The Government of Canada recently announced that it is extending its collaboration with NASA for another two years to participate in the Mars Science Laboratory mission, also known as the Mars Curiosity Rover.

For University of New Brunswick researchers, this is great news. John Spray, director of The Planetary and Space Science Centre at UNB Fredericton, leads a team who are responsible for analyzing data that is being collected by one of the rover’s key instruments – the alpha particle X-ray spectrometer (APXS), which is used to determine the chemical composition of material the rover comes into contact with.

“It’s a fancy word for a tool on the end of the Rover’s arm that’s roughly the size of a can of beans or peas,” said Dr. Spray in an interview with the Daily Gleaner. “It radiates whatever it’s put in front of and determines whatever’s in front of it is made of.”

Being one of the three UNB scientists collecting this data, Dr. Spray gets to interpret the data and be the first to compare the makeup of rock on Mars with those on Earth to understand how it was formed.

He says we’re quite familiar with how rocks are formed on Earth, but the same processes do not happen in Mars and that’s what they’re trying to learn more about. Learning more about the how rocks were formed will give scientists more insight as to whether there is life on the red planet.

“Some lifeforms on Earth interact with rocks, like lichen you see growing on rocks,” said Dr. Spray to the Daily Gleaner. “When they interact, they actually extract elements from the rock like iron. They may modify the mineral’s rocks.”

Spray says that analyzing the composition of rocks on Mars could show a change in their natural composition, which may indicate lifeforms existed at some point in time.