Category Archives: Canadian Science

In the News: Experimental Lakes Area Up for Sale?!

I’ve not written much here about the current slash-and-burn effort of the Harper government on federal environmental research (mostly through Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans), and at this point there’s been so many cuts and so many groups dismantled, laid off, or functionally crippled that I don’t even know where I’d begin. One of the initiatives cut is the Experimental Lakes Area, a group of 58 lakes in northern Ontario that have been set aside for whole-lake research on everything from acid rain to fresh-water contaminants to lake ecology. The ELA is unique in the world, has been running very successfully for 44 year (generating an impressive stack of research), and costs about $2 million a year to operate. It is expected to cost substantially more than that to close the project, but in the name of “cost cutting” (…right…) the Harper government has cut the funding and shut the program down.


Apparently they’re looking to sell the ELA to an unspecified “interested party.” The negotiations are happening in secret (of course), so it’s totally unclear what terms the area is being sold under. The land it sits on is held by the Ontario government, not the federal one, and since the terms being negotiated are secret, I’m not sure what, if any, issues of jurisdiction would come up.

What’s really appalling is that this was a scientific jewel for the federal government. It’s known by scientists around the world (at least scientists who do research in fresh-water environments), it’s produced excellent and very important research, and it’s run on a comparative shoestring. There’s no reason to close it or sell it — other than ideological. This government has no use for good regulatory environmental research, and is hacking away at the research groups and stations that do that work. (See also: the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory [PEARL] near Eureka, in the very High Arctic.) To first cut the funding, and then turn around and sell the area is a kick in the teeth after a slap in the face to Canadian environmental science. Since the parameters are all secret, there’s no indication of what sort of science will be done by the buyers, but if it’s in private hands, there’s no reason to believe that the scientific program will stay at all on course. Will the results of the research be publicly available? Will there be any requirement that the work done must be documented in some way, for regulatory purposes? What sort of regulation will the lakes have, if they’re not being managed by a federal department? Those are important questions to answer, and I doubt we’ll get any satisfactory answer.

Furthermore, who is funding the organization that’s buying the area, and will their interests influence the research done and the results published? From the news article linked above:

Despite the lack of public information, the coalition of scientists working to save the facility insist the IISD is the only current contender in the talks.

They say they’re concerned that a policy group doesn’t have what it takes to run an active research station. They’re also worried that the IISD’s funders — which include energy companies such as Enbridge and Suncor — could taint the research coming out of the ELA.

If this is accurate, then a world-class, governmentally run research facility known for rigourous, independent research is going to become a greenwashing research site for oil companies. Just what Canadians need!

Robots in Spaaaaaaaace!

I realize that most of the hubbub about Curiosity, the newest Martian rover mission, was in August after the successful landing and subsequent initial instrument tests, but is it ever too late to talk about robots on other planets? No! Consider this my tiny endeavour to keep space science in the public’s eye, even when NASA’s not just landed a small car right side up on another planet with perfect precision.

Curiosity successfully landed on August 5th, and after a perfect landing, and all the instruments are in excellent working order. The instruments on board are all described on the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab’s site, with a blurb about how they work and what sort of things they’re looking for. For this post, I’m going to focus on the Canadian instrument on board.

The Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, or APXS, is the only all-Canadian contribution to the mission. It’s designed by Ralf Gellert, a professor at the University of Guelph (previously known best for cows with windows in their stomachs and pigs with phosphate-reduced poop), built by Macdonald-Dettwiler Associates (who also built the Canadarm), funded by the Canadian Space Agency, and the research involves a group at Guelph as well as people at a few other Canadian universities. I’ve got some thoughts about what the APXS represents to Canadian science and science policy, but I’ll save that for a second post. I’ve heard press about various other instruments on board, including the laser spectrometer, the array of cameras, and the meteorological station, but not very much about how the APXS works and what it can do. So let’s talk about how it works!

The APXS is a pop-can sized instrument mounted on the robotic arm on Curiosity that uses two types of radiation to determine the elemental composition of rocks, soils, and dirt on Mars. Six radioactive Curium-244 sources covered with a thin titanium foil sit around an X-ray detector. Curium (element 96), like all elements heavier than uranium (element 92), radioactively decays by emitting an alpha particle, which is 2 protons and 2 neutrons bound together. When curium emits an alpha particle, it decays to plutonium-240, which then decays with a number of daughter atoms and x-rays. The x-rays from plutonium and alpha particle from curium are the radiation used to analyze a sample; the other by-products are typically of lower energy and are filtered out from the radiation beam by a foil over the sources. This radiation streams out of the sources in all directions, but to focus the beam, a metal ring surrounds the sources and the detectors to absorb radiation radiating at a wide angle.

Photo and schematic of the APXS

Left: Photo of the APXS. The detector itself sits in the middle of of the ring behind the sources. Photo from JPL. Right: A schematic of how the APXS works. The instrument is shown as if it were pointing at a table-top. Picture from the University of Guelph.

Two kinds of radiation are used so that a wide range of elements can be detected. The alpha particles are used for Particle Induced X-ray Emission, or PIXE, which is used to detect elements with a low atmoic number. The X-ray radiation is used in X-ray Fluorescence, or XRF, and detects elements with a higher atomic number. Combining the the two technique means that elements from sodium (atomic number 11) to zirconium (atomic number 40) can all be clearly detected in the combined spectrum.

