Make us your home page
Instagram

Part of 'Curiosity' rover on Mars hails from Tampa Bay

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 trigaux@tampabay.com.

How Ocean Optics contributed

NASA's Curiosity rover that landed Sunday on Mars includes equipment designed by scientists and businesses right here in the Tampa Bay area.

Company: Ocean Optics in Dunedin

What it does: Makes spectrometers that measure light wavelengths to analyze what things are made of. NASA selected Ocean Optics devices that were then customized to withstand the harsh conditions of getting to and operating on Mars.

Employees: 215

Started: 20 years ago as spin-off from the University of South Florida.

Founder: Mike Morris, now a board member

Lead scientist: Dave Landis, who started with Ocean Optics and worked with NASA to customize spectrometers for work in space. Landis is now senior program manager for space science instrumentation at Draper Lab in Tampa.

Part of 'Curiosity' rover on Mars hails from Tampa Bay 08/08/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 8, 2012 11:42pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. The real estate pros in charge of Tampa's $3 billion makeover are younger than you think

    Working Life

    TAMPA — Brooke May, a 36-year-old senior construction project manager, knew she wanted to work for Strategic Property Partners the minute she met some team members involved with the group's massive downtown Tampa makeover.

    Matt Davis, Vice President of Development posed for a portrait in the Strategic Property Partners office in Channelside on July 12, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
  2. St. Pete Beach may loosen beach drinking rules for hotel guests

    Local Government

    ST. PETE BEACH — Drinking a beer, a cocktail or a glass of wine may soon be legal on this city's beaches, but only for hotel guests in and around their hotel's beachfront cabanas.

    Registered hotel guests would be able to drink alcoholic beverages at their cabanas on the beach under a new rule the St. Pete Beach City Commission is considering.  

  3. PunditFact: George Will's comparison of tax preparers, firefighters based on outdated data

    Business

    The statement

    "America has more people employed as tax preparers (1.2 million) than as police and firefighters."

    George Will, July 12 in a column

    The ruling

    WASHINGTON - JANUARY 08: Conservative newspaper columnist George Will poses on the red carpet upon arrival at a salute to FOX News Channel's Brit Hume on January 8, 2009 in Washington, DC. Hume was honored for his 35 years in journalism. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)
  4. Appointments at Shutts & Bowen and Tech Data highlight this week's Tampa Bay business Movers & Shakers

    Business

    Legal

    Retired U.S. Navy Commander Scott G. Johnson has joined Shutts & Bowen LLP in its Tampa office as a senior attorney in the firm's Government Contracts and Corporate Law Practice Groups. Johnson brings 15 years of legal experience and 24 years of naval service to his position. At Shutts, Scott will …

    United States Navy Commander (Retired) Scott G. Johnson joins Shutts & Bowen LLP in its Tampa office. [Company handout]
  5. Macy's chairman replaces ex-HSN head Grossman on National Retail Federation board

    Retail

    Terry Lundgren, chairman of Macy's Inc., will replace Weight Watchers CEO Mindy Grossman as chair of the National Retail Federation, the organization announced Wednesday. Grossman stepped down from her position following her move from leading St. Petersburg-based HSN to Weight Watchers.

    Weight Watchers CEO and former HSN chief Mindy Grossman is being replaced as chair of the National Retail Federation. [HSN Inc.]