relevant. I had a chance to join up with a proposal for a participating scientist in the Curiosity Rover mission. That proposal was ultimately selected and I was able to join the Mars Science Laboratory, the Curiosity Rover Mission science team. That was my foot in the door to working with Mars rovers. 

Raymond Francis poses in front of Perseverance in its shipping container, on route to the launch site (Raymond Francis/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

What kinds of things have you been involved with in the mission itself? 

For the first few years, it was mostly what we called the 'rover operations activities for science team' training. It was a series of training exercises where we gave the science team rover data coming from a real geologic site — of course, on Earth — so they could practise exploring it with remote tools that were similar to the kind of data they would get from the the rover instruments. We say, 'look, you're going to have to do geology through a computer screen with a robot that's millions of kilometres away, start by practising with one that's hundreds or thousands of kilometres away.' 

This field site near Hawthorne, Nevada has similarities to the Jezero crater on Mars where Perseverance will land and was used as a training site. (Raymond Francis/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

We had several field sites, two of them were in California's very warm but very dry Mojave Desert. Once we knew what the real landing site would be, we found something that had reasonably similar geology to Jezero Crater [the Perseverance landing site] so we could practise the same kinds of science decision-making in a place that wasn't as well known to the science team. And this was in Nevada. 

Tell me about Perseverance. It's the latest in the American Mars rovers. What makes this one special? 

We have a range of spectrometers and cameras to look at rocks in just about every way that we would want to do that. We have ground-penetrating radar so we can see below the surface and build a broader context. I'm working in particular with an instrument called SuperCam, and SuperCam is this sort of Swiss Army knife of spectrometers.

It has a remote laser-induced breakdown spectrometer, which is to say we fire a powerful laser at the surface of a rock and vaporize it and then look at the rock plasma we just made to get the chemical composition of the rock. 

So you get to go to another planet and fire a laser there. This is like War of the Worlds, except it's coming from the Earth to Mars. 

It's pretty exciting. Yeah. And I will be one of the SuperCam instrument operators. So I actually get to pick what we point that laser at, although sometimes our intelligent targeting software will do it for me. 

Perseverance in the clean room at JPL (Raymond Francis/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Are there other tasks that the rover is hoping to accomplish? 

One of the most important tasks on our list is collecting samples of the rocks that we study and of the representative types of rocks that are in the many different environments that we find in Jezero Crater. So we hope to collect a few dozen samples and seal them up very carefully and deposit them on Mars for a future mission to collect and return to Earth. 

Tell me about the landing site

Jezero Crater is a promising landing site because it is probably the oldest lake on the surface of Mars. There's no water there now in any kind of liquid form. But this crater, which is something like three and a half billion years old, was at one time filled with water and had a river flowing into it. And this lake was not short lived. That river that flowed in had enough time during the lifetime of that lake to actually build up a large and complex delta.

We know that this was a stable environment for a long period. So a nice, stable, warm, wet place is a good place maybe for life to have arisen. But a delta is also a good place for any such life to be preserved because deltas are continually depositing new sediment. And so organic matter, or if there were microbes, could have been trapped in that sediment and preserved there. 

The Jezero Crater on Mars, where Perseverance will land (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

How will Perseverance help pave the way for a human mission to Mars? 

We carry an experiment called MOXIE, [Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment] which will demonstrate the production of oxygen directly from the mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere on Mars through a chemical process. So if you can make the oxygen in place, that's oxygen that you don't have to carry all the way from Earth. So MOXIE would be a demonstration that this can be done, at least on a small scale, in the dusty, dirty atmosphere with a real piece of hardware and not just in a computer simulation. 

Watch how MOXIE will make oxygen on Mars (JPL):

You're from Sudbury, which is a big mining town. And after building a career in robotics and space science, you've been led back to rocks. They're just rocks on another world. 

That's right. And honestly, during my PhD studies in how to teach computers to look at rocks, I spent some time up in Sudbury looking at those. The mines in Sudbury are the results of an ancient impact crater that's not quite as old as Jezero, but the impact geology is a very good analogue for the types of large scale impact sites we find in craters on Mars. So going home to Sudbury was actually a very useful thing for getting prepared for these kinds of studies on Mars. 

Produced by Mark Crawley.


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