Mars mission hoping to satisfy curiousity

Posted by pt91 at Dec 01, 2011 03:35 PM |
University of Leicester team set to be among first people to view images from surface of Mars
Mars mission hoping to satisfy curiousity

Guy Peters and Chris Bicknell preparing the Astrosat SXT Flight camera for handover to the delegation from India.

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 1 December 2011

The University of Leicester is to play a key role in NASA’s $2.5 billion mission to Mars.

Dr John Bridges of the University’s Space Research Centre, leads a team from the University of Leicester, the Open University and CNES France which have been accepted as participating scientists on the Mars Science Laboratory Mission, which lands in August 2012.

John Bridges will be among the first people to study images returned after landing, to determine the conditions associated with the presence of water. The Leicester-led team will focus on determining the conditions associated with the presence of water in past epochs at the landing site. 

Launched on 26th November, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is a NASA mission with the aim to land and operate a rover named Curiosity on the surface of Mars.

The 900kg rover, which is the size of a small car, will travel on the Red Planet’s surface for 23 months, looking at sediments that could help explain the planet’s past and help to assess Mars’s habitability. 

Dr. Bridges, who attended the launch of the Atlas V rocket transporting the robot, said: “From orbital data we are pretty confident about some of the things we will be looking at – including an ancient river and clay within a mountain made of sediments.  I'm sure it will also bring up some surprises and a lot of new and important information about the how the Mars environment has changed through time.”

Speaking of the launch from Cape Canaveral, Dr Bridges added: “I took a picture that shows the Atlas 541 taking off at 10 am with a smoke trail left by its liquid oxygen-kerosene main engine and 4 solid rocket boosters. We were close enough to feel the sound and force of this launch! 

“Aside from the launch this was a valuable opportunity for the science teams and participating scientists to update their plans for the landing.”

Curiosity will carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface. The rover will analyze dozens of samples scooped from the soil and extracted from rocks. The record of the planet's climate and geology is essentially "written in the rocks and soil"-in their formation, structure, and chemical composition. The rover's onboard laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to decide if the conditions on Mars were able to support microbial life.

Curiosity is the largest and most sophisticated in a series of robotic vehicles that NASA has sent to Mars, of which Dr. Bridges said: “This rover is five times heavier than the last rover that went to Mars so this is a real step forward. We will be able to do analyses over a longer period of time and there is a possibility it could last many years.”

When the rover lands in August, Dr. Bridges and his team will conduct their research at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California and study the very first images returned after landing. They are looking at conditions on Mars with a particular emphasis on hydrothermal materials. “We know from orbital data and our work on martian meteorites that there were flows of water through the rocks on Mars, so we will be trying to determine the temperature of the water and how acid and alkaline it was” says Dr. Bridges. “The ones we are talking about on the Gale Crater date back to ancient times – about 3.8 billion years ago."

The mission – which is the first lander since 2004 - also features a robot arm with drill, on-board chemistry labs and a plutonium power source. The strength of the laser torch on Curiosity is equivalent to an eye-dazzling, one million light bulbs.

The University of Leicester’s Space Research Centre in the Dept. of Physics & Astronomy is heavily committed to Mars instrumentation, particularly for the 2018 ExoMars mission.  Leicester scientists also study martian meteorites in great detail with electron microscopy and Diamond synchrotron analyses, to characterise the temperature and composition of water on Mars.

“By using high resolution images of Mars and infrared parts of the spectrum from Mars orbiter instruments we can help determine the evolution of the Mars surface and potential landing sites for future missions,” said Dr Bridges.

Ends

For interviews, please contact Dr John Bridges, University of Leicester, on  jcb36@leicester.ac.uk  or call  0116 252 2007

More info, images. Multimedia  on the Mission here: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/

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