Two Indiana University researchers helped design on-board instruments for the latest NASA rover, Curiosity, which was expected to land on the surface of Mars early today — if all went according to plan.
Indiana geologist David Bish worked on an instrument designed to determine the chemical and mineral composition of soil and rocks on the red planet’s surface, while fellow geologist Juergen Schieber helped design a camera that would take high-resolution, close-up pictures.
“It’s a rare opportunity to get to participate in one of the missions to Mars,” said Bish, who has worked with previous missions that orbited Mars, but never before on a mission to the surface.
Curiosity is expected to conduct experiments to determine whether Mars might have had conditions suitable for the development of life, billions of years ago.
The mission, called Mars Science Laboratory, began with a launch last November. Since then, the spacecraft has been traveling toward Mars. Landing on the surface of the planet is a complex and potentially hazardous task. In 1999, NASA lost the Mars Polar Lander during its descent.
Curiosity was expected to enter Mars’ atmosphere traveling at 13,200 miles per hour, slowing to 1.7 miles per hour for touchdown. A series of stages slow the craft and protect it from the heat of entry, then lower the rover onto the surface of the planet using a never-before-tried “sky crane” maneuver designed to accommodate Curiosity’s large size.
Once on the ground, the plan is for Curiosity to analyze the landing area, Gale Crater. NASA scientists chose the site due to the likelihood that water once covered the area, based on evidence from previous missions, according to information provided by the space agency.
Although the Mars Science Laboratory mission is not equipped to find direct evidence of ancient Martian life, scientists hope to learn whether the environment of the planet could have supported life long ago.
The scientific instruments on board the rover — which is the size of a small car — will analyze the soil and rocks in the crater to determine if its dry surface was once underwater. Confirmation that water was once present would add weight to the evidence that Mars might have had conditions that were favorable for life.
Curiosity would also examine samples of rock to discover their mineral and chemical components. If the rover finds organic compounds — which contain carbon and are also necessary for life — that will further strengthen the case for Mars’ habitability.
Another goal of the mission will be to study the Martian atmosphere, in part to discover whether previous findings of methane were valid. Methane degrades rapidly under sunlight, so if it’s present in the atmosphere, it may be the result of volcanic or microbial activity.
Bish and Schieber planned to travel to California to watch the landing from Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. If the landing is successful, they will stay in California for three months to analyze the early results, before returning home and continuing to work from Bloomington.
For both of the scientists, the mission represents the culmination of many years of work. Bish first became interested in extraterrestrial geology when he worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1980s, and has published several articles on Martian mineralogy. Schieber, an expert in sedimentology, was asked to join the mission to help identify types of rocks from pictures sent by the rover.
“It has been an almost 10-year ordeal already,” said Schieber. “Right now, it’s still nail-biting and finger-crossing and so forth.”
Bish contributed to an instrument called CheMin — so named because it will study both the chemical and mineral makeup of samples. Curiosity will use a drill to break up rock samples into powder, which CheMin will then subject to X-rays. By studying the way the sample diffracts the X-rays, scientists will be able to infer its chemical and mineral content.