Brock researcher to work on NASA’s Mars mission

Mariek Schmidt

Mariek Schmidt

NASA is going back to Mars looking for signs of life, and Brock scientist Mariek Schmidt is helping direct the search.

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, set to launch from Florida this Saturday, Nov. 26, will carry the rover vehicle Curiosity to the red planet, where it will examine the Gale Crater area for evidence of past or present conditions that could be habitable.

When Curiosity reaches Mars next summer, Brock volcanologist Schmidt will be at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. She will be part of an international team of scientists and engineers who will guide the rover and oversee its observations and activities.

After she returns to Brock, Schmidt will spend at least three years helping investigate and analyze the information sent back from Gale Crater.

Schmidt, who has been an assistant professor of Earth Sciences at Brock in 2010, said it is important for Canada to get opportunities to increase its own body of expertise.

“Canada will eventually play a more active role in the exploration of Mars, possibly even sending our own mission some day,” said Schmidt, whose role in the mission has been backed by the Canadian Space Agency. “Until now a lot of our contribution to the space program has been in technology, but now we’re providing more on the science side as well. And that’s a cool thing.”

Gary Libben, Vice-President Research, said NASA’s selection of Schmidt speaks to the university’s growing stature in the research community.

“Mariek is an example of a new generation of world-class researchers who choose to teach and work at Brock,” said Libben. “They’re building on the reputation our researchers have established over the years, and taking Brock into a new era. It bodes well for our students and our surrounding community.”

Rick Cheel, Interim Dean of Mathematics and Science, called Schmidt’s appointment “a great example of literally pushing back the frontiers of science.”

“Work like that will not only further fundamental discovery of the make up and history of another planet,” said Cheel, “it is an important step towards the expansion of humanity beyond the bounds of Earth. I am immensely proud that a Brock researcher is among the pathfinders for the human journey into space.”

The Curiosity — NASA’s most advanced mobile robotic laboratory — will examine minerals that provide a lasting record of the temperatures, pressures and chemistry that were present when the minerals were formed or altered.

Researchers will add that information to observations about geological context (such as the patterns and processes of sedimentary rock accumulation) and chart a chronology of how the area’s environments have changed over time.

The information Curiosity collects about minerals and about the area’s modern environment will be analyzed for clues about possible past and present energy sources for life.

Schmidt is no stranger to NASA’s Mars program. She worked on the Spirit mission, which landed on Mars in 2004, while she was a post doctoral fellow with the Department of Mineral Sciences at the Smithsonian Institution.

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