Mission to Mars

Mission to Mars

Canadian researchers are helping determine whether life once existed on the red planet
August 27, 2012

Curiosity, the newest NASA rover that landed on Mars in early August, is set to gather information that could prove life once existed on the red planet. And Canada is playing an important role in this mission.

A Canadian research team developed and built the rover’s Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS), the instrument attached to a robotic arm that will probe Martian rock and soil. The size of a small can of beans, the APXS comes with a small slab of rock from Earth that will act as a standard of comparison for the samples researchers analyze.

John Spray, Director of the Planetary and Space Science Centre at the University of New Brunswick, says this seemingly insignificant slab has a key function in the scientific mission. Spray’s team used a scanning electron microscope funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation to help determine the elements that make up the rock and better understand the conditions under which it was formed. They will continue using it throughout the two-year mission to compare the slab to the Martian samples.

The mission’s goal, says Spray, is to understand the geological evolution of Mars since the rocks and soil hold clues to past environments. On Earth, scientists look for carbon compounds, such as coal deposits and fossils, for evidence of past life. But there are no similar compounds on Mars. “It’s hard to know what evidence life would leave on Mars,” he says.

NASA landed Curiosity in what is known as the Gale crater, a 155-kilometre-wide crater that has a five-kilometre-high mountain rising from its floor. Layer upon layer of sediment that formed the mountain will act like pages in a history book. Researchers hope that by analyzing the layers, Curiosity will uncover evidence of suitable environments for life that would have existed billions of years ago, when Mars had a warmer, wetter and more hospitable environment. “The rover is like a robotic geologist,” says Spray.

Once the scientific part of the mission begins, Spray and his colleagues will begin looking at the rock compositions Curiosity beams back to Earth to better understand the crater environment and perhaps even see how previous life forms modified minerals.

Spray believes these kinds of space missions help shift human thinking by highlighting the fact that we are part of a much larger natural machine. “I think we will find life eventually,” he says. “If not on Mars, then on some other planetary body.”