Pitt professor’s UV technology destined for Mars in 2020
When NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover soars into space on a quest to answer whether life exists on the Red Planet, it will likely carry a little bit of Pittsburgh with it.
Technology using ultraviolet light to analyze and examine pieces of matter, invented by Sandy Asher, a professor of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, is expected to be an integral part of the mission. If successful, Asher said he expects that technology will “be on all interplanetary missions.”
“I’m very satisfied with that,” said Asher, 67, of Point Breeze. “It feels like I’ve had an impact.”
With help from graduate and post-doctorate students, “we’ve worked very hard for a very long time to take things that are ideas and convert them to real stuff,” he said.
The Navy uses the technology to determine whether there are traces of explosives on an object, he said. It’s been used to examine protein structures. Asher said that most diseases are caused by mutations in proteins, and understanding the protein structures could help in medical research.
Asher didn’t have goals as lofty as Mars when he first began working on the technology, called UV Raman spectroscopy, more than 30 years ago.
“I was looking at nearer-term things,” he said. Much of his research while at Pitt has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, which supplied more than $20 million.
The laser technology will be integrated into the SHERLOC project, which stands for Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals.
There’s no guarantee of success, said Luther Beegle, research scientist and deputy manager of the planetary science section at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
The Rover, as in past missions, will have to deal with dust, severe temperature swings and other environmental factors.
“Conditions are horrible for things to work,” Beegle said.
If the equipment survives landing into the harsh Martian environment, Beegle said, the Raman technology will help determine whether past life has been preserved and identify minerals that could prove water once flowed there.
“Biological molecules have signatures,” Asher said. “It will help determine whether life exists there or not.”
The Rover will collect and package soil samples. If the studies show something worth further exploration, another Mars Rover would land, pick up those samples and return them to Earth for further study.
“That’s the first time we’d bring samples back from another planet,” Beegle said.
The mission is scheduled to launch in August 2020, with the landing in February 2021, Beegle said. Asher will go to the California laboratory to help crews analyze the data sent back by the Mars Rover.
“It’s a load of fun,” Beegle said.
Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or [email protected].