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Planetary scientist helps equip Perseverance rover with 4 of 5 human senses


Roger Wiens, planetary scientist and Mars rover expert at Purdue University with a topographic model of Mars and a photo from Curiosity. (Photo Purdue University/John Underwood)

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – For two decades, Roger Wiens has been building instruments to give humans eyes and noses on Mars – and now he’s also helping to add ears.

Wiens, a professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University College of Science and an expert in Mars robotics technology, led the team that built SuperCam, a device on the Perseverance Mars rover which includes a laser for zapping rocks as well as the microphone that brought the first recordings from Mars to Earth.

“When I was at Los Alamos National Laboratory, I started looking around to see if there were any Department of Energy technologies that we could harness and use for planetary science, and that is where Curiosity’s ChemCam, which later evolved into Perseverance’s SuperCam, comes in,” Wiens said.

SuperCam incorporates technology that uses a pulsed laser beam to blast tiny pieces of rock samples up to 30 feet away. The instrument collects light from the brief flash emitted during the process, allowing scientists to analyze rocks its arm cannot reach and to “see” and analyze samples even through the dust of Mars that covers the rocks.

By incorporating the microphone into SuperCam, Wiens and his collaborators have opened up opportunities for a range of science and research on the Martian surface that was never possible before, including helping to analyze rocks and record sound.

“When we zap these rocks, we can learn more about their hardness and composition by listening to the change in sound as a number of laser shots are fired into the rock at the same locations,” Wiens said. “We can hear the Ingenuity helicopter, which we didn’t expect to be able to hear. We can hear the wind and measure speed and direction, as well as measure the size and speed of dust devils. We can listen to the rover’s own sounds and monitor health and safety the same way you gauge the well-being of your car by listening to the engine. Things sound different on Earth because the rover’s ears are a different shape than ours and the atmosphere is so different, but we make recordings and learn things every other day.

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