Mars rover scientist James Wray ’06 poses at CNN’s headquarters after an interview with Alina Cho earlier this month. (Photo: Jason Maderer/Courtesy James Wray)
When James Wray ’06 gets wrapped up in his research, he finds himself “living on Mars time.” NASA’s new Mars rover, Curiosity, does most of its work in daylight, and as the daylight hours keep shifting (a day on Mars is about 40 minutes longer than one on Earth), Wray’s attention tends to follow.
Wray, an assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Georgia Tech, has good reason to be excited
. He is part of the team that created Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), a suite of instruments onboard Curiosity. The tools should help the rover to “characterize the chemistry of some of the most interesting types of minerals” that it encounters, Wray said. By heating samples to about 1,000 degrees Celsius, SAM can detect trace amounts of important components such as water and carbon dioxide.
Wray has been interested in science for as long as he can remember, and in his time at Princeton, he dove headfirst into astrophysics – a tight-knit department where he worked closely with mentors like Professor Edwin Turner and even met his future wife, fellow major Maggie (Kirkland) Wray ’06.
Senior-thesis work studying the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn confirmed Wray’s hunch that he wanted to “focus on the planets closest to home,” so he continued his studies in a Ph.D. program at Cornell, working in the lab of astronomy professor Steve Squyres, the principal investigator for the science payload on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers.
Around the time that Wray arrived in Ithaca, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter began circling Mars, providing a trove of new data for his graduate research work. He later joined the group of about 400 scientists working on Curiosity, the largest and most complex Mars rover to date.
Wray said that the rover’s high-tech landing
earlier this month was a great start, but its most interesting work may come in about a year, when the rover reaches the base of a 3-mile-high mountain of sedimentary rock. Samples from that mountain, he said, could hold important clues about how the environment evolved on Mars.
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