Monday, April 9, 2012

Explorers in the Old Fashioned Sense (WW107)

(Above) Roger stands next to a mock-up of the MSL Rover "Curiosity" The mast "head" which contains the LIBS aperture is up and to the right of Roger.
(Below) The ChemCam instrument in the lab. The LIBS aperture is to the right.

Arguably, the Planetary Science Event of the Year (TM) is going to be the landing of Curiosity on Mars on August the 5th. Tonight we have an interview with the leader of one of the instrument teams - Dr. Roger Wiens of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Dr. Wiens leads the ChemCam instrument which includes the infamous LIBS laser (that cyclops eye on top of the rover's mast). I'm hoping to use this instrument extensively to perform atmospheric sensing work so I know I will be talking a great deal with Dr. Wiens over the months and years which follow.

Since my introduction goes into detail about the rover, I'll leave it there for today. As usual, you can find that introduction under the cut.

The Mars Rovers have really captured our imaginations. They genuinely are explorers in the old fashioned sense. You’re listening to Western Worlds!

Hello and welcome back for another conversation here on Western Worlds, an AFM*Original show heard right here on My name is Dr. John and I’m coming to you this week as every week from the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration at Western University, home of the Purple Crow in London, Ontario, Canada.

Tonight we have the first of what I hope will be many interviews leading up to the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory Rover “Curiosity” on August 5 of 2012. Curiosity will be the largest, most capable roving laboratory ever deployed to another planet. It will be more versatile and will travel further than anything that has come before. It will be able to interrogate the geology and chemistry of the surface and atmosphere of Mars in ways we could only have dreamed of a decade ago.

While MSL is not a life detection mission, it does have the ability to answer questions about something called “habitability.” That is to say whether conditions on Mars were ever conducive to life and whether the rocks we see are capable of preserving evidence of that life which we could detect with a future mission. It’s an exciting prospect, especially since the Gale Crater landing site possesses what is possibly the thickest exposed sedimentary layer in the solar system. Much of Mars history could be right there, page after page written in this stack of rocks.

Ultimately, Curiosity is a big first step towards understanding whether our biology is unique in the solar system. Given the degree to which water and life are connected in our studies of Mars, it seems appropriate that tonight’s music is “Tree of Life” from Clint Mansell’s score to “The Fountain.”

Now, a big part of reading the habitability story contained in those rocks is an instrument called ChemCam. Chemcam combines three tools: a laser whose pulses are powerful enough to vaporize rock, a spectrometer to analyze the light that comes back to determine the elemental composition of those rocks and a telescopic camera to put those results into their proper geologic context.

Leading the effort to build, operate and understand the science returned is instrument Principal Investigator Roger Wiens of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Remember that these rovers are operated by a group of scientists back here on Earth. Thus Dr. Wiens is one of the explorers to which Brian Cox alluded in our opening quote. And Curiosity is not his first space mission; previously Dr. Wiens was a co-investigator on Deep Space One and developed the solar wind concentrator for Genesis. At a recent conference, our own Raymond Francis had the chance to sit down with Dr. Wiens to talk to him about his work exploring Mars and the solar system.

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