TO BOLDY GO – NASA's Curiosity rover - roughly the size of a Toyota Prius - beamed back this self-portrait from Gale Crater, where it will spend at least the next two years figuring out whether conditions on Mars ever supported life. Veronica Pinnick, a research scientist whose instrument tastes Martian organic chemistry on board the Curiosity rover, presents public talk at Lake Superior State University at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 28, in Crawford Hall room 204. (LSSU/NASA)
A print-resolution photo that runs with the caption above can be found by clicking here.
SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. - At this moment, a nuclear-powered rover the size of a Toyota Prius is exploring a crater on Mars a third the size of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. If the Red Planet ever harbored conditions that supported life, NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover will conclusively find the evidence.
Lake Superior State University is hosting a visit March 28-29 from Dr. Veronica Pinnick, a research scientist whose instrument tastes Martian organic chemistry on board the Curiosity rover. Pinnick will present talks to the public and the campus community about the current state of Martian exploration, as well as what it takes to design an instrument that performs complex analysis millions of miles away, and her experiences as part of the Curiosity mission.
The public talk is at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 28, in Crawford Hall room 204.
Pinnick's team of scientists and engineers designed and built the Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM) mobile laboratory, which makes up more than half of Curiosity’s scientific payload by weight.
SAM is three state-of-the-art instruments, including a mass spectrometer, gas chromatograph, and tunable laser spectrometer. These tools are looking for and measuring the abundances of light elements, such as hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, associated with life. SAM is also searching for compounds of the element carbon, including methane, which are associated with life.
SAM's mass spectrometer separates elements and compounds by mass for identification and measurement. Its gas chromatograph heat soils and rock samples until they vaporize, and then separates the resulting gases into various components for analysis. A laser spectrometer measures the abundance of various isotopes of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen in atmospheric gases such as methane, water vapor, and carbon dioxide. All told, SAM's measurements are accurate to within 10 parts per thousand. The entire SAM laboratory would fit into the space of a 20-gallon aquarium.
So far, scientists have identified sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon – some of the key chemical ingredients for life – in the powder Curiosity drilled out of a sedimentary rock near an ancient stream bed in Gale Crater on the Red Planet last month.
Results announced last week indicate that the "Yellowknife Bay" area where the rover is now exploring was the end of an ancient river system or an intermittently wet lake bed that could have provided chemical energy and other favorable conditions for microbes.
Pinnick’s Goddard Space Flight Center team is also currently designing instrumentation for the next planned Mars probe, scheduled for launch in 2018.
NASA's participation in the 2018 ExoMars Rover mission includes providing critical elements for an astrobiology instrument on the rover called the Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA). By studying organic molecules (the chemical building blocks of life as we know it), MOMA is designed to help answer questions about whether life ever existed on Mars, as well as its potential origin, evolution, and distribution on the Red Planet.
Aside from her evening public talk on March 28, Dr. Pinnick will present a technical lecture on March 29, open to LSSU science, engineering, and other interested faculty and students
Additionally, students in the CHEM 332 Instrumental Analysis course will have a unique opportunity to meet with Pinnick during a working lunch. Opportunities will also exist for interested faculty to visit with Dr. Pinnick one-on-one throughout the day on March 29.
Pinnick's visit is underwritten by the LSSU's Issues and Intellect fund, which brings visiting scholars from all academic disciplines to campus for public and technical talks and symposiums.
CONTACTS: John Shibley, e-mail, 906-635-2314; Tom Pink, e-mail, 635-2315; Prof. Christopher L. Heth, Department of Chemistry and Environmental Sciences, e-mail, 635-2438.