At SBU, Rocking the Space Vibe

Seeing red: Stony Brook University geologists are playing important roles in coming NASA missions to Mars.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is funding a five-year mission that has Stony Brook University geologists exploring strange, new worlds – and gearing up for future star treks.

The university’s Department of Geosciences on Friday officially launched its new 6,500-square-foot Center for Planetary Exploration, a three-laboratory consortium using next-generation science to unearth the solar system’s oldest clues.

It’s prime directives: to seek out ancient microbial lifeforms and otherwise decode eons of geological evolution on the moon and Mars, thereby revealing those worlds’ planetary pasts and bolstering future missions to those and other extraterrestrial destinations.

Tim Glotch: Chemical attraction.

Tim Glotch: Chemical attraction.

This week’s stunning announcement of an Earth-like planet orbiting the next star over has little to do with the center, where the science is decidedly local. This is hands-on data crunching, with lasers and vacuum chambers and synched-in NASA supercomputers working to decode the chemical compositions of alien worlds within humanity’s current reach. Exoplanets requiring lightyears of travel need not apply.

But in its exploration of Earth’s little cosmic corner, the center – housed inside SBU’s Earth and Space Sciences Building, which recently enjoyed a $1.5 million facelift courtesy of SUNY’s Office of Construction Management – is boldly going where few space explorers have gone before.

It started about 30 months ago, when Tim Glotch, an associate SBU professor of geological sciences, applied for a grant through NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute. The SSERVI fosters collaborations between competitively selected domestic and international teams, ultimately seeking scientific solutions to the inherent challenges of space exploration.

Glotch was instrumental in the formation of the Remote Institute Synchrotron Studies for Science and Exploration, which combined various SBU departments, including geology and pharmacology, with research efforts at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The virtual institute was the backbone of Glotch’s NASA proposal, which in 2014 earned a five-year, $5.5 million grant from the space agency.

Funding to date has covered various data-collection efforts, including field trips to collect geological samples and digital tie-ins to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, the NASA Deep Space Network and other public sources aggregating data gathered by NASA spacecraft. The samples and data feed the center’s three distinct laboratories, each run by an SBU geologist.

Glotch heads a Vibrational Spectroscopy Laboratory where researchers bounce light beams off rocks gathered from terrestrial locales that mimic lunar and Martian conditions – deserts and volcanic craters, for instance – to better understand their chemical compositions.

Ideally, scientists would prefer to compare that data to real-deal space rocks. But few such samples are available – Glotch referenced “a few hundred kilograms of moon rocks” and a hundred-or-so Martian meteorites “that got here on their own” – so the geologist and his teams deal largely with remote sensing data gathered by surface rovers and NASA spacecraft orbiting Earth’s celestial neighbors.

“We can use remote sensing data to get a global picture, and then compare that data to rocks from Earth that formed in environments we understand and recognize,” Glotch said. “That gives us what we call ‘terrestrial analogues’ and gives us a sense of how those rocks formed on Mars.

“We’re really good at comparing things on Earth to things on other planets.”

Deanne Rogers: In the lava flow.

Deanne Rogers: In the lava flow.

Glotch teams often with SBU geologist Deanne Rogers, whose Center for Planetary Exploration laboratory focuses primarily on the remote sensing of planetary surfaces. Basically, Rogers’ researchers use satellite data to “interpret a geologic history of the surface” of Mars and the moon, she told Innovate LI, often updating older images with the new data and crafting 3D renderings of alien landscapes.

Rogers also leads terrestrial field expeditions with the dual purposes of collecting new samples similar to lunar or Martian rocks – she’s overseeing an excursion to New Mexico’s Aden Crater volcano this month – and testing equipment that could one day accompany astronauts on out-of-this-world missions.

“The idea is that we’ll eventually be sending humans back to the moon or maybe even to Mars, and this time when they go, instead of just having a camera and a rock hammer, they might actually have some of these instruments that have become portable and commercialized,” Rogers said.

Future space missions play heavily in the SSERVI-funded center. Glotch and Rogers are providing critical data that will help inform NASA’s decision on where to land its Mars 2020 rover mission, while geochemist Joel Hurowitz – head of the center’s third laboratory – is designing a customized “X-ray microscope” to be installed on the actual car-sized rover that cruises the Martian badlands four years hence.

Hurowitz oversees a “wet geochemistry lab” that digs even deeper to discover chemical composition of rock samples – slicing them into thin slabs ideal for chemical analysis, he said, or pulverizing them and mixing the powder with an acid to create a “liquid version of the rock.”

“There’s a lot of smashing with hammers,” Hurowitz noted.

Joel Hurowitz: X-ray vision.

Joel Hurowitz: X-ray vision.

But his lab’s other primary function will actually carry Hurowitz’s vision to Mars. The scientist, who worked previously on the uber-successful Mars Curiosity rover, is building the Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL – a hyper-tuned device that will bounce X-rays onto the surface of a rock or soil sample to examine its composition “on a spot-by-spot basis,” according to its creator, “allowing a very detailed investigation of the distribution of chemical elements.”

“We can deduce the history of that rock and the environment it was formed in,” Hurowitz noted. “And we can look for chemical fingerprints that show whether there was microbial life present when the rock was formed.”

Hurowitz is building what he called a “laboratory version” of the PIXL, which lets him and his team calibrate and tinker and perfect a “flight version” that will be added to the rover, which is under construction at the JPL.

It’s exciting stuff – especially since NASA this summer officially approved the design, including the PIXL, of its still-unnamed 2020 rover – and a worthy nod to the collaborative spirit championed by the Center for Planetary Exploration.

“We were all already collaborating to some degree, but the students were sort of separated into different spaces,” Rogers noted. “Now we have students in the same space using similar tools and techniques to solve different planetary problems. So there’s a lot of sharing of knowledge, a lot of, ‘Oh, have you tried this technique?’”

So while newly discovered exoplanets “are a little out of our realm,” as Glotch noted, detailed satellite imagery of Martian plains, computer simulations of the micro-meteor bombardments and solar winds that cause “space weathering” and the interplanetary coolness of Hurowitz’s PIXL device put the exploration center knee-deep in the final frontier, happily exploring the vast ocean of space’s rocky shores.

“We’re geologists,” Glotch said. “We like working with rocks. We don’t do a lot of exoplanet science here, but we’re contributing important interpretations to the process of selecting the next landing site on Mars.

“We’re very interested in interpreting samples from our solar system,” he added. “Not an astronomical object around another star that we don’t even have a picture of, but things we can reach with conventional spacecraft in a reasonable amount of time.”