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The little rover that could

Lorraine Graves   Oct-25-2017

So far, Mars rover, Curiosity has left 17 km of tire tracks on the red planet.

Photo courtesy Maxar Technologies


Normally, heading off to climb a mountain and only getting 17 kilometres over five years, isn’t cause for celebration.

But NASA and Richmond’s MDA, a business unit of Maxar Technologies, are delighted.

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NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, and all the highly sophisticated instruments on it, were designed to last about two years, with the hope it might last a bit longer. Now over two and a half times past the original goal, everyone is more than pleased.

“I am jubilant. I’m quite excited,” says Paul Fulford, MDA’s manager of robotics product development.

Fulford managed the large team of Canadian experts it took to design and build the sophisticated APSX detector for the Curiosity rover. APSX is one of a bouquet of instruments the rover carries.

Wendy Keyzer, manager of marketing communications in MDA’s information systems group says APSX was developed with Dr. Ralf Gellert of the University of Guelph for the Canadian Space Agency.

The rover, with APSX aboard, had a long way to go before it could even start its Martian trek.

About the size of a car, Curiosity took eight and a half months to travel the vast distance from Earth to Mars, touching down Aug. 6, 2012.

Were there a freeway to the red planet, it would take at least 64 years to drive there, non-stop.

Mars is so far away that it takes almost half an hour to get a reply from the rover, so instructing and guiding it is more akin to chess by mail than playing an online videogame.

Fulford explains exactly where Curiosity is on Mars. “They landed in the smooth flood plain, in the middle of a crater approximately 150 kilometres in diameter.”

That is roughly the distance from Whistler to Bellingham or almost double the width of Lake Ontario.

In the centre of this vast crater is a mountain 5,500 metres tall, one and a half times taller than Whistler Mountain.

Curiosity travelled from the plain, through the shifting dunes, and has been slowly climbing the mountain, sampling the Martian environment as it goes, then sending the raw data back to Earth.

Even with these challenges, discoveries are being made, one sniff, one image and one scoop of Martian soil at a time.

“There is extremely strong evidence that a very long time ago, the crater was filled with water,” Fulford says.

Now, with the water long gone, Curiosity climbs the barren mountain, past different tide lines.

“By going up higher and higher, we are detecting different minerals and creating a story about the ancient crater and the ancient lake. There is strong evidence of clay and clay is very abundant in the bottom of all our lakes around the world.”

As research, and Curiosity’s climb, continues, Fulford says: “We should find all these other mineral deposits.”

He says lakes and oceans have different minerals that sift down to the bottom, forming different layers of sediment.

“With APSX and all these other scientific instruments, we are starting to tell a story of this ancient lake and ancient crater,” he says.

Fulford explains APSX; “A human geologist, in the field, has a head full of knowledge, a rock hammer, a magnifying glass. She or he taps on things with their hammer and looks at the minerals inside. Curiosity is a rover geologist, a robotic geologist. It doesn’t have that whole suite of knowledge in his head.”

But, Fulford says, Curiosity does all have all the instruments to do the analyses and send the information back to earth where scientists here analyze it.

In cooking terms, the APSX detector tastes the samples Curiosity gives it. Here on Earth, a great chef, even blind-folded, when given a bite of a dessert could detect crispy, caramelized sugar, then with a taste of creamy custard from below the crust, could figure out she was eating crème brulé.

The Mars rover gives the APSX detector bites of Mars to taste, some from the crust formed over millennia, some from the layers underneath.

“APSX can detect the quantity and amount of specific atoms we’re looking for,” says Fulford.

Curiosity then radios the names of the basic chemicals APSX finds back to Earth.

Scientists use those chemical building blocks to construct a picture not only of Mars today, but of Mars long ago.

With the data sent to earth by APSX, scientists in Canada, and around the world, have discovered the chemicals in the Martian crust remind them of what they find when water dries on Earth’s soil. They has also found clay under the crust, like we have under our lake beds.

From the information gained, scientists have built a picture of the red planet’s past; Mars once had an atmosphere that blanketed the planet, keeping temperatures reasonable in an environment where rivers flowed and life could have existed.

But, because Mars has no magnetic field, solar winds blew the planet’s protective atmosphere away, leaving it exposed to the harsh realities of space, to become the barren planet that Curiosity roves today.

“It’s those geologic stories that I find pretty cool,” Fulford says.

Unlike the experienced chef, the APSX detector can only taste the constituent chemicals. It is then up to researchers back on earth to put the recipe together. They use earth-based experience and knowledge to see if the Martian crust and the soil were formed by water, wind or anything else.

Every extra day of travel and data gathering is a bonus at this point.

So far, APSX has tasted over 5,000 bites of Mars. The information keeps on coming.

How long will Curiosity work?

No one knows but it has already given us more than enough information to keep scientists in Canada and around the world busy for years, fine-tuning the picture it paints of the red planet.

“Ultimately it helps give us perspective of our place in our solar system. Roving on another planet and acquiring data tells us a lot about our planet, where we are in the greater scheme of things,” says Fulford.

Today, as planned, NASA operates Curiosity and all the tools, like APSX, on it.

His role in the design and building of the detector behind him, Fulford has gone on to other MDA projects in the intervening half a decade.

But, like a parent watching a grown-up child from afar, he still keeps an eye on APSX. NASA has a daily rover blog at mars.nasa.gov/msl .

“Each morning, when I get my coffee, I check in, just to see what’s happening on Mars with Curiosity,” Fulford says.


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