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Steve Hinnefeld
IU Communications

Last modified: Thursday, August 2, 2012

IU scientists in key roles as NASA mission reaches Mars

Aug. 2, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Years of work by Indiana University geologists David Bish and Juergen Schieber will reach a critical juncture Sunday night when NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission reaches Mars.

Bish, Haydn Murray Chair of Applied Clay Mineralogy, and Schieber, professor of geological sciences, helped develop and will analyze data from two of the 10 instruments included in the mission's science payload. Both are faculty in the Department of Geological Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences.

"It's an exciting time," Bish said, looking ahead to the moment when scientists expect to learn if the landing was successful and the instruments will collect data and send it to Earth. "I'm optimistic. We've got some of the best engineers in the world working on this."

Schieber and Bish

Chris Meyer/Indiana University

Juergen Schieber, left, and David Bish

Print-Quality Photo

Bish and Schieber will join hundreds of other scientists and engineers for the landing this weekend at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. If things go well, they will stay for 90 days to begin receiving and analyzing data from the mission. Then the scientists will return to their home institutions and continue to work remotely on the projects.

The mission, which launched in November 2011, is scheduled to reach Mars on Sunday at 10:31 p.m. Pacific Time (1:31 a.m. EDT Monday). Using a never-before-tried landing technique, it will deposit the 10-foot-long rover Curiosity near the foot of a mountain inside the Gale Crater.

Curiosity will analyze dozens of samples over the next two years, providing new information about Mars' geology and geochemistry, including whether conditions on the planet are or have ever been favorable to microbial life. The IU geologists are part of teams that developed two of the eight scientific instruments that NASA selected for the mission through a competitive process in 2004. The agency later reached agreements with Russia and Spain to add instruments provided by those countries.

The success of the Mars Science Lab depends on an intricately choreographed and computer-controlled landing maneuver described in a NASA video titled "Seven Minutes of Terror." As a NASA engineer explains, it's "game over" if everything doesn't work perfectly.

"Space travel is not a cakewalk, plain and simple," Schieber said. "It's technology at its limits. We have the best crew of engineers, but that doesn't guarantee it will succeed."

Schieber, an expert in sedimentary geology, will analyze data from the Mars Hand Lens Imager, a focusable color camera on the turret at the end of Curiosity's robotic arm, which will take close-up photographs of rocks, soil and, if present, ice. Named for the small magnifying lens used in geological field work, the instrument will send back detailed images geologists will analyze to read the environmental history recorded in the rocks and soils of Mars. Ken Edgett of Malin Space Science Systems is the principal investigator for the project.

Bish is co-investigator for CheMin, short for Chemistry and Mineralogy. A powder X-ray diffraction instrument that will identify and quantify the minerals present in Mars rocks and soil, CheMin data will allow assessment of the involvement of water in the formation, deposition or alteration of minerals.

Bish began working on the project around 1990 after he and two other scientists, David Blake of NASA Ames Laboratory and David Vaniman of Los Alamos National Laboratory, came up with the idea of developing a miniature version of an X-ray diffraction device that could be sent to another planet. Other scientists joined the team, and CheMin was developed successfully, winning an R&D 100 award in 1999.

A standard X-ray diffraction instrument is twice the size of a refrigerator and weighs 1,000 pounds, but CheMin is small and light enough to hold in one hand. It's remarkable, Bish said, that the instrument is going to Mars on the 100th anniversary of the discovery by German scientist Max von Laue of X-ray diffraction, which uses the scattering of X-rays to reveal the arrangement of atoms in crystals.

For more on CheMin, see For more on the Mars Hand Lens Imager, see To speak with Bish or Schieber, contact Steve Hinnefeld, IU Communications, at or 812-856-3488.