Brand Tasmania Newsletter, June, 2012, Issue 128
Professor Paulo de Souza of UTAS’s Human Interface Technology Laboratory in Launceston said if young Tasmanians aimed high enough they could become space scientists – the next Facebook-style billionaires – or just about anything.
And the NASA science collaborator – who wants to broaden the connection between UTAS and the US space agency beyond his own work – has first-hand experience of complex journeys.
Paulo de Souza hails from an ordinary town in rural Brazil and claims modestly that he wasn’t “all that smart” in his school years.
However, young Paulo worked hard and had dreams. He attended the Federal University of the Holy Spirit in the city of Vitória and graduated in 1999 as a Bachelor of Science in Physics.
A Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering the following year paved the way for PhD studies at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.
Fatefully, the young expatriate’s academic challenge was to find ways of shrinking Mossbauer spectroscopy technology, used to analyse minerals in rocks, so that it was small enough to be carried in a spacecraft.
This was the start of his on-going collaboration with NASA and led to the technology travelling on the 2004 Mars Exploration Rover Mission, which successfully landed two large rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, on the Martian surface where Opportunity is still operating.
It was an awesome achievement. “To look at Mars with the naked eye and to know you have two instruments working on Mars – now only one – trying to answer the question, why we are here in the universe …”, Professor de Souza said in an interview with The Mercury.
The mission aimed to find evidence of water and/or microbial life to advance the thesis that Earth is not the universe’s only life-bearing planet, or at least to demonstrate that Earth is not unique in having conditions suitable for the start of life.
Early samples from the surface were disappointing, but Spirit eventually found goethite, a mineral formed only in the presence of water, in the Columbia Hills.
Opportunity hit another jackpot when its miniaturised Mossbauer spectroscope detected jarosite and then haematite on an extensive plain known as Meridiani Planum.
Like goethite these compounds need water to form.
In 2008, the rovers detected an underlay of silica below the red surface sand causing scientists to postulate that Mars had once had hot springs or geysers of the kind that teem with microbial life on Earth.
There was more to come. In May, the journal Science published a paper Professor de Souza co-authored that proves that water once flowed on the Martian surface.
It was based on a study of the stratigraphy of the rim of Endeavour Crater, named after Captain Cook’s 18th century sailing ship.
“We never thought the Opportunity mission would last as long as it has, so initially the Endeavour Crater was only considered a long-term goal,” Professor de Souza said.
It took the rover seven years to navigate 33km from its landing spot to reach a feature on the crater rim named Cape York (Opportunity had to avoid being bogged in deep sand, as Spirit had been).
The painstaking progress was rewarded with the discovery of gypsum, a key geological indicator of the historical presence of water.
“We cannot dig more than a few centimetres with the rover, so the best way to analyse soil [in depth] is to approach craters,” Professor de Souza said. “The whole structure of a crater will reveal what’s in the subsoil.”
The crater wall delivered one of Mars exploration’s holy grails.
“It felt like I was Captain Cook in a way,” Professor de Souza said.
While waiting for Spirit and Opportunity to do their thing on Mars, Dr de Souza had been furthering his career in solid state physics in Brazil and France.
His work involved geochemistry, mineralogy, environmental sciences and industrial processes, as well as space exploration.
In 2008, his career brought him to Tasmania where he joined CSIRO as a Senior Research Scientist working on the Tasmanian Marine Analysis Network.
A year later he was Research Director of Tasmania’s ICT Centre, a collaboration between UTAS and CSIRO that aims to drive ICT research, application and commercialisation.
Tasmania was chosen for the national centre partly because of its head-start on the rest of Australia in the rollout of the National Broadband Network.
The Brazilian expat led 30-plus researchers from diverse areas of science on one of CSIRO’s big four national research projects: Transformational Capability Platform in Sensors and Sensor Networks.
The project has made great strides in its aim to reduce the costs of gathering data while improving its quality, thus enhancing understanding of the environment and improving management of Australia’s natural resources, including its farming and grazing land.
In 2012, Dr de Souza was appointed professor at UTAS’s Human Interface Technology Laboratory in Launceston.
As well as his roles at UTAS and NASA, Professor de Souza is Associate Professor, School of Mines, at the Federal University of Ouro Preto, Brazil.
He is also involved in the Australia-China Young Scientist Exchange Program.
He holds two patents, has published two books, including Innovation in Industrial Research (2010) and has authored over 200 refereed papers.
Professor de Souza now hopes to introduce UTAS researchers to NASA and help them get involved in analysing data or contributing to other aspects of space missions.
NASA’s next rover, Curiosity, has been hurtling through space since November and is scheduled to reach Mars in August.
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