Photo by Janelle Clausen. (Sept. 3, 2014)
By Janelle Clausen
It’s the size of a small lunchbox, worth over a million dollars and may help open the door to the exploration of Mars.
Joel Hurowitz, a research associate professor at Stony Brook University, recently helped secure a $1.4 million grant to develop the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL, for NASA’s 2020 Mars rover mission. As Deputy Principal Investigator, Hurowitz will lead a team that builds and tests the device. Most of the $1.4 million grant will go towards getting the necessary parts, developing the laboratory and supporting salaries.
“It represents a new opportunity for a different style of project than our students have ever been presented with before,” Hurowitz said.
NASA’s 2020 objective is to gather 31 rock samples within one Mars year, or 687 days, that can someday return to Earth. Success on this mission could both justify future missions and become the first step towards answering several questions about life beyond our planet.
The PIXL can measure chemical composition in a field comparable to the size of a human hair, making it possible to analyze microbes, Hurowitz said. It will examine the texture of the rock as well. This will make it easier to see which rocks are compelling enough to spend billions of dollars to retrieve, he added.
“This is something we’ve never been able to do on Mars before,” Hurowitz said.
To continue NASA’s search for life on Mars, the PIXL must survive the intense vibrations of lift-off, a seven month journey to Mars barreling 17,000 miles per hour onto the planet’s surface and nearly two years of temperature extremes, Hurowitz explained.
Given the small number of rover instruments, the chance to work on developing the PIXL is unique. Unlike previous Mars missions, students can get involved in the rover’s development phase and work on its hardware.
“The involvement of our professors in planetary science missions in the past has been as science team members,” Hurowitz said. “But I don’t think we’ve ever had anybody while they were here at this department involved this early in the game where the instrument was just selected.”
Although Stony Brook has had a history in planetary science missions — including analyzing and naming Armalcolite, one of the three minerals found in the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing — the University’s interest in exploration, particularly with Mars, faded after the 1976 Viking mission to the red planet. Scott McLennan, a Stony Brook professor and veteran of several Mars rover missions, said the lack of interest was due to the mission’s failure to detect life on Mars. It took the Pathfinder demonstration mission in 1997 to “reinvigorate” the university’s involvement at the turn of the twenty-first century, he added.
“They started to get results that people started to see a future in the research,” McLennan said. “And so people started to get involved, including us.”
Hurowitz said he considered himself “really lucky” to be at the geosciences department at Stony Brook as a graduate student when his Ph.D supervisor was transitioning into Mars research. But the university has gotten more involved since then, he added, estimating that around a quarter of the faculty has some research interest in Mars.
“They have really been able to recruit students into the university because people are excited about what’s going on here in the department,” Hurowitz said of his colleagues involved in planetary science missions.
Although PIXL testing won’t begin until Spring 2015, Hurowitz has already received three email inquiries from students. While unsure about the exact number students that will work on the project, Hurowitz said he imagines that undergraduate students “will rotate on and off,” graduate students will stay long term and project activity will peak after 2018.