Mars @ MaRS: From ‘Curiosity’ to Innovation

Curiosity rover (Source: NASA)

Monday night’s “Mars @ MaRS: From ‘Curiosity’ to Innovation” was a great science communications event. The panel of experts were engaging and spoke passionately about their research. I left feeling like I had learned something and also feeling very proud of the Canadian contributions to space exploration.

The event was hosted by the Science Media Centre of Canada at the MaRs Discovery District, in celebration of its second annual general meeting. This celebration of Canadian innovations was fitting, as Canada’s National Science and Technology Week also wrapped up earlier this week.

Jay Ingram was a great host and helped guide the discussion by asking questions as each as panelist shared his story. The panelists included: Dr John Spray, Director of the Planetary and Space Science Centre at the University of New Brunswick’s and a member of the Curiosity rover development team; Dr. Gordon Osinski, Industrial Research Chair in Planetary Geology at the University of Western Ontario and Deputy Director of the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration; Mathieu Caron, Mobile Service System’s mission control team supervisor at the Canadian Space Agency; and members of Concordia University’s satellite design challenge team. Despite their various backgrounds, it was clear the panelist all have the same drive and passion for their respective research areas.

Sandstone deposits at the bottom of the Gale Crater (Source: University of Copenhagen)

University of Western’s Osinski believes that science and curiosity drive innovation. He pointed out that Curiosity’s X-ray diffraction (XRD) instrument is use to tell us about the makeup of a rock (mineralogy or chemistry) which has led to the development and commercialization of similar hand-held instruments like X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and Raman spectroscopy.

“Before we would have collected samples to take back to our lab, wait several months to get the analysis and find out what was in it, and then have to wait a year to go back to the arctic,” says Osinski. “Now we can do this in real time. This technology (various hand held instruments) is a revolution in geology.”

The benchtop XRD instrument I worked with in the lab was about the size of (2-3 laser printers combined, so it was definitely not very portable. In comparison, the hand-held XRF and Ramen Spectrometer Osinski talked about were about the size of an average hair-dryer. XRD, XRF, and Ramen Spectrometer all work using similar principles—X-Rays or lasers are fired at a rock sample and the energy emitted from the sample in response are analyzed to give properties about the sample’s mineralogy and chemistry.

University of New Brunswick’s Spray is part of an international team that developed Curiosity’s Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, an instrument used to analyze the chemical elements of Martian rock and soil.

Ask if he has been surprised by what’s been discovered by Curiosity so far, Spray says the nature of rocks is very puzzling. Curiosity recently took images of sandstone (also exists on Earth). Spray explains sandstone would originally be like sand on a beach but has been compacted like concrete. “In order to do that you need some sort of glue to stick all the grains together. On Earth we do that by burial, we have plate tectonics to help bury things. On Mars we don’t have plate tectonics so we don’t understand fully how we can make rocks.”

The unknown is a key issue many geologists like Spray faces. “Our mindset is conditioned to think about Earth-like processes. But we have to think outside the box to make sure we don’t miss processes that we have never encountered on Earth.”

In wrapping up the session, the panel had a question that really ties in with national science and technology week from Dr. Kathryn McWilliams of the University of Saskatchewan: “How would you inspire young people? What level would you start? Children are curious and they are scientists when they are little, how do we see that helps them become a scientist or an astronaut?”

“What really did it for me was really good teachers and good projects to work on.” says Nick Sweet, a member of Concordia’s Satellite Design Team. “We really need to refocus on the educational programs and how they are taught.”

“Kids are curious. At some point adults forget about curiosity,” says CSA’s Mathieu Caron. “Children look up to us so it’s up us to maintain this curiosity in ourselves as adults, to remain interested in all these scientific endeavors. If we find it interesting then for sure kids will also.”

Judging by the murmurs of conversations among the attendeesafter the discussion ended, I’d say  the event was a success- people were engaged but most importantly more informed about science.

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