Collaborative Research Project Goes Boldly Where No Collab Has Gone Before

August 29, 2012

OCE Collaboration between University of Guelph and MDA Precursor to NASA’s Curiosity Mission

It has been credited as giving a face to science and engineering that excites future generations. It’s already a “where were you when...?” moment in history. After a nerve-wracking landing on Mars on August 5, 2012, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover (Curiosity) became a global phenomenon - with some roots right here in Ontario.

The mission is aimed at habitability – can Mars support life and can it be habitable in the future by humans? To answer yes to this game-changing question, Curiosity will have to find clays on Mars’ surface. And to do that, it will use data from the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS), an instrument designed by University of Guelph physics professor Ralf Gellert.

About the size and shape of a Rubik’s cube, the APXS on Curiosity’s robotic arm identifies chemical elements in rocks and soils. It does a close-up analysis to see what’s in the terrain and if it differs from other rocks and soils in the area. Based on the overall results, the rover can then begin an even more detailed analysis by instruments inside the rover’s belly.

Six years ago, in preparation for the Curiosity mission, OCE funded a Collaborative Research project between UGuelph and Brampton-based manufacturing partner MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA). Gellert and his team had been selected by NASA to develop an improved APXS for the MSL mission, based on the successful scientific design of the one they developed and built for the 2004 Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission. 

As the principal investigator behind the spectrometer, Professor Gellert is currently stationed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories in California and will be sharing his time between there and Guelph for the next three months. Five of his students are working alongside him, fully integrated into the APXS science team, ensuring the equipment is working and reviewing its data. In the late fall, the team will move the APXS control station piece by piece from Pasadena to Guelph with the goal of receiving data directly from Mars to their headquarters at the University of Guelph by the end of the year.

Over the life of the Collaborative Research project, several OCE-funded students supported co-investigator Professor Iain Campbell in the development of his novel approach to extract water content from the MER APXS spectra, while Gellert and another student worked on improving the APXS instrument further for future missions together with MDA and major funder, the Canadian Space Agency. 

“It was really great to see students working on leading data analysis from the Mars Exploration Rover mission - a mission that was launched when most of them were still in high school,” said Gellert. “Now three previously OCE-funded students actually hold APXS operational roles at NASA and, together with the overall Science Laboratory team, plan the daily rover operations on Mars.”