In PIXE analysis, particles (alpha particles here, but other particles like protons can also be used) are beamed at a sample. The particles are emitted with a known, fixed energy and collide with the atoms in the sample, where some of the particles will interact with the inner shells of the electron structure. Electrons in an atom sit in a series of increasingly energetic levels, each with a fixed energy. If a particle hits the atom and interacts with an electron, it imparts energy to the electron. Since the electron can only have a fixed amount of energy at any given level, if it gains energy it must jump up to a higher level, which leaves a gap in the original level it started at. An electron from a higher energy level (not necessarily the one that originally jumped up to a higher level) then falls down to fill the gap in the lower energy shell, and emits an X-ray with the difference in energy between the two levels to conserve energy. This is clearer with a picture!

Schematic of PIXE process.

Alpha particle comes in, excites electron and scatters off, then an electron (either the one that was bumped up in energy or another one) fall to a lower energy and the atom emits an X-ray carrying the difference in energy between the starting and finishing energy levels of the second electron (ie, the electron that drops down in energy).

The process is dependent on the inner (ie lower energy) shells of electrons interacting with the incoming particle. The particles are most likely to interact with the outermost shell or two of the electron levels of an atom, so if an atom has several shells, there’s too many electrons shielding the lower energy electrons for many interactions to occur. PIXE is then most effective for atoms with a low atomic number.

XRF does much the same thing, but instead of using a particle to induce the electron’s transition, it uses X-rays. X-rays are useful because they can interact more easily with a inner-shell electrons in heavier elements than the massive alpha-particles. XRF is then more useful for detecting heavier elements that PIXE cannot, but because the efficiency of the process is low at low atomic number, PIXE (which is a more efficient process at low atomic number) is needed to gather a robust spectrum.

But doing PIXE and XRF on Mars poses problems: even the very thin Martian atmosphere will absorb low energy X-rays, so the lightest element that the APXS can detect is sodium (atomic number 11). Hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen (atomic numbers 1, 6, 7, and 8 respectively) are all invisible to the APXS, and oxygen in particular is abundant in the samples. Most of the heavier elements are present as oxides, so the mineralogy becomes very important in the elemental analysis. Plus the atmosphere varies, like any atmosphere, and the temperature fluctuates, and generally the conditions are not as pristine as they are in a controlled lab setting. This means that there’s more calibration work needed on Mars than in the lab, and also that the invisible elements need to be carefully treated.

So when a sample is being analyzed, Curiosity’s robotic arm extends (slowly and carefully, to avoid any collisions) out towards the sample rock. A pressure sensor on the front of the instrument trips when the instrument touches the rock, and the protective doors that cover the aperture of the instrument when it’s not in use open. The electronics are switched on, and the detector starts to gather a spectrum of X-rays emitted at various energies from the sample. The instrument is left in place for a between a few minutes and a few hours to gather data, which is stored and then beamed back to Earth in the daily data dump. When it’s finished collecting data, the arm moves back from the rock, the doors close, and the next sample is chosen.

The spectra that come back look something like this:

A typical spectrum from the APXS, taken from Spirit

A typical APXS spectrum. The horizontal axis is energy of the detected x-ray, and the vertical axis is the number of x-rays of a given energy detected. Image from JPL.

The horizontal axis is the energy of the detected X-ray, and the vertical axis is the number of X-rays detected at that energy. The spectra consist of peaks at specific energies, and the individual elements are identified by the energies of a series of characteristic electron transitions. The emitted x-ray of a given transition has a fixed energy, equal to the difference in energy between the two states of the electron. Since different elements have different atomic structures and different amounts of energy between the electron shells, the x-rays emitted by different elements undergoing either PIXE or XRF will have different energies. Working backwards, then, if a spectrum is collected and there is a peak at an energy corresponding to a transition of a given element, then that element is present in the sample. The precise composition of the sample is determined by calculating the relative area under each of the peaks.

The invisible elements complicate the analysis considerably, especially since there’s so much oxygen in the rocks. The mineralology of the rocks must be accounted for, and information from other instruments (including the cameras — visual identification is very helpful) is used to make initial estimates of the proportion of each element in its various oxidation states. For example, iron oxide may be ferrous (FeO) or ferric (Fe2O3), though to the spectrometer, it’s all just iron. So to do the analysis, knowledge about similar rocks on Earth is used to estimate the proportion of iron in each oxidation state. After all the expected oxygen from the bound minerals is accounted for, any “invisible element” left over may be bound water. Many minerals have water bound within the crystals, and Spirit and Opportunity found evidence of bound water in Martian rocks using this analysis.

Spirit and Opportunity were sent to Mars to find water in some form (and did!), while Curiosity was sent to examine whether or not at some point in its geological history, Mars could’ve sustained life. It’s important to note that it’s not looking for *life*, just evidence that conditions hospitable to life once occurred. Due to the raging success it’s had on Mars (the instrument on Opportunity is, to the best of my knowledge, still functioning, eight and a half years into a 90 day mission), other APXS’s are planned for missions to the Moon by the Indian and Russian space associations (the Chandrayaan-2 rover, landing hopefully in 2016) and to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by the European Space agency (the Philae lander, landing in 2014).

More info:

  1. A summary of the APXS by the Canadian Space Agency
  2. One of the papers outlining the design of the first APXS used on Mars on the Pathfinder mission
  3. Major paper with results from the instrument on Spirit, one of the two Mars Exploration Rovers