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Case Western Reserve University alumni behind technology on Mars Perseverance rover

CWRU Mars rover technology
Posted at 10:23 PM, Feb 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-21 23:44:52-05

CLEVELAND — NASA successfully landed its Perseverance rover on Mars Thursday and a Northeast Ohio company, led by Case Western Reserve University alumni, is behind the images being sent back of the Red Planet.

Katie Colbaugh is a crystal growth manager at Gooch & Housego, a global leader in photonics technology. She graduated from CWRU in 2013 and works with other Case alumni at Gooch & Housego located in Highland Heights.

Colbaugh and her colleagues grow crystals and produce laser and photonics devices—and one of the crystals she helped grow at the facility now has a permanent home on Mars with Perseverance.

“The material is heated up in a crucible and we dip a seed material into it and then we grow the crystal by layering atoms onto the seed material, rotating the crystal and pulling it out of the melt” Colbaugh said. “This process takes a few days.”

The crystal is the core component in the rover’s SuperCam which collects “imaging, chemical and mineral analysis from a distance,” searching for signs of life on Mars surface.

Colbaugh said the crystal will help the inbuilt infrared spectrometer device on Perseverance measure the chemical composition of the rocks on the surface of Mars with the data being passed through the crystals she and her colleagues grew.

“What it’s actually seeing is a lack of light at certain wavelengths. So the soil that they’re looking at is illuminated and the chemicals in there absorb very specific frequencies,” said Crystal Growth Manager Dr. Matt Whittaker, who also is a CWRU alumnus. “Knowing what light is supposed to be there and finding out which light is missing is how the filter identifies what the composition of the material is.”

Gooch & Housego’s Highland Heights facility is one of the few places in the world growing crystals to use for the devices like the one on Perseverance.

Colbaugh said that there was a bit of a “wow factor” knowing that a crystal she helped grow is now a part of the current exploration of Mars.

“It was very exciting knowing that our crystals were landing on Mars and I think we lose sight of the exciting technology that we’re doing here because we’re used to it and we’re here every day and so an event like this was certainly exciting for all of us here,” Colbaugh said.

While Whittaker shared that same excitement, he said he's looking forward to the data and research to follow.

“I can tell you that everybody that works in this facility was at home watching that landing and I was too and it was really exciting,” Whittaker said. “This is just the beginning of the science. The engineering challenge to get here was extremely impressive and they pulled it off, it looked like perfectly, but now—to me—is when the fun part of the details and all the analysis starts.”

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