Leicester’s part in mission to Mars

Leicester scientist Dr John Bridges has had a key role in the Mars Curiosity mission’s momentous first six months

Mars Rover
This artist's concept depicts the rover Curiosity, of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, as it uses its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to investigate the composition of a rock surface. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Mars Curiosity mission has been the science story of the year – and Leicester planetary scientist Dr John Bridges has played an integral part.

Dr Bridges, a reader in planetary science in the Space Research Centre within our Department of Physics and Astronomy, has been leading a team of UK and French space experts analysing the rover’s findings.

Curiosity’s main aim is to find out if there is potential for life on Mars. It launched on the Mars Science Laboratory from Cape Canaveral in November, 2011, and landed on the Red Planet on August 5 2012.

The rover has been exploring the 96-mile-wide Gale crater, near the Martian equator, and is travelling to Mount Sharp, a 5.5 km tall mound of debris at the centre of the crater. It will be on the lookout for samples of clay at the mount’s base which could be an indicator that the crater once housed water.

Curiosity will remain on Mars for at least one Martian year – equivalent to 687 Earth days. It will beam its findings back to Earth via two satellites in orbit around the planet - the Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Dr Bridges saw off competition from 140 scientists to secure his role on the mission and spent three months at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, over the summer. Here, he witnessed the landing and started working on science operations with a team of scientists from the University of Leicester, the Open University and CNRS France.

He returned to Leicester in November, and is continuing to probe the Martian environment from the University of Leicester's Space Research Centre.

"It was a fascinating working environment in Pasadena, seeing the project right through from the entry to the landing to turning everything on," explains Dr Bridges.

"The first few images of Mount Sharp were beautiful and then we started moving little by little towards it, which is the ultimate goal. It's good to be back at the university and in familiar surroundings but, of course, the mission goes on and there is still a lot of work to do.

“We're now entering the remote data operations phase, which means all those who were in Pasadena have gone back to their home institutions and we'll be working across six time zones. Our goals are practically the same, but it's going to take more time and patience to get the results we want.

“An enormous amount of engineering, management and science work has gone into this project - thousands of people since the project started about 12 years ago.  There will be other exciting space missions to explore our Solar System but I'm not sure there will ever be another mission quite like this one.”

The rover has already delivered a huge amount of valuable data from rock, soil and atmospheric samples taken using its advanced onboard equipment – and the mission has already made some exciting findings.

Sieve screen
This image shows the location of the 150-micrometer sieve screen on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity, a device used to remove larger particles from samples before delivery to science instruments.<br /> Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

In November, Curiosity began looking for sites to drill into the Martian rock and extract information about its composition. It will also be looking for evidence that the planet once had the conditions that could have supported simple-celled organisms before its protective magnetic field disappeared four billion years ago.

One of the important new findings so far is the identification near the landing site of rock layers containing rounded clasts deposited by a river.  This is firm evidence for a past on Mars that was not as cold and dry as it is today.

Rock samples collected by NASA's Curiosity rover last month were found to contain sulphur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon - some of the key ingredients for life.

The rover extracted sedimentary rock near an ancient stream bed in Gale Crater. Dr Bridges worked with other members of the Mars Science Laboratory mission to decide where the rover should drill.

In addition, Dr Bridges is examining pieces of the Red Planet a little closer to home. In collaboration with Dr Susanne Schwenzer, from the Open University, Dr Bridges used powerful microscopes at the University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy to study Martian meteorites for clues about the planet’s past.

Clay sample
This image from NASA's Curiosity rover shows the first sample of powdered rock extracted by the rover's drill. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

"Rovers on Mars are studying rocks to find out about the geological history of the Red Planet,” explained Dr Bridges. "Some of the most interesting questions are what we can find out about water, how much there was and what temperature it might have had. While the orbiters and Rovers are studying the minerals on Mars, we also have meteorites from Mars here on Earth."

Minerals found in the meteorites showed signs of chemical reactions caused by water heating to 150C and then cooling to form clay. These conditions point towards the possibility that Mars had the potential to support microbial life.

Share this page: