(SAHER JAFRI / THE STATESMAN)
Joel Hurowitz, above, and his team will build an instrument called the PIXL in an attempt to prove that life once existed on Mars. (SAHER JAFRI / THE STATESMAN)

NASA awarded Joel Hurowitz, a geoscience assistant professor at Stony Brook University, and his team a 1.4 million dollar grant to build an instrument called the Planetary Instrument for X-Ray Lithochemistry, or the PIXL, which is aiming to help prove past life on Mars.

The PIXL is one of seven instruments that will be used in NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission for the exploration of Mars.

The PIXL will be attached to the end of the rover’s arm and will measure the chemical composition of rocks and minerals in small spots approximately the size of a postage stamp on Mars’ surface using x-ray fluorescence.

After six months of writing a proposal for the NASA grant, Stony Brook was chosen out of 57 other candidates from around the world.

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Hurowitz, a Stony Brook graduate school alumnus, is the deputy principal investigator for the project. He graduated with his doctorate in 2006 and went to work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He was officemates with Abigail Allwood, who will serve as the principal investigator of the project.

Hurowitz is no stranger to rover missions. While earning his doctorate, he spent April 2004 through August 2004 working at JPL and has been a part of the Curiosity rover mission since just before it launched two years ago.

“These experiments will help engineers learn how to use Martian resources to produce oxygen for human respiration and potentially for use as an oxidizer for rocket fuel,” said Guy Webster, a spokesman for JPL, said in a press release.

The Mars 2020 rover mission was modeled after the highly successful Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, which landed two years ago, according to the press release. This 2020 rover will carry more advanced hardware and new instruments. It will help determine potential habitability of the planet as well as search for signs of ancient Martian life.

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“I think past life on Mars is a real possibility. I really do,” Hurowitz said. “Past rover missions say that there have been all the conditions that could make it possible.”

The actual instrument that will be on the 2020 rover mission will be built at JPL; mostly lab work will be done at SBU. Hurowitz and his team will be using a test model. Testing will begin spring 2015 and will continue through 2023, two years after the expected landing date. The data collected here will be sent to NASA to help finalize the final PIXL instrument

Hurowitz will travel back to JPL about every six weeks to inform other teams on the research he is conducting, keeping everyone informed. Although he will mostly attend meetings, he will also work on calibration of the instrument.

Upper-level undergraduates or introductory graduate students will be able to get involved in the research, although there will be no class specifically designed for working on it.

“I think that letting the world know that Stony Brook is part of big research projects like this will raise the university’s profile,” Hurowitz said. “It will attract more bright incoming students interested in studying engineering and geosciences.”

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