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IU scientists have key roles in Mars mission

August 8, 2012

Years of work by Indiana University geologists David Bish and Juergen Schieber reached a critical juncture when NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission reached Mars in early August. Bish, the Haydn Murray Chair of Applied Clay Mineralogy, and Schieber, professor of geological sciences, helped develop and will analyze data from two of the 10 instruments included in the mission’s science payload. Both are faculty in the Department of Geological Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington.

Bish and Schieber joined hundreds of other scientists and engineers for the landing  at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.  They are staying on to begin receiving and analyzing data from the mission. Then the scientists will return home and continue to work remotely on their projects.

The mission, which launched in November 2011, reached Mars on Sunday, August 5, 2012. Using a never-before-tried landing technique, it deposited the 10-foot-long rover Curiosity inside Gale Crater.

Curiosity will analyze dozens of samples over the next two years, providing new information about the Red Planet’s geology and geochemistry, including whether conditions on the planet are or have ever been favorable to microbial life. The IU geologists are part of teams that developed two of the eight scientific instruments that NASA selected for the mission through a competitive process in 2004. The agency later reached agreements with Russia and Spain to add instruments provided by those countries.

Schieber, an expert in sedimentary geology, will analyze data from the Mars Hand Lens Imager, a focusable color camera on the turret at the end of Curiosity’s robotic arm, which will take close-up photographs of rocks, soil and, if present, ice. Named for the small magnifying lens used in geological field work, the instrument will send back detailed images geologists will analyze to read the environmental history recorded in the rocks and soils of Mars. Ken Edgett of Malin Space Science Systems is the principal investigator for the project.

Bish is co-investigator for CheMin, short for Chemistry and Mineralogy. A powder X-ray diffraction instrument that will identify and quantify the minerals present in Mars rocks and soil, CheMin data will allow assessment of the involvement of water in the formation, deposition or alteration of minerals.

Bish began working on the project around 1990 after he and two other scientists, David Blake of NASA Ames Laboratory and David Vaniman of Los Alamos National Laboratory, came up with the idea of developing a miniature version of an X-ray diffraction device that could be sent to another planet. Other scientists joined the team, and CheMin was developed successfully, winning an R&D 100 award in 1999.

A standard X-ray diffraction instrument is twice the size of a refrigerator and weighs 1,000 pounds, but CheMin is small and light enough to hold in one hand. It’s remarkable, Bish says, that the instrument is going to Mars on the 100th anniversary of the discovery by German scientist Max von Laue of X-ray diffraction, which uses the scattering of X-rays to reveal the arrangement of atoms in crystals.

For more on CheMin, see msl-scicorner.jpl.nasa.gov/Instruments/CheMin/. For more on the Mars Hand Lens Imager, see msl-scicorner.jpl.nasa.gov/Instruments/MAHLI/.

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