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Halifax man helped Perseverance search for traces of life on Mars


Millions of people cheered this week when NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars — including a Nova Scotia man who had a hand in creating the space explorer.

Greg Wanger worked on SHERLOC, which acts as the robot’s hand and eyes on the Red Planet, using cameras, a spectrometer and a laser to search for organics and minerals in the soil.

“What’s really important is not are there organics on Mars, but are they all in a clump? Are they in a layered structure? How are they distributed on the surface?” Wanger said.

“Because that tells us a lot about what went on to put those organics there and, hopefully, we would find the signatures of life.”

Wanger said he was on the edge of his seat as the world awaited word on the rover’s landing. He realized that since it takes 11 minutes to send a message home, Perseverance was already safely on the ground before anyone knew.

SHERLOC will look for signatures of life on the Red Planet. (NASA)

SHERLOC stands for Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals, but it’s really a detective of the same calibre as Sherlock Holmes. And fittingly, SHERLOC will be assisted by WATSON, a nearby camera that will take photos.

Wanger lives in Halifax today and runs Oberland Agriscience, but seven years ago he worked at NASA’s legendary Jet Propulsion Lab, or JPL. It was then that he and a small team began creating the device. Hundreds of other scientists would eventually join that team to create the device that just landed on Mars.

“I really love the motto for JPL, which is ‘Dare mighty things.’ That really does stand out when you work there,” he said Friday.

He spoke to several of his JPL colleagues to celebrate the landing. If they find something very interesting, a future mission could bring the samples back to Earth.

Some of the technology behind SHERLOC will soon be coming to Halifax to explore its potential for use in the oceans.

This Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021, photo provided by NASA shows the Perseverance rover lowered toward the surface of Mars during its powered descent. (NASA/The Associated Press)

“This is what NASA and JPL do really well: they design and develop incredible technologies that then do make it into our everyday lives,” Wanger said.

He cited phone cameras, which started off as space cameras — and a Nova Scotian played a role in that invention, too. Willard Boyle won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2009 for his work in developing a type of semi-conductor circuit that revolutionized the way the world takes pictures.


www.cbc.ca 2021-02-20 10:00:00

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