A bit of Tampa Bay's brainpower and innovation is now on display 140 million miles away on Mars.
You've probably heard about the $2.5 billion Curiosity rover, a six-wheeled chemistry lab dedicated to analyzing samples of the Mars landscape for signs of life and building a sharper picture of the Red Planet's geologic history.
Part of that task is happening thanks to the work of scientists, engineers and companies based right here.
It's an exciting reminder that this region's economy and talent pool are diversifying and involved in such cutting-edge events. With more than 7,000 people helping create Curiosity, Tampa Bay's contribution may seem modest enough. But it's a giant leap to help broaden a regional identity still too often branded as a winter vacation spot and retirement mecca.
In Dunedin, a company called Ocean Optics supplied the spectrometers — devices that use light wavelengths to identify the basic composition of Mars surface samples — that will play a big role in the rover's mission. Ocean Optics, now part of a British company, was a spin-off business 20 years ago from work begun
at the University of South Florida.
One area scientist, Dave Landis, is at center stage in designing some of the Curiosity rover spectrometers. In conjunction with scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Landis helped make the Ocean Optics's spectrometers rugged and robust for work in space. That includes preparing them for the jolting lift-off from Earth, shielding delicate components from space radiation during their 8-month journey, and making sure they survived Sunday's near-perfect landing on Mars.
"I did not get a lot of sleep the night Curiosity rover landed," says Landis, 46.
A self-described "space jockey" who worked at Ocean Optics for a decade, Landis is too young to remember Neil Armstrong's first moon walk in 1969. But he recalls Skylab, and he helped design a spectrometer that helped find traces of water during NASA's 2009 mission to the moon.
"I always wanted to be an astronaut," he laughed, "but then got too blind and fat. So building instruments for NASA that are now on Mars is the next best thing."
Now at Draper Lab in Tampa, Landis already is working on other ambitious spectrometer projects that include a European Space Agency-led mission to Jupiter — a mere seven years' journey from Earth. It's called Project JUICE, short for Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer. From start to finish, the Jupiter project will take about 23 years. That's most of Landis' remaining career.
The Curiosity rover houses three Ocean Optics spectrometers, all customized for the Mars project. They are part of the rover's "ChemCam" unit that includes a telescope to let the rover see potential surface samples in detail. A laser then shoots a short burst to pulverize the sample.
Sample data are captured during the burst of laser light and sent to the rover's spectrometers. The devices analyze specific wavelengths of ultraviolet, visible and infrared light to determine the precise content of each sample.
At first, Landis comes across as the kid in a candy store. But then he expresses strong doubts any rover on Mars can achieve the Holy Grail of finding signs of life. The rover is too limited in its ability to take enough meaningful samples.
"You will need a person on Mars to say 'Let's look over there or let's dig deeper here' before that happens," Landis suggests. That does not mean he thinks the rover's mission of mapping the geologic content of Mars is not useful.
Landis is not part of the direct NASA team analyzing the raw data from Curiosity, as much as he wishes he could be. But he is close enough to the action for a fellow scientist on the project to send him this bumper sticker:
"My other vehicle zaps Rocks on Mars!"
That's pretty elite company.
Contact Robert Trigaux at firstname.lastname@example.org.