Hidden away in a corner of the Forestry & Geology
Building at the University of New Brunswick's Fredericton campus is a research
centre of astronomical proportions.
John Spray is a geologist by trade, but upon his arrival at
the University of New Brunswick in 1986, he started focusing on impact craters
- which has broadened his research scope to include everything from Martian rovers
to satellite infrastructure.
Currently, Spray is the Director of UNB's Planetary and
Space Science Centre (PASSC) on the Fredericton campus. The centre currently
has 15 people under its wing and is growing.
Graduate students working at the PASSC don't just observe
from afar - some are directly studying lunar soil and Martian meteorites
affected by the impact of asteroids and comets.
"Impact is a dominant process on most other planetary bodies,
like the moon and Mars, whereas on Earth its effects have been hidden," says
Spray. "Our impact knowledge is actually applicable to other planetary bodies, but
also to Earth's lost past - our active planet having destroyed most of its
cratering history due to plate tectonics."
Spray and his group also work directly on Earth - the
professor's expertise on the Sudbury, Ont. crater has led him to be featured on
the recent History channel How the Earth
was Made Asteroids series.
Sudbury is a major mining community built on one
of the largest impact craters in the world. "Understanding the impact process in Sudbury is very important for understanding where the metal deposits lie," says Spray.
Currently, Spray's group is leading a 10-year research program dedicated to the
90 km diameter Manicouagan crater in Quebec.
Spray has also been featured on Geologic Journey and David Suzuki's The Nature of Things.
Exploring the unknown
PASSC is working directly with world-renowned space
agencies, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
and the European Space Agency (ESA). His work with the groups will see UNB
directly involved with two missions to Mars in the near future.
"I first got into studying impact craters on Earth and
expanded that to looking at impact craters on other planets like Mars," says
He's currently on the science team of NASA's Mars Science
Laboratory rover mission to Mars, which is due to launch in 2011.
"It's a large rover about the size of a small car, which is
big as rovers go. I'm on the Canadian team that is providing one of the
analytical tools for that rover. We will be directly involved at UNB with that
He's also on the science team with ESA for another mission
called ExoMars. Due to launch in 2016, Spray is the only Canadian member of a
Swiss-based science team, which is developing a close-up imaging system for the
Because of his involvement in the missions, both graduate
and undergraduate students at UNB will have the opportunity to directly
contribute to these space missions through PASSC - a chance that isn't
available at most universities.
From macro to micro
Studying impact craters has led Spray and his colleagues to
examine shockwaves at multiple levels.
Micrometeorites, about 1mm in diameter, pose a major threat to any materials
outside the Earth's atmosphere - in particular, satellites and spacecraft.
"We've been studying impact and we understand shock wave
materials behaviour, so we're applying that knowledge to help design shielding
to protect space infrastructure," he says.
"Micrometeorites are these little guys who are left over
from the formation of the solar system who never coagulated to form bigger
bodies. They fly around at an incredible 25-70km per second and can do a lot of
damage if they hit something in their path," says Spray.
His research will help protect bodies in space from
micrometeorite-related damage by investigating the use of thin, light shields
for satellites and spacecraft. He's helping to design an outer skin that
minimizes the damaging impact of micrometeorites.
"It's a separate layer. When the micrometeorite hits this,
it fragments into smaller pieces and they spray
onto the inside, but basically their energy is dissipated. Sometimes we deploy
two shield layers so the micrometeorite never even touches the hardware."
Spray, who holds a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Planetary
Materials, has seen five of his graduate students become professors at other
universities after working with him.
"What my students do in their careers
after leaving UNB is an important gauge of my performance as a supervisor and
mentor," says Spray.
"I learn as much from my graduate students as they do from me, and I
enjoy the training and facilitating roles. Hopefully, the upcoming Mars mission
science will give our students exciting future job opportunities with NASA,
ESA, the Canadian Space Agency and related science and technology industries."
Contributed by Josh O'Kane. This story was made possible thanks to the financial support of the UNB Associated Alumni