One of the leaders on a high-powered team, Joel Hurowitz recently helped win a $1.4 million bid to build something that will eventually take a one-way journey far from home. Their device will need to withstand temperatures as low as 200 degrees below Fahrenheit.
Hurowitz, a research associate professor at Stony Brook, and a team that includes members from Stony Brook and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, are creating one of seven instruments that will journey aboard the Mars 2020 rover mission. The group beat out 57 other proposals to win a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to construct their Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, which will be bolted onto the turret at the end of the rover’s arm.
“The thing that we’re really excited about is that, for the first time, we can link the texture of a rock to its geochemistry,” said Hurowitz, who is the deputy principal investigator on the project.
Up to now, the equipment NASA has sent to Mars has analyzed rocks by looking at pieces in a 4- or 5-centimeter circle, which is about the size of the top of a soda can. Such a large field of view, even from an average distance of 140 million miles away, makes it difficult to determine “which ingredients go with which parts of the rock,” Hurowitz said.
Their new instrument will scan the rock in hundred micron steps, which is about the width of a human hair. This is also the size of clues at which small living organisms, or microbes, might leave their mark on rocks. This will allow for a more complete analysis of Martian rocks, helping NASA choose which rocks to bring back to Earth in the late 2020s.
The rock analysis will also likely give scientists a better understanding of the history of conditions on Mars over the last three or four billion years. Scientists generally believe that Mars had an early period — four billion years or so ago — when it had water on its surface, although some researchers believe that water was more like ice, while others suspect it may have had oceans, lakes and rivers.
Something changed dramatically, causing Mars to dry out, become nearly water free and get much colder. “While this big picture model is generally true, we’re finding deposits of water-born sediments in places that are younger than we might have predicted,” Hurowitz said, which is “out of sequence in general with this framework.”
When NASA sought designs for this instrument, Hurowitz and a team led by Abigail Allwood at Jet Propulsion Laboratory built two prototypes, one of which was used to gather data in the Pilbara region, which is in the northwestern part of Australia.
The Mars 2020 mission will include several other instruments, including: SHERLOC, which will seek evidence of organic compounds in rocks and soils, and MOXIE, which will attempt to produce oxygen from Martian carbon dioxide.
While Hurowitz is developing a device that will never return, he himself has come back to a place he called home when he was a graduate student in Stony Brook in Scott McLennan’s lab. After a seven year absence in which he worked at JPL, Hurowitz rejoined Stony Brook last year.
McLennan appreciates the talents of his former Ph.D. student. Hurowitz “has all the attributes of an outstanding scientist and educator,” McLennan said. He has “exceptional laboratory skills, having designed and built experimental labs at Stony Brook and JPL.” McLennan said Hurowitz is recognized in the field for research that combined lab and Mars mission data to gain a better understanding of how the surface of Mars weathered over geological time.
A professor in the Department of Geosciences, McLennan believes Hurowitz, who will become an assistant professor in a few weeks, is a considerable asset.
He “will create really unique and great opportunities for training Stony Brook graduate and undergraduate students to be the next generation of planetary scientists,” McLennan said.
Hurowitz and his wife Tanya, an assistant principal at an elementary school on the South Shore, recently bought a home in Stony Brook, where they plan to raise their two young sons.
As Hurowitz and Allwood prepared their NASA bid, Hurowitz felt that “this will all be worth it when we’re standing on a sunny beach in Florida, watching the rocket lift off with our families next to us and the instrument team beside us.”