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Simcoe native is part of Mars exploration project

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A Simcoe native was among the crew to prepare the Perseverance Rover for Mars exploration.

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Chris Heirwegh, now a resident of Pasadena, grew up in Simcoe and is now working at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

The Perseverance launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on July 30. It is expected to land on Mars on Feb. 18, 2021.

The rover is expected to spend at least one Mars year, nearly two Earth years, searching for signs of ancient life, says the NASA webpage. It will also be collecting rock and soil samples to return to Earth.

Heirwegh was on a team of about 30 individuals preparing the Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) hardware prior to it being attached to the Perseverance.

The scientist said his journey towards NASA began with his Bachelor’s of Science degree at McMaster University.

“I think at the time I hadn’t really focused on any sort of major when I had begun, but towards the end I gravitated towards the physics, physical side of things,” he said.

Continuing with his studies at McMaster, Heirwegh later completed a Master’s in medical physics with a focus on X-ray fluorescence.

He then went on to complete his PhD at the University of Guelph, where he worked under retired professor Iain Campbell, who was still completing research.

“I really liked the work he was doing because he was focusing on very specific problems in the field of X-ray fluorescence,” said Heirwegh. “He was also a co-investigator on Mars Science Laboratory alpha particle X-ray spectrometer.”

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This connection with the Mars rover, launched in 2012, helped Heirwegh once he completed his education.

“I thought that the application of X-ray to space exploration was really a cool thing,” he said.

At the end of a term of post-doctoral research, Heirwegh asked around and someone knew of a position with the PIXL at the laboratory in California.

Heirwegh moved with his wife and daughter to Pasadena in 2016 to pursue a two-year position, and in 2018 he was hired on full-time.

“I continue to do most of my work on PIXL,” said Heirwegh. “When PIXL finally gets to Mars and begins taking measurements, it is going to send back all sorts of data. We need to be able to do our best job at understanding what the data means.”

Due to COVID-19, Heirwegh was unable to travel to the Florida launch in July.

His advice to any aspiring scientists is to be prepared to move for your work.

“It should be something that you really want to get up and do every day,” he said. “If you are going to go that sort of path, sometimes these jobs, like a scientist, developer, or researcher, you might be limited in terms of placement that you can do that, be prepared to move.

“Some of us, myself included, growing up we think we’re not going to go very far from home, but that’s not always an option. Making big moves always have a little bit of a sacrifice, but if you love the work it can be worth it.”

Future projects Heirwegh is looking forward to working on include exploration of Venus, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

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