Roger Wiens - Principal Investigator for the ChemCam Instrument
My name is Roger Wiens and I live in Los Alamos, NM, USA. I am the Principal Investigator for ChemCam which means I direct all activities associated with the instrument. I started the project about fifteen years ago when another co-worker and I told NASA that we could develop the laser concept for use on another planet. They liked the idea. So we recruited a team of scientists and engineers to come up with the ChemCam instrument. Coordinating the work of the various team members is a large part of my job, but of course I also like to work with the data myself. My wife and I enjoy being outdoors together and visiting our grown children. I also love music, so I play keyboard in a band at my church, which is a good diversion from Mars.
When I was young, I was interested in either being a musician, an inventor and engineer, or joining the Peace Corps. I was very interested in science, but I grew up in a small town in the Midwest and I never thought I could end up being a space scientist. My interest in Mars was sparked by the Mariner 9 mission to Mars, the first spacecraft to orbit Mars. That same year Mars came closer to Earth than it had in many years. My brother and I saved up our paper route money to buy paùrts to build a telescope. We mounted it on a fence post and sketched the features of Mars. It was an amazing sight! I wrote about this experience in my book, Red Rover (Basic Books, 2013), that also tells how we developed the ChemCam instrument. In graduate school, I was able to study bits of the martian atmosphere trapped in meteorites for my PhD thesis. After graduating, I led many of the activities on another unmanned NASA mission called GENESIS. Now, with the success of ChemCam, NASA has asked us to build another instrument for its next rover, due to launch in 2020. We have added two new techniques to determine not just the chemistry but also the mineralogy of the targets, and to provide color images. With these new improvements we decided to call the instrument SuperCam.
Mars is interesting to study to find out if some forms of life exist there currently or did so in the past, which would tell us a lot about the beginning of life on Earth as well. Mars is the next planet that humans will inhabit. Why? Mars has 24 hour days, it has four seasons, it has water, and it has a thin atmosphere. It may be possible over time to terraform Mars--to cause its atmosphere to thicken and to become enriched in oxygen. The thicker atmosphere would also warm the surface of the planet, making it more habitable. This would take a very long time, well over a millennium. But the Mars atmosphere actually starts out with more carbon dioxide than the Earth's, which means plants could potentially be the transformational agent.
The most interesting discoveries ChemCam could make are the ones that we have no idea about yet. Mars is still largely an unknown place. It is really hard to say what we will find. That is what makes working with ChemCam so interesting.