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A goniometer is a tool that either measures an angle or helps position an object at a very precise angle for measurement. (First Mode Illustration / Peter Illsley)

Seattle’s First Mode team and Western Washington University say they’ve won a NASA contract to advance the technology for sizing up rocks on Mars.

The project, funded under NASA’s Solar System Workings program, will support the development of an automated tool known as a goniometer. Such a tool could be used on future Mars missions to measure angles precisely in three dimensions.

“If you used a protractor in grade school to measure angles, you used a simple version of a goniometer,” First Mode’s Kathleen Hoza and Rhae Adams explained in a blog posting about the project.

On Mars, such a device should facilitate spectral observations of rock samples at different angles, opening the way for more detailed chemical analyses. One of the cameras on NASA’s Curiosity rover has been used to make goniometer measurements in Mars’ Gale Crater.

Melissa Rice, a planetary scientist at Western Washington University, is principal investigator for the newly announced project.

“This contract is $150,000 to design and build the goniometer plus the scientific library of measurements,” Adams, vice president of strategy and business development at First Mode, said in an email. “It’s a smaller one for now, but fits right in with the other Mars work the team is doing for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”

First Mode was founded just in the past year as an employee-owned technology development company. Its founders include veterans of JPL as well as Planetary Resources, a Redmond, Wash.-based asteroid mining venture that was assimilated by the ConsenSys blockchain studio last year.

A group portrait shows First Mode’s staff, with replicas of the “Star Wars” robots R2-D2 and C-3PO in their midst. (First Mode Photo)

The focus of First Mode’s work with JPL is the Mars 2020 mission, which is due to launch a 1-ton rover to the Red Planet next July. That rover has instrumentation that will make measurements similar to those expected from the prototype goniometer, which is expected to take shape at First Mode and be delivered to Western Washington University for use in Earth-based experiments.

The Mars 2020 science team could benefit from the work being done for the WWU-First Mode project in Seattle and Bellingham, Wash.

“First Mode is excited to partner with Western Washington University and NASA as we seek to improve our understanding of the Martian surface,” Chris Voorhees, First Mode’s president and chief engineer, said in a news release. “As we prepare for further surface missions, including the Mars 2020 Rover and Mars Sample Return, a solid base of scientific research and understanding is essential in getting the most from our robotic systems.”

The research also could be relevant for other First Mode clients and partners in the natural resources industry.

“The problems we like the most cross industry boundaries. By drawing from our team’s experience in geology, automation, and the mining and metals industry, we can create a better tool for deep-space exploration,” Voorhees said. “We’re also pleased to share that after development, the entire goniometer design and software package will be publicly released.”

Hoza, a systems engineer and geologist at First Mode, helped lay the groundwork for the 3-D goniometer project. She was responsible for creating a 2-D prototype goniometer while pursuing her M.S. degree in geology at Western Washington University under Rice’s tutelage.

“I couldn’t be more excited about continuing to work on this research,” Hoza said. “The science potential is significant and far-reaching, and we have a powerful combined team with experts from First Mode and Western Washington University.”

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