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UW physics professor helps design instrument on Mars Perseverance rover

Almost anything that goes into outer space seems to have a northwest connection, and the Perseverance rover which landed on Mars on Thursday is no exception.

University of Washington professor and physicist Tim Elam explained on KIRO Nights that he is part of a team that designed an instrument to create chemical images of rocks on Mars. Elam says he’s been working on his portion of this project for more than eight years, from the original proposal for the instrument to now having hardware on the way to Mars.

He said he was both nervous and excited about the Mars landing on Thursday.

“I feel like I’m a little bit on the rack, getting my nerves stretched, but it’s sort of equal parts excitement and concern,” he said.

“Things do look good, and, of course, they’ve done this before,” he said about the scheduled landing. “So everyone is very, very hopeful it will turn out just like it did for the Curiosity rover.”

Elam specializes in X-ray florescence spectroscopy. The images that his team’s instrument will take on Mars can help provide clues about the planet’s physical history.

“From that, the geologists can conclude a lot about the history of the rock, what condition it’s in, and what has happened,” he explained.

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The project Elam is part of is called Pixel, and it will be turned on almost as soon as Perseverance lands.

“Pixel, our instrument, will be started off fairly quickly after it arrives on Mars,” Elam said. “But of course, all we’re going to do is flip on the power switch and make sure that we can talk to it, and everything is OK.”

The Perseverance rover was scheduled to land on Mars at 12:55 p.m. PT on Thursday, Feb. 18.

The KIRO Radio Newsdesk contributed to this report. Listen to KIRO Nights weeknights from 7 – 10 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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