Context and challenges 

Humans first observed the canyoned landscape of Mars in the 1800s. Ever since, it’s been one of the most-visited and observed planets, often in the pursuit and hope of habitable conditions. 

While we wait to find out if the Red Planet did or could harbor life, we’ve been sending robots to Mars in place of humans. The robots transmit the data they collect back to Earth, where it is analyzed for clues about the composition—past and present—of the surface of Mars. These robots use reflective spectroscopy, which measures how much light reflects off of a surface at specific wavelengths versus how much the surface absorbs. Every rock has a different “spectroscopic signature,” which means every rock has a different reflection-to-absorption ratio. By measuring how much a particular rock reflects or absorbs different wavelengths of light, we can tell what its composition is—if we know what that reflection-to-absorption ratio is. And that’s where the goniometer comes in. 

A goniometer is generally defined as a tool that measures an angle or assists in positioning an object at a very precise angle for measurement—think elementary school protractor. But in this particular case, a goniometer could recreate the angles and provide a light source that would give scientists the ability to examine different rocks’ spectroscopic signatures within a lab setting, yielding more in-depth knowledge and increasing identification accuracy. 

In October of 2019, it was announced that First Mode and Western Washington University received a NASA contract to develop a geological research technology: the goniometer. The new goniometer would aid in analyzing the data being gathered by Perseverance, the latest rover to land on Mars as of February 18, 2021. Our tool would mimic the capabilities of Perseverance to provide a reference point for all the data being collected. Within a controlled lab setting, scientists could examine how the absorption levels change depending on the angle, which in turn would lead to better, more efficient analysis of the surface composition. 

The primary challenge we faced was the scientific specificity that would be needed for the readings. Whenever you’re building a purpose-driven tool that is very specific, you must understand the problem and task extremely well from the very beginning. Every decision you make at the onset of the design process will have huge ramifications for the success of the project, and any deviation from the needs and conditions will render the entire tool useless. 

But First Mode was chosen precisely because we’re especially suited for this endeavor. We’ve long operated in extreme detail, like our work on the Mars 2020 Perseverance mission to document and create assembly procedures for critical components of the rover chassis, or our design of protective flight hardware for use on the NASA Psyche spacecraft set to launch in 2022. We drew on this background as well as our deep knowledge in geology, automation, and extraterrestrial engineering to create a better tool for space exploration. 

Partnership and client relationship

First Mode has deep ties with NASA as well as Western Washington University. In fact, First Mode team members have contributed to Mars expeditions dating back to Pathfinder in the 1990’s and up to the launch of Perseverance. This includes team member Elizabeth Frank, a planetary geologist who worked on the MESSENGER mission to Mercury as part of her post-doc, as well as Kathleen Hoza, who developed a prototype goniometer while pursuing her M.S. degree in geology at Western Washington University. Kathleen studied under the tutelage of Professor Melissa Rice, who is our collaborator and guide on this goniometer endeavor as well as a part of the science team for Perseverance.

The work is funded through NASA’s Planetary Science Division, a program dedicated both to scientific understanding of our planetary system, as well as advancing spacecraft and robotic engineering. This duality is a perfect match for First Mode, which recognizes that in this case, the engineering must work in service of scientific knowledge. Having experts who know how to bridge the gap between engineers and science proved critical to our mission. 

What we did

First Mode’s contribution to this important program is the Western TANAGER, which stands for “Three-Axis N-Sample Automated Goniometer for Evaluating Reflectance.” It takes its name from the Western Tanager bird, as bird feathers also change color depending on their pigment and the angle perceived. While a typical goniometer can only measure an angle in one dimension, the First Mode design measures in three. 

The Western TANAGER has a leg up on other goniometers for several reasons. First, its light source can be situated on one of the moveable arcs with a high level of accuracy, mimicking the arc of the Sun on Mars. Second, a detector can be positioned with equal accuracy on the other moveable arc, serving to replicate a rover or orbiter. Third, a three-dimensional sample can be inserted as-is, rather than being prepared or sliced, and there are slots for several samples at once. And finally, it was built specifically in conjunction with NASA’s Perseverance rover mission and was therefore designed with Perseverance’s instruments, environment, and scientific objectives in mind. 

With these capabilities, scientists at NASA and Western Washington University have the ability to run a multitude of controlled, analogous studies that mimic the positions of the Sun and instruments on Mars, building a spectral library that can be used to cross-check incoming measurements from the spacecraft. With its capabilities to help scientists spot minute variations and key weathering patterns, it could even help experts unlock new discoveries. 

As we set about creating the Western TANAGER, no detail was too small. Even the testing room was painted a certain shade of black so it reflects accurately. Working at this scale, a slight deviation could have huge effects. But beyond our hyperfocus on the physical details, our role was also to ensure that the entire collaboration remained focused on the goals at hand. First Mode oversaw the merging of this science and engineering. While it may seem that these fields would run parallel, they have distinct and oftentimes conflicting objectives—whereas engineering is all about the tool, science is all about the data the tool can extract. By bridging the gap between the engineering and science departments, we were able to give feedback in real time between the teams and translate the scientific importance of each decision. The end result is an incredibly fine-tuned instrument and a very cool engineering project in the service of scientific discovery. 

The impact

The Western TANAGER is headed to the lab of Western Washington University’s Melissa Rice, and will be used in conjunction with the Perseverance mission, as well as to help other students and professors further their knowledge of planetary bodies. Ultimately, the goniometer’s controlled setting can help us learn more about rocks—what they’re made of, what they’ve been through, and how long they’ve existed. These insights tell a story, one that could lead to locating valuable minerals or the possibility of habitation. Take silica—if silica is present on a coating of a rock, then that’s a clue that there once was water, and possibly life. 

That’s exactly what Perseverance is looking for in the Jezero Crater, an ancient lakebed on Mars. And later, Perseverance will travel to Northeast Syrtis, where it will study the very first rocks from Mars’ primordial magma ocean. By examining what young planets look like and how they change, we’re uncovering mysteries of our solar system, and of our very own planet Earth. 

In addition to this specific mission, First Mode will be releasing the new, automated goniometer design and custom software to the public.  

First Mode’s work on the goniometer is part of a long legacy of assisting space exploration, with a wide variety of applications. Our work is always to support these efforts both in space and back here on Earth through diligent, impeccable design. Here’s to better data collection here on Earth, and a better understanding of everything that lies beyond.