Return to Mars: SBU scientist back in the PIXL

We have liftoff: Carrying instruments designed in part at Stony Brook University, NASA's Mars 2020 Mission blasted off Wednesday.

Joel Hurowitz just can’t get off Mars.

Hurowitz is not at all like the “The Martian,” titular hero of novelist Andy Weir’s smash hit about a stranded astronaut desperate to return to Earth. Instead, the assistant professor in Stony Brook University’s Department of Geosciences keeps volunteering to return to the Red Planet – at least virtually, as a consultant on several NASA missions.

His first trip to Mars was in 2004, when the then-SBU graduate student began contributing to NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover program. He later took a job at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to work on the Mars Science Laboratory, backbone of the ongoing Mars Curiosity mission, now in its eighth year of Martian exploration (six more than planned).

Joel Hurowitz: SBU’s man on Mars.

His latest Mars mission blasted off around 7:50 a.m. EDT Wednesday, when the Perseverance rover – NASA’s latest and potentially greatest Martian ground vehicle – departed Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on a leisurely seven-month cruise to the next planet over.

Tucked aboard the Atlas V541 interplanetary rocket are the first flying drone sent to Mars – the helicopter-like Ingenuity, marking NASA’s first attempt at controlled flight on another planet – and the Perseverance, which among other space-age tools packs an advanced X-ray scanner designed in large part by Hurowitz.

The SBU spaceman’s latest Martian milestone dates back seven years, to 2013, shortly after he joined the SBU faculty. That’s when the associate professor was named deputy principal investigator of a JPL team looking to add a “Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry” – PIXL, for short – to Perseverance’s Martian toolkit.

About a year later, NASA selected the PIXL for its ambitious Mars 2020 mission. In concert with friends at the JPL and at SBU’s Center For Planetary Exploration, where he runs his own “wet geochemistry” laboratory, Hurowitz has spent the last five-plus years designing and testing upgrades – preparing PIXL, which is attached to the end of Perseverance’s robotic arm, to examine the chemical makeup of Martian rocks.

Essentially, PIXL bounces X-rays off a rock or soil sample to examine its composition “on a spot-by-spot basis,” Hurowitz told Innovate LI in 2016, revealing chemical secrets and helping researchers determine if things like water or microbial life were ever present.

Old news: Mars rocks will share ancient secrets with PIXL.

Stepping up the search for ancient life on Mars may sound like science fiction, but it makes perfect scientific sense, according to Hurowitz, who notes all the necessary pieces for life were once in place – in abundance – on the now-inhospitable Red Planet.

“We have established that there was water on Mars,” the scientist said. “Now we have this opportunity to look at the bigger picture.

“This chemical information allows us to understand what the environment on Mars was like billions of years ago, when the rocks formed,” Hurowitz added. “And this chemical information also allows us to understand whether microbial life may have played a role in forming or modifying those rocks.”