Curious About Life: Interview with Richard Leveille

Richard Leveille, of the Canadian Space Agency, uses the ChemCam instrument on the rover Curiosity to analyze samples of Martian rock. Credit: Richard Leveille

The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover has 10 science instruments, and each will be used in the coming weeks and months to help characterize the environment of Mars and determine if the planet ever had the potential for life.

Richard Leveille, of the Canadian Space Agency, is one of the scientists working on Curiosity’s Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) instrument. ChemCam will study Martian rocks and soil in depth. A laser will target selected rocks, creating an ionized, glowing plasma that will be used to analyze their composition. The instrument’s camera will resolve features 5 to 10 times more in-depth than previous rovers.

What kind of research do you generally do?

I am trained in geology and I apply this to the study of Mars. I study what kinds of rocks and minerals are found on Mars or predict what we may find. In particular, I study minerals that can form when rocks like basalt are altered (or weathered) by the action of liquid water, or that form in bodies of water like lakes or even hot springs that we suspect may have existed in the past on Mars. I also study how microbes can influence the formation of minerals and what kind of traces (biosignatures) they leave behind.

What do you do specifically for MSL?

I am a MSL Participating Scientist and a collaborator on the ChemCam team. I have three main roles in the mission

First, I am the Science Payload Uplink Lead (sPUL2) for ChemCam. I verify the sun-safety of the ChemCam instrument, prepare data product tables, and assist ePUL2 with sequences of commands to be uplinked to the spacecraft. While some instrument teams only have a single PUL2 (payload uplink lead), ChemCam uses two, engineering and science, who work together. The ’2′ refers to second shift in the tactical planning sequence (sol-to-sol planning).

Using a laser to turn rocks into plasma, ChemCam has the ability to analyze the composition of samples that are out of range of the rover itself. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/J.-L. Lacour, CEA

I am also the ChemCam representative on Science Theme Groups, specifically for geology and mineralogy. I participate in theme group discussions and tactical planning each Martian day, or sol, and maximize efficiency in the use of ChemCam

Finally, I am a Science Theme Group participant, focusing on geology and mineralogy. I participate in discussions and tactical planning each sol, select targets for imaging and ChemCam analyses, and review downlinked data.

In all cases, I also try to participate in the end-of-sol science discussions.

How could your work help us to answer astrobiology questions?

By identifying specific minerals on Mars, and by better understanding their formation through Earth-based studies, we can estimate what conditions existed in the past. We can also target certain minerals that may be better indicators of past environmental conditions, or that perhaps could concentrate and preserve organic matter.

Ultimately, this will help to characterize whether locations near or within Gale crater were ever habitable. If there ever was life on Mars, and traces are preserved in the rocks and minerals, my work will help to identify these traces, differentiate them from Earth contamination or non-biologically produced features, and to place it in a geological context. In terms of tactical planning for the mission, my work can help us to take decisions on whether to analyze rocks in detail with APXS, MAHLI, CheMin and SAM, or whether we drive away to more interesting targets.

As ChemCam’s laser strikes a Martian sample, it will produce a bright ball of plasma. MSL scientists will then be able to analyze the components of the rock being vaporized. Credit: LeRoy Sanchez

What is it like to live on Mars time? Do you feel like you are on Earth or Mars, or both?

Marstime can be a challenge! I often feel tired and sleepy, as do many of my colleagues. Meal planning is a bit more complicated—when do I eat? What do I eat? I also have to make lots of reminders, as the times of meetings and important daily events keep changing. It is especially difficult when we try to maintain some connection to Earthtime, such as to our family, our work back home, or attending non-mission meetings and teleconferences. In fact, it is quite difficult to be completely “on Marstime”.

In my case, I recently switched from spending most of time working on the first shift, when things are downlinked and most of the science planning is done, to primarily the second shift, when sequences are put together and uplinked to the spacecraft. This was a bit difficult as it led me to essentially be working nights, and I had to struggle through a few late-night (or late morning on Earth) meetings without nodding off!

Nevertheless, I am very happy to be a part of this exciting mission!