Zapping Rocks—on Mars!

NASA pic of the Mars Rover

Now that we are on Mars, future possibilities are so great.

When the robotic rover Curiosity made its picture-perfect touchdown on Mars last summer, Sam Clegg was not just a casual observer. A member of the international team that spent almost a decade putting together the Mars research mission, Clegg (BS, Chemistry, ’92) says he was “beside myself with excitement.” The successful landing was itself cause for jubilation, but even greater was the excitement he and fellow scientists felt about the possibilities ahead for exploring the Red Planet through Curiosity’s cutting-edge tools.

A researcher at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) since 2003, Clegg specializes in laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, a technique for analyzing chemical composition of matter using tools like the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) laser instrument carried on Curiosity’s mast. And, here’s where it really gets cool: As one of the co-investigators on this mission, Clegg’s job involves zapping Martian rocks with lasers and then checking the results. Well, OK, it’s all a bit more complicated than that, but who wouldn’t be beside themselves with excitement doing that? 

Photo of Sam Clegg

Science and outer space have fascinated Clegg since he was very young and dreamed of being an astronaut. He entered CSU, Chico planning a career teaching high school science, but after Professor Jim Postma’s general chemistry class, he changed his major to chemistry. Then, in his third year, Clegg began research with Professor Randy Miller, using florescence spectroscopy to study cellular structures. That experience set Clegg on the path to graduate school (MS, San Jose State; PhD, Indiana University) and eventually to his current position managing the Los Alamos laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) laboratory.

In 2004, Clegg “was lucky—in the right place at the right time,” he says. Fellow LANL researcher Roger Wiens told him about a ChemCam proposal he was preparing for the next NASA Mars rover mission. The Chico grad was eager to become part of a team that included scientists from several facilities across the United States, as well as French scientists based at the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology in Toulouse. In 2005, NASA awarded them the contract. Seven years later, Curiosity is hard at work trundling across Mars’ surface, deploying its ChemCam laser, and “already producing extraordinary results.”

“Now that we are on Mars,” says Clegg, “future possibilities are so great.” The carefully selected landing site in Gale Crater is proving so rich that he and the French half of the ChemCam team are in constant communication via “daily emails, conference calls during the week, and team meetings whenever possible.” These days Clegg’s role involves discussing which rocks to “zap with ChemCam,” plus—his primary focus—analyzing those “sparked” samples for what they reveal about the planet’s geological composition and history. 

As if exploring possibilities of life on Mars weren’t exciting enough, Clegg and his fellow researchers are currently working on a proposal to study Earth’s other “sibling” planet, Venus. The new project, Clegg explains, would apply the next generation of ChemCam capabilities to analyze relationships between Venus’s geology and that planet’s “runaway greenhouse gases,” perhaps producing results that could apply to situations here on Earth. Taking on study of “Earth’s evil twin,” Clegg  believes, just may be his next great space adventure.

Elizabeth Renfro, professor emerita, is a freelance writer. 

Rover photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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