The recent discovery of water on the surface of Mars has spurred incredible excitement in the scientific world, none more so than in the laboratories at Delaware State University.
Physicist Dr. Noureddine Melikechi works with NASA to analyze information beamed to Earth from the Mars Curiosity rover, a Volkswagen-sized wheeled laboratory that landed on the Red Planet in 2012.
Recently Curiosity reported it the presence of water in the soil of Gale Crater, a huge depression it has been crossing ever since the landing. Curiosity's Chemistry and Camera instrument, known as ChemCam, was instrumental in the discovery.
The ChemCam is mounted high on the rover so that it gets the same view as someone who is approximately six feet tall.
Q. What does the ChemCam do?
A It consists of a camera and a laser, which shoots a very, very powerful pulse of light that when it focuses on a Martian rock, it turns part of it to a vapor, a plasma that emits light. The camera looks at the light and analyzes it. We can classify the rock and we can see the elemental composition of the rock and the dirt.
We also can drill a hole with the laser, a millimeter or so, and see how the chemical composition changes as we go deeper.
Q How did you become involved in the Curiosity science project?
A I'm a physicist and I've got the expertise they needed for the mission. It involves mostly the analysis of the data coming from Mars. We also do experiments in my laboratory that try to mimic the conditions on Mars.
Q On a scale of one to 10, how would you rate the discovery of water on Mars?
A. For me, it's a 10. It's the answer to one of the major questions people have been asking. This is science, not guesswork.
Q The recent discovery that there's no methane on Mars seems to be an indicator that there is no life there. How does finding water fit into the theories about Mars?
A This is a big turning point. Water is one of the key ingredients of life. It doesn't mean there is life, but there is water. Does this mean we think there is a chance for life? Yes, but we don't know.
Q Would you like to go to Mars?
A If I wasn't afraid of flying for long, I would, but I'm not the world's best traveler.