Curiosity-driven research reaches new heights in the UK and France

Posted by pt91 at Jul 31, 2012 12:13 PM |
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory involves team led by the University of Leicester with the Open University and CNRS France
Curiosity-driven research reaches new heights in the UK and France

Dr John Bridges (University of Leicester) and Dr Susanne Schwenzer (Open University) study martian meteorites. The new understanding of water on Mars that has resulted from this work has led to their selection within the Mars Science Laboratory Mission.

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 31 July 2012


Dr Bridges will only be available for interviews in the UK today (Tuesday 31st July): or call 0116 252 2007

Image of landing area available at:

A team of UK and French space experts, led by a planetary science researcher from the University of Leicester, is eagerly awaiting the daring landing on 6 August of NASA’s car-sized rover in Gale Crater on Mars.

The Mars Science Laboratory mission, landing NASA’s most advanced planetary rover called Curiosity, is a deploying the most powerful suite of instruments yet sent to the Red Planet.

Dr John Bridges of the University’s Space Research Centre is one of 2 UK Participating Scientists on the mission, and leads a team from the University of Leicester, the Open University and CNRS France. 

Dr Bridges will be at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to witness the landing and start work on subsequent science operations.  He will keep a blog diary as well as talking from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to a free public event at the National Space Centre during the landing time.

Malika Andress  from the National Space Centre said: "The National Space Centre, often described as the brainchild of the University of Leicester, will be dedicating the day of the landing to all things Martian.  Live interview links to the teams in the US and UK will highlight the important work being carried out by teams from the University of Leicester and Open University, allowing visitors the opportunity to ask questions of those involved directly in the mission.  In addition visitors will be able to re-live the seven minutes of terror themselves by building and landing Rovers in the hub of the Centre's galleries and learning about the mission from the Space Crew on-site."

Dr Bridges will also be among the first people to study images returned after landing, to determine the conditions associated with the presence of water and assess the past Habitability of Mars for microbial life. The team will focus on determining the conditions associated with the presence of water in past epochs at the landing site.

The rover is scheduled to land at 6.31am UK time on Monday 6 August, beside a Martian mountain within Gale Crater called Mt. Sharp, to begin two years of unprecedented scientific detective work.

However, getting the Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars will not be easy.

To achieve the precision needed for landing safely inside Gale Crater, the spacecraft will fly like a wing in the upper atmosphere instead of dropping like a rock. To land the 1 tonne rover, an airbag method used on previous Mars rovers will not work. Mission engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., designed a “Skycrane” method for the final several seconds of the flight. While retro-rockets allow the Entry and Descent Module to slow down, the rover will be lowered on three nylon cords to the surface.

During a critical period lasting only about seven minutes, the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft must decelerate from about 13,200 mph (about 5,900 metres per second) to allow the rover to land on the surface at about 1.7 mph (three-fourths of a metre per second).

Launched on 26th November 2011, the 900kg rover is planned to work on the Red Planet’s surface for at least 23 months, looking at sediments that could help explain the planet’s transition from a ‘warm and wet’ ancient past to the current cold and dry conditions.

Dr. Bridges, who also 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 alluvial fan and sulphate with clay at the base of a mountain made of sediments.  I'm sure it will also bring up some surprises and a lot of new and important information about how the Mars environment has changed through time.”

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.”

Curiosity will also carry the biggest, most advanced suite of instruments for scientific studies ever sent to the Martian surface. The rover will analyse a dozen or so 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.

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 or alkaline it was” says Dr. Bridges. “The ones we are talking about on the Gale Crater date back to ancient times – possibly about 3.8 billion years ago."

“We already know that there has been water on Mars,” said Dr Susanne Schwenzer. “Now, we want to know the temperature of the water and whether microbes could have used it or if it was poisonous. We also want to know if Mars has niches where microbial life could have existed.”

The mission – which is the first lander since 2008 - also features a robot arm with drill, on-board chemistry labs and a plutonium power source. The ChemCam instrument will direct laser pulses onto rocks.  This allows minerals to be pinpointed, with their composition determined from the spectra produced in the sparks of light on the rock surface.

The University of Leicester’s Space Research Centre in the Dept. of Physics & Astronomy is heavily committed to Mars instrumentation.  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.


Notes to Editors

Dr Bridges will be available for interviews in Leicester until 31st July.  Please contact Dr John Bridges, University of Leicester, on  or call  0116 252 2007

From  1st August  Dr Bridges will be in Pasadena, California and contactable via in the first instance.

A day to day blog of the events leading up to during and after the landing will be posted by John Bridges at:

Dr Susanne Schwenzer will be available for interviews at the Open University, Milton Keynes through the landing period and science operations.  Please contact Dr Susanne Schwenzer,

Dr. Frances Westall will be available for interviews at the Centre de Biophysique Moléculaire-CNRS, Orléans as from the landing period and during science operations. Her contact address is:

For details of the event at the National Space Centre, contact Malika Andress:

NASA Text & Images:

NASA has several other forthcoming experiences geared for inspiration and learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Information about many ways to watch and participate in the Curiosity’s landing and the mission on the surface of Mars is available at:


Guy Webster/ D.C. Agle

Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

+1 818-354-6278 / 818-393-9011 /

Dwayne Brown

NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

+1 202-358-1726

Mars Science Laboratory is a project of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The mission is managed by JPL. Curiosity was designed, developed and assembled at JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Follow the mission on Facebook and on Twitter:

Information about the mission, and to use the new video game and other education-related tools:

Share this page: