UK scientists follow Curiosity
6 Aug 2012
Today the world watched as NASA’s Curiosity rover was lowered to the surface of Mars using the newly developed ‘sky crane’ method. The rover landed safely and will now travel to its destination on the slopes of ‘Mount Sharp’ where it will begin its two year mission to investigate the planet’s ‘habitability’ using the onboard Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). UK scientists will be involved in the study.
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This artist concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life.
An innovative new landing method had to be developed for the rover, which is the size of a small car, the largest on the planet’s surface. The entry, descent and landing (EDL) phase of the mission began when the spacecraft reached the top of the Martian atmosphere, travelling at about 13,200 miles per hour (5,900 meters per second). EDL ended about seven minutes later with the rover stationary on the surface.
MSL will answer some fundamental questions about the geology and biology of the planet’s past and present. The rover will collect images and samples to investigate whether environmental conditions in the area were ever, or are still, capable of supporting microbial life.
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Artist's impression showing NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft entering the upper atmosphere of Mars, protected by its heat shield.
Credit: NASA JPL.
Two UK scientists supported by over £0.5M of funding from the UK Space Agency have been selected by NASA to be participating scientists on MSL. Professor Gupta and Dr Bridges will be working with NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California for the next few months. They will be analysing scientific data to help inform the operations team to optimise the MSL operations plan. They were both at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California for the landing.
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Artist's concept of Mars Science Laboratory entry, descent and landing.
Prof Gupta is collaborating with Professor Jan-Peter Muller, University College London, on a project to use the data from the MSL cameras and imagers to interpret the sedimentary structures and the depositional processes that have occurred in the past. This will give us a greater understanding of the ancient environment and how it has changed. Analysis of stratigraphy and sedimentology will be used to identify areas of greatest interest for MSL to study. Its suite of analytical instruments will be used to understand the geochemistry and composition of the bedrock and to guide the search for biosignatures.
Professor Sanjeev Gupta from Imperial College said:
“Now that the MSL has landed we can get to grips with some remarkable science. The area the rover will be exploring, with its large areas of exposed rock and variety of landforms will take us on a journey through geological time. With the extraordinary volume of data MSL can produce we will be able to reconstruct how the rocks and climate of this region have changed through time.”
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Artist's impression depicting the moment that NASA's Curiosity, suspended using the 'sky crane' rover touches down onto the Martian surface.
Credit: NASA JPL.
Dr John Bridges from Leicester University with Dr Susanne Schwenzer of the Open University is concentrating on the study of clays and other secondary minerals formed by interaction with fluid. The aim is to inform us about the nature of the fluid – its composition, temperature, and whether acid or alkaline, in order to ultimately help to answer the question of whether Mars could have had the conditions to support life.
Dr Bridges commented:
“The science community has been given a very valuable chance to move forward our understanding of how Mars has evolved. How long did wet conditions last and were there standing bodies of water on Mars? I hope the effective combination in MSL of science objectives and space engineering will point the way towards more exploration of the Solar System and technological innovations.”
The spacecraft successfully underwent six different vehicle configurations in order to land. The vehicle was protected by a heat shield as it entered the atmosphere. From around 11km above the surface it deployed the parachute and discarded and avoided the shield. Retro rockets were used to control its speed from which point it could lower the rover onto the surface using the ‘sky crane’ without disturbing the dust on the surface. The space craft then flew away, leaving the Mars Science Laboratory to begin its mission.
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Curiosity, the big rover of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, will land in August 2012 near the foot of a mountain inside Gale Crater.
Credit: ASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/MSSS.
The space-craft was watched over by NASA’s Mars Odyssey satellite which relayed information about the landing as it happened. NASA’s Reconnaissance Orbiter and ESA’s Mars Express were also in position to receive radio transmissions from MSL. QinetiQ’s UK built MELACOM UHF Tranceiver on board Mars Express recorded transmissions from MSL during the critical seven minutes EDL. This data will allow scientists to analyse the performance of the landing system. MELACOM will continue to support MSL by sending commands to Curiosity and relaying science data and images back to Earth. The first data of the descent, as radio signals in human audible signals, recorded by MELACOM can be found here: http://blogs.esa.int/mex/
Sue Horne, Head of Exploration at the UK Space Agency said:
“The fact that NASA have managed to successfully demonstrate such a novel landing system is an inspiration for everyone involved in space exploration. Now we can breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to the exciting scientific discoveries to come from Curiosity. The mission paves the way for future Mars exploration, and hopefully the future of Mars Sample Return.”
Dr Bridges is keeping a record of the mission’s progression with a blog at the University of Leicester website. It will show what it is like to be involved in this space mission from our successful landing and hopefully for years to come.
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