Searching the Red Planet

The University of Leicester has been at the forefront of space science for more than 50 years. This year, our stellar reputation has been reinforced thanks to Dr John Bridges’s involvement with NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity – the most advanced rover ever sent to the Red Planet.

The mission seeks to determine whether Mars was ever able to support life, and Dr Bridges is analysing data taken by the car-sized rover. Dr Bridges is one of two UK Participating Scientists on the mission, and leads a team from the University of Leicester, the Open University and CNRS France.

Curiosity landed in the 96-mile-wide Gale Crater, and the researchers hope
eventually to send the rover to Mount Sharp, an 18,000 ft tall mound of debris at the centre of the crater. The mount contains samples of clay at its base, which could be an indicator that the crater once housed water. The rover is expected to work for at least one Martian year – equal to 687 Earth days – during which time it will beam results back to Earth via the Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which orbit the Red Planet.

The results are sent to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where Dr Bridges and other scientists study the findings. So far, the team has performed tests to measure the composition of the atmosphere and have received data from soil samples taken by the rover. By the end of the mission, the scientists hope to have a clearer picture about Martian geology and answers to whether the planet once hosted microbial life.

When he is not working in Pasadena, Dr Bridges is based at the University’s Space Research Centre, within the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

This article originally appeared in LE1 Winter 2012

 

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