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U of T scientist to play key role on Mars 2020 Rover Payload Mission

August 5, 2014

TORONTO, ON — NASA announced last week that the next rover, being sent to Mars in 2020, will car­ry sev­en high­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed instru­ments to con­duct unprece­dent­ed sci­ence and explo­ration tech­nol­o­gy inves­ti­ga­tions on the Red Plan­et. The instru­ments were select­ed from 58 pro­pos­als received from researchers and engi­neers around the world and Rebec­ca Ghent of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Depart­ment of Earth Sci­ences is on the team behind one of the care­ful­ly cho­sen win­ners: a ground-pen­e­trat­ing radar known as RIMFAX.

The Radar Imager for Mars’ Sub­sur­face Explo­ration (RIMFAX) will con­duct shal­low pro­fil­ing of the geo­log­i­cal struc­ture of Mar­t­ian sub­sur­face as the rover dri­ves along the sur­face. Its goals are to dis­cov­er evi­dence of the geo­log­i­cal process­es that shaped Mars’ sed­i­men­ta­ry envi­ron­ment, to search for evi­dence of past hab­it­able envi­ron­ments and to look for vari­a­tions in sub­sur­face com­po­si­tion.

“I’m very excit­ed to be part of this mis­sion,” said Ghent. “The com­mu­ni­ty has been talk­ing about putting a ground-pen­e­trat­ing radar on a Mars rover for a long time, and I’m delight­ed that I get to be part of the team to do it.  I expect that it will give us some­thing that Earth geol­o­gists take for grant­ed, but is very rare for plan­e­tary geol­o­gists: a view into the third or ver­ti­cal dimen­sion.”

Unrav­el­ling the geo­log­i­cal his­to­ry of any region on any plan­et requires that third dimen­sion, because it rep­re­sents time, explains Ghent. With­out it, we only have a snap­shot, rep­re­sent­ing a sin­gle point in time. “Ground-pen­e­trat­ing radar gives us the oppor­tu­ni­ty to detect things beneath the sur­face, and should pro­vide a wealth of new infor­ma­tion that will help us put the rest of the rover’ s find­ings into per­spec­tive. The oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cov­er the geo­log­i­cal his­to­ry is what real­ly excites me.”

Ghent’s tasks pri­or to launch will be to mea­sure the elec­tri­cal prop­er­ties of mate­ri­als that rep­re­sent analogs of those that will be found on Mars so that the sci­en­tists can inter­pret the radar’s results. She will also par­tic­i­pate in field test­ing of instru­ment pro­to­types and relat­ed data analy­sis. After launch and dur­ing the sci­ence phase of the mis­sion, Ghent will be involved in sci­ence plan­ning for the inves­ti­ga­tion, data pro­cess­ing and sci­en­tif­ic analy­sis as well as geo­log­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tion of the radar data.

How does one end up being part of a Mars rover mis­sion? Ghent’s inter­est in the geo­log­i­cal process on the ter­res­tri­al plan­ets – Venus, Mer­cury, Earth, the Moon and Mars – began in grad­u­ate school when she was analysing radar data from the Mag­el­lan mis­sion to Venus. She’s been involved in var­i­ous mis­sions since, includ­ing the Lunar Recon­nais­sance Orbiter, which launched in 2009, and the OSIRIS REx aster­oid sam­ple return mis­sion, sched­uled for launch in 2016.

The Mars 2020 mis­sion will be based on the design of the Mars Sci­ence Lab­o­ra­to­ry rover, Curios­i­ty, which land­ed on Mars almost two years ago, and is cur­rent­ly oper­at­ing there. In addi­tion to geo­log­i­cal assess­ments of the rover’s land­ing site, Mars 2020 hopes to deter­mine the poten­tial hab­it­abil­i­ty of the envi­ron­ment and direct­ly search for signs of ancient Mar­t­ian life.


For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact:

Rebec­ca Ghent
Earth Sci­ences
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Cell: 619–481-4321

Kim Luke
Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: 416–978-4352