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IU Professors Analyze Mars Rover Data For NASA

Last updated on Monday, August 27, 2012

(BLOOMINGTON) - The University can now add “Mars” to the list of places to which IU professors have contributed research.

Geology professors Juergen Schieber and David Bish are contributing to the work with Curiosity, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration rover that touched down on Mars on Aug. 5.

Although Schieber and Bish work with different instruments, both scientists have similar goals to help analyze data the rover sends back to earth.

Schieber and Bish work in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory located in Pasadena, Calif.

"We came to the Jet Propulsion Lab the night of the landing," Bish said. "It was a popular place to be."

The mission's science team watched the landing on wall-sized projection screens in a room containing between 300 and 400 people, he said.

"No one on earth had a real-time picture because there's a delay between Mars and Earth, but we had a real-time picture from the mission control room," Bish said.

Bish is part of the CHEMIN, or chemistry and mineralogy, team.

The instrument he works with uses a technique called X-ray diffraction, which allows scientists to analyze how the X-ray beam interacts with solid materials on Mars.

"An ordered arrangement of atoms scatters X-rays in a specific way, depending on the arrangement of atoms," Bish said.

He said the interaction is somewhat like a fingerprint in that every mineral diffraction has a unique diffraction fingerprint

He used the difference between graphite and a diamond as an example.

"If we only analyzed chemistry, they would look the same because they're both carbon," he said. "But if we use mineralogy ... we can tell the difference very easily."

This ultimately allows scientists to identify different minerals found on Mars

Bish said the University does X-ray diffraction at various IU locations, including some of the laboratories in the geology department.

Schieber works with cameras, which sit on a robotic arm on Curiosity, that send images back to Earth. The images allow scientists to analyze the rocks on Mars, he said.

His schedule and that of the other scientists is dictated largely by whether there is sunlight on Mars for the rover's operations.

"We are on Mars time, which means our schedule shifts forward about 40 minutes," Schieber said. "If the shift starts at 8 a.m. one day, it will start at 8:40 a.m. the next day."

This is because a day on Mars is about 40 minutes longer than a day on Earth, Bish explained.

The science team at the Jet Propulsion Lab is scheduled to be there a total of 90 sols, or Mars days.

Bish and Schieber will then return to IU and continue their work with the rover remotely.

"It's incredibly exciting to be working on this project," Bish said. "It's hard to imagine a scientific experience being better than this."

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