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NASA's next mission to Mars includes technology with a Long Island pedigree

A NASA illustration of the Perseverance rover using

A NASA illustration of the Perseverance rover using equipment to analyze rocks on the Mars surface that was developed through the research of a pair of Stony Brook geology professors and other scientists.   Credit: NASA

As NASA prepares to launch its $2.4 billion nuclear-powered rover Thursday morning on a nearly seven-month journey to Mars, a slice of Long Island scientific and technological ingenuity will be tucked neatly onboard.

A pair of Stony Brook University geology professors, Joel Hurowitz and Scott McLennan, were among the guiding forces behind two of the high-tech tools attached to the Perseverance rover, which is scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 7:50 a.m. The rover is expected to land on Mars' Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021.

Hurowitz is the deputy principal investigator behind "PIXL," an X-ray spectrometer located on Perseverance's robotic arm that will identify changes in Martian rocks and soil samples — potentially left behind by ancient microbial life — and take close-up pictures of chemical elements as small as a grain of rice.

McLennan worked on both the science team for PIXL, an acronym for Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, and another rover instrument known as "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.

Perseverance's launch, which could potentially pave the way for human exploration of Mars, is Long Island's most recent foray into the great unknown of space.

Fifty years ago, a lunar lander, manufactured on Long Island by Northrop Grumman Inc., was attached to the Apollo 11 Command Module that landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon's surface — the first steps by humans on another planetary body.

"It is just so cool to be part of this legacy," said Hurowitz, 46, who will watch Thursday's launch from his Stony Brook home with his wife and two daughters. "Long Island has deep roots in space exploration and it's really neat to be part of that."

Perseverance is NASA's eighth Mars rover and the largest, most ambitious spacecraft ever built to explore the red planet.

The rover is expected to land in a 28-mile-wide crater on the western edge of Isidis Planitia, a giant impact basin just north of the Martian equator. NASA believes this ancient river delta could have collected and preserved organic molecules and other potential signs of microbial life.

Perseverance will also ferry a separate payload — an unmanned helicopter named Ingenuity that would be the first aircraft to fly in a controlled way on another planet.

"Future generations may well recognize the women and men of Perseverance — not only for what they will achieve 100 million miles from home, but for what they were able to accomplish on this world on the road to launch," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said last week.

PIXL,  which refers to "pixel," the smallest digital point in an image, is a first-of-its-kind $25 million instrument — about the size of a lunchbox and weighing 10 pounds — that will tell NASA scientists on Earth about the chemical composition of the rocks and soils on Mars' landing site. 

"We'll use the information to determine what the environment was like when the rocks were forming," Hurowitz said. "And once we figure that out, we can poke at questions whether there are signs of fossilized microbial material in the rocks or whether microbes played a role in influencing either the chemical or textual makeup of those rocks."

The Perseverance mission is the third for Hurowitz, who previously worked on the 2003 Mars Exploration Rover as a Stony Brook graduate student, and the 2011 Curiosity rover while working for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He returned to Stony Brook as a professor in 2013.

McLennan was a member of the science teams on the Mars rover missions in 2003, 2011 and the 2018 InSight Lander mission. He was not available for comment Wednesday.

Hurowitz, who traveled to the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California on a near monthly basis in recent years, said his team attempted to replicate the harsh conditions the instrument will experience as it slams into Mars' atmosphere at 12,100 mph, enduring temperatures as high as 2,370 degrees. PIXL was also placed on vibration tables to simulate the fluctuations expected during launch and landing.

"It gives us a lot of confidence that the warranty on the instrument is a good one," said Hurowitz, who has been working on PIXL since it was approved by NASA in 2014.

Nonetheless, Hurowitz expects a sleepless night Wednesday as the countdown to the launch looms ever closer.

"I am starting to feel the butterflies in my stomach at this point about how the launch will go." he said. "Hopefully it goes well and we can breathe a sigh of relief. And we can start looking forward to the next scary milestone — the landing on Mars."

Long Islanders working on NASA's mission to Mars

Joel Hurowitz,

* Age 46 of Stony Brook

* Professor of geology at Stony Brook University since 2013

* Previously served as a member of the science teams on the 2003 Mars Exploration Rover and the 2011 Mars Curiosity rover missions.

* Deputy principal investigator for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory team that designed PIXL, a science payload that will attach to the arm of the Perseverance rover. PIXL is designed to examine the chemical makeup of rocks on Mars.

Scott McLennan

* Age 68 of Centerport.

* Professor of geology at Stony Brook University since 1987

* Previously served as a member of the science teams for the 2003 Mars Exploration Rover, the 2011 Mars Curiosity and the 2018 InSight Lander Mars missions;

* Member of the science teams for both PIXL and SuperCam, an instrument attached to Perseverance that uses a pulsed laser to study the chemistry of rocks and soil.

Source: Stony Brook University

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