University of Guelph researchers will continue uncovering clues about the early history of Mars, thanks to a new, two-year contract from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) worth up to $1.7 million that was announced today.

The funding will support the ongoing operation of the alpha particle X-ray spectrometer (APXS) — Canada’s contribution to NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover called Curiosity that is now exploring the red planet.

U of G physics professor Ralf Gellert led an international group of scientists that developed the APXS device, which was built by MacDonald Detwiler and Associates (MDA) Ltd. and is a critical part of the MSL mission.

“The MSL mission has been a milestone for Canadian involvement in planetary exploration,” Gellert said. “It is benefiting all Canadians, and this funding is critical to continue our research and learning.”

The APXS is a key geology instrument on Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012.

Mounted on the rover’s robotic arm, the device identifies exactly which chemical elements — and how much of each type — are in Martian rocks or soils.

Gellert said that information can tell us about the red planet’s past – including how Mars lost so much of its water and atmosphere some four billion years ago — and might help us understand the development of life on Earth.

Data from the APXS coming to Guelph is analyzed in a specially designed operations centre on campus. Scientists use that information to operate the rover and guide its investigations each day. For example, how samples are related to each other along the rover’s traverse, which samples warrant further investigations and which samples should be selected to take drill samples for detailed analysis.

The APXS has contributed to many of the MSL mission’s top science breakthroughs. Gellert and others have published several papers involving APXS data from Curiosity.

“Our team has been working hard for six years to develop and build the instrument that was launched in 2011 and to make it as robust and capable as possible,” Gellert said.

“Now this hard work is paying off, and every new sample data we get can tell us something new about the ancient environment on Mars.”

Previously, Guelph scientists calibrated the APXS in a Martian simulation chamber, which was located  next to U of G’s CFI-funded particle-induced X-ray emission (PIXE) accelerator. This facility is also used to understand the physics of the APXS method. The combined APXS and PIXE groups plan in the future to examine meteorites that were ejected from the Martian surface and arrived on Earth.

Other Guelph science team members are physics professor Iain Campbell; adjunct professor Penny King; Nick Boyd, APXS operations lead; post-docs Elstan Desouza and Glynis Perrett and graduate students Scott VanBommel, Dustin Tesselaer and Renato Pardo.

Gellert, who joined U of G in 2005, was involved in designing and building an earlier version of the APXS instrument for twin rovers that landed on Mars in 2004. More than a decade later, the APXS on Opportunity still sends data to Earth.

“Having APXS data from all of the rovers allows scientists to compare in great details the processes that happened at different places on Mars,” Gellert said.

Today’s announcement that the CSA will extend its collaboration with NASA and MSL was made in Ottawa by James Moore, minister of industry, at the opening of a new space exhibit at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum. He was joined by astronauts Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques and retired astronaut Chris Hadfield.

The funding, which totals $1.9-million, will also support work by other members of the APXS science team at the University of New Brunswick and with industrial contractor MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates.