Stony Brook University geology professors Joel Hurowitz and Scott McLennan watched breathlessly last week as the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover completed its 293-million-mile journey, landing safely on its new home — the Red Planet.
The university faculty members, who have been working with NASA since 2003, are among a handful of Long Islanders who played small, but critical roles in building Perseverance, the fifth American and most ambitious spacecraft to land on Mars' surface.
"I was feeling pretty confident but at the same time you can't help but be biting your nails," Hurowitz, of Stony Brook, said of the rover's Feb. 18 landing. "I was definitely on the edge of my seat."
Even after working on five previous Mars missions, McLennan said he could feel his heart beating at twice its normal pace.
"As it's often been said, a million things have to go right but only one thing has to go wrong," McClennan said. "You are always aware of that."
The professors both worked on PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry), a micro-fluorescence instrument located on the rover's robotic arm that will identify changes in rocks and soil samples — potentially left behind by ancient microbial life — and take close-up images of objects as small as a grain of rice.
Separately, McLennan is a member of the instrument team for SuperCam, which uses a laser to identify the chemical and mineral makeup of rocks and soil as small as a pencil-point from more than 20 feet away.
The Centerport native also serves on the Returned Sample Science Working Group, coordinating the selection of samples to be drilled on the Martian surface and placed into sealed containers for return to Earth.
Meanwhile, Sector Microwave, a Deer Park firm, created eight switches attached to Perseverance — and another located on a satellite circling Mars for the past 15 years — that helped send photos, videos, and for the first time true audio from the surface of Mars back to Earth, said Bill Nelson, the company's sales director.
Together, they are part of Long Island's latest foray into space's great unknown — a tradition dating back to the lunar module, manufactured in Bethpage by the company then known as Grumman Aerospace Corp., that brought Apollo astronauts to the surface of the Moon.
"You take great pride in knowing that something that we worked on was successful and is enabling the mission to be successful," said Nelson, who began working on Perseverance's switches five years ago. "If our switch fails, conceivably the mission could fail."
Sector Microwave has been working with NASA since the 1990s, providing switching hardware for spacecrafts and satellites. The company's exploration missions with NASA have been used on trips Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, he said.
'We are probably the only company in the world that's done these things and we are transmitting all this information back to Earth.'Bill Nelson, of Sector Microwave in Deer Park, which created eight switches attached to Perseverance
"We are probably the only company in the world that's done these things and we are transmitting all this information back to Earth," Nelson said. "All the pictures and data come through our switches."
The $2.4 billion nuclear-powered rover took off in July from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida and landed 203 days later on Mars' Jezero Crater.
NASA on Tuesday released video of the spacecraft plunging, parachuting and rocketing through the atmosphere and toward the surface of Mars. Footage from high-definition cameras showed the most in-depth views of a Mars landing ever, including deployment of the largest parachute ever sent to another world, and ending with the rover’s touchdown in the crater.
A commercial "off-the-shelf" microphone, NASA said, recorded the soft sound of a Martian breeze — the first true audio recording ever of sounds from Mars.
'I'm not sure you can print the words I said when I saw the landing video. It was mind blowing.'Joel Hurowitz, a Stony Brook University geology professor who worked on an instrument located on the rover's robotic arm
"I'm not sure you can print the words I said when I saw the landing video. It was mind blowing," Hurowitz said. " … Watching Perseverance disappear into a cloud of dust was just an amazing visual. My mind was blown by the whole thing."
McLennan said the images "looked like a high-quality movie" and exceeded his wildest expectations.
PIXL, a first-of-its-kind $25 million instrument, will tell NASA scientists about the chemical composition of rocks and soil on Mars. But PIXL will remain parked until April, Hurowitz said, as NASA focuses first on making sure other parts of Perseverance's systems are operating correctly.
SuperCam, McLennan said, will begin its exploration in the coming weeks, with its primary target a stack of sedimentary rock that was deposited in an ancient lake bed roughly 3½ billion years ago.
Results from the rover are expected to address some of the highest priority scientific questions about Mars, including whether life ever existed on the Red Planet and why Mars' climate changed dramatically during its geological history. The mission could also potentially pave the way for human exploration of Mars, officials have said.
When samples from Perseverance eventually return to Earth, likely years from now, Hurowitz said he expects Stony Brook and the Brookhaven National Laboratory to play a lead role in the analysis.
"We are right in the middle, between the early days of the Apollo work to exploring the surface of Mars and collecting samples," Hurowitz said. "And there's a bright future ahead in the analysis of the samples that come back from Mars in the future."