Western researcher hops ride to Red Planet

It’s bigger, better and fully-loaded. And, its mission has the work of a University of Western Ontario scientist on board. 

Curiosity, the largest and most sophisticated rover ever to head to another planet, launched Saturday from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, the rover is en route to the Red Planet, waiting to explore its terrain and assess its habitability, past and present.

Awaiting Curiousity’s anticipated August 2012 landing in the Red Planet’s Gale Crater is John Moores, a postdoctoral fellow at Western’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration.

NASA selected Moores as one of 29 participating scientists for the mission. In eight months’ time, he will be working at mission control, contributing to the interpretation of Curiosity’s observations.

“It still hasn’t sunk in entirely,” Moores says. “I’m still coming to terms with being selected.”

Western professor Gordon Osinski, Moores’ supervisor, echoes his excitement.

“It’s a very big accomplishment … there are very few Canadians who have experienced any missions, few who have been involved in missions to the Moon or Mars,” he says.

What’s more, at least two other centre graduate students, Emily McCullough and Raymond Francis, will be on Moores’ team, looking at Curiosity’s findings.

“Having anyone from Western involved is a really big thing,” Osinski adds.

And let’s not forget: The mission itself is a pretty big deal.

Curiosity, a spacecraft the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, weighing almost a ton, is revolutionary because unlike its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity, it features a nuclear power system.

“One of the issues with the previous (solar-powered) Mars exploration rovers is that they work for a few months, they essentially lie there for the winter and then you hope they’re still there in the Martian spring,” Osinski explains.

Because Spirit and Opportunity are solar powered, they don’t generate much power and scientists have to choose which instruments to operate at any given time. These rovers can’t go far, and they can’t multitask.

Curiosity, on the other hand, is expected to run tens of kilometres at a time, utilizing new tools – among them a Canadian instrument – and ultimately putting scientists light-years ahead in their knowledge of the Red Planet.

John Moores

John Moores, a postdoctoral fellow at Western’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration, will be contributing to NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, once Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover to date, lands on the Red Planet in August 2012.

“What they did previously in five years, they should be able to do in five months,” Osinski says.

Carrying 10 instruments, Curiosity will gather soil and rock samples with its robotic arm. It will then portion out samples into analytical laboratory instruments inside.

Curiosity is, in essence, a mobile laboratory.

But the mission won’t be looking for evidence of life on Mars; it will be examining the planet’s conditions to determine whether they are, or if they’ve ever been, conducive to life.

Moores’ team will work with Curiosity’s laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (or LIBS) laser, capable of providing elemental analysis after removing dust and weathering layers with repeated pulses. Likewise, the team will work with the rover’s cameras, primarily the MastCam.

They hope to compare their results with those gathered by two instruments: a neutron spectrometer, which looks into the ground and quantifies the amount of water present, and a rover environmental monitoring station (REMS for short), an instrument that analyzes pressure, temperature and humidity.

Also part of the mission and Curiosity’s construction is a Canadian Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer that sits on the end of an arm. The device touches rock, sand and soil to give scientists an elemental breakdown or tell if the rock’s been around water.

While it will take eight months for Curiosity to land, Moores and his team are already preparing for the mission.

“We hope to participate in mission operations so that means we need to start training. NASA will be holding (tests) used to train mission members who will be writing plans that the rover will run day to day. And we have software to get ready for our own investigations,” Moores says.