Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Canada to play important role in Mars mission


A Canadian-built device aimed at testing the Martian landscape for signs of "habitable" environments from the planet's past -and perhaps its present -is being readied at a California space institute for launch later this year.

The latest version of the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer -designed by University of Guelph physicist Ralf Gellert and built by B.C.-based aerospace firm MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates -will be mounted on the Mars rover Curiosity as part of NASA's upcoming Mars Science Laboratory mission, scheduled for takeoff on its 55-million-kilometre journey to the red planet as early as Nov. 25.

If all goes according to plan, the probe and its APXS instrument, partly funded by the Canadian Space Agency, will land on Mars in August 2012.

Then the Canadian-built sensor -a smarter, faster and more durable version of similar devices used on previous NASA missions to Mars -will be put to use as Curiosity roams the Martian surface scanning rocks in search of geological evidence that the planet might have sustained life in the distant past, and perhaps still could today.

Gellert's device is "one of 10 that will help the rover in its upcoming mission to determine the past and present habitability of a specific area on the red planet," NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said in a newly issued update on launch preparations.

"Scientists will use information from APXS and the other instruments to find the interesting spots and to figure out the present and past environmental conditions that are preserved in the rocks and soils," JPL stated. "Identifying the elemental composition of lighter elements, such as sodium, magnesium or aluminum, as well as heavier elements, like iron, nickel or zinc, will help scientists identify the building blocks of the Martian crust."

Gellert and members of his research team have been preparing the upgraded APXS device for years. It is being twinned with an identical instrument that will remain at the University of Guelph to run simulations corroborating surface-ofMars findings during the mission.

"APXS was modified for Mars Science Laboratory to be faster so it could make quicker measurements," Gellert said in the JPL statement. "On the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity), it took us five to 10 hours to get information that we will now collect in two to three hours. We hope this will help us to investigate more samples."

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