Now DSU’s Dr. Noureddine Melikechi will soon contribute his optics expertise as part of the Curiosity ChemCam Team and assist the space agency in analyzing the data that comes back from Mars through the rover.
Culminating a 367 million-mile and 36-week flight from earth, the Curiosity Rover was lowered gently by ropes from a rocket backpack onto the Mars surface inside its Gale Crater at 1:32 a.m. EST on Monday, Aug. 6.
Dr. Melikechi, who is also the dean of the College of Mathematics, Natural Sciences and Technology as well as the University’s vice president of research, showed his excitement during a morning press briefing with local media on Aug. 6.
“Imagine, you build something that you can’t test, send it 570 million kilometers, and it works for the first time,” said Dr. Melikechi, referring to the complex landing technique. “I am so proud to be a part of this mission, which includes about 300 scientists – of which I am one – and thousands of engineers.”
He and two graduate assistants, Alissa Mezzacappa and Angela Lundberg, are part of the mission’s ChemCam Team. The ChemCam (Chemistry and Camera suite), one of 10 instruments on the Curiosity, will be used to study the soil and rocks at each place Curiosity stops.
The ChemCam will shoot an infrared laser – more than a million watts of power – at rock surfaces on the planet. The resulting light will be read by the unit’s spectrometer, which is expected to provide new information concerning the rock composition of the planet.
The ChemCam utilizes a technology called laser-induced spectroscopy, which has been used in determine the composition of objects in extreme environments such as nuclear reactors and on the sea floor. However, this is the first time the technology has been used in space exploration.
After the Curiosity does some preliminary checks and scientific work during its early days on the planet, the ChemCam will shoot its first laser blasts in mid-August, Dr. Melikechi said.
The primary goal of the Curiosity mission is to study whether the Gale Crater area of Mars has evidence of past or present habitable environments. Dr. Melikechi said the mission will be looking for the past or present existence of liquid water, the chemical elements required to sustain life, and a source of energy, all necessary elements for habitability.
“It is my hope that we will see something that no one expects,” Dr. Melikechi said.