Saturday, August 04, 2012

Mars Landing on Monday!

by Salman Hameed

Are you ready for Monday's landing of Curiosity on Mars? The landing is expected at 1:31am Eastern US time this Monday morning (August 6th). Curiosity is the biggest rover sent to Mars yet. In case, you haven't seen this, check out this entertaining NASA video, "Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror", explaining the  complicated landing process.

Actually it is also a terror time for all the hundreds of scientists who have devoted their past several years for this mission and for all the PhD students who are dependent on the data from the rover. I co-teach a class on Astrobiology at Hampshire College with microbiologist, Jason Tor and planetary geologist/astronomer, Darby Dyar. Darby is directly involved with one of the 10 instruments on board Curiosity, and she will be watching the landing from the NASA center in charge of the mission. It will be fun teaching the class with her this fall as we will be getting the latest info about Curiosity.

Here is a very basic overview of the science of Curiosity:

The rover will be landing inside Gale crater. Here is a picture that shows the landing site (the ellipse):

And here is the context of the image:
This oblique, southward-looking view of Gale crater shows the landing site and the mound of layered rocks that NASA's Mars Science Laboratory will investigate. The landing site is in the smooth area in front of the mound (marked by a yellow ellipse, which is 12.4 miles [20 kilometers] by 15.5 miles [25 kilometers]).

Gale crater is 96 miles (154 kilometers) in diameter and holds a layered mountain rising about 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the crater floor.

The landing site contains material washed down from the wall of the crater, which will provide scientists with the opportunity to investigate the rocks that form the bedrock in this area. The landing ellipse also contains a rock type that is very dense and very bright colored; it is unlike any rock type previously investigated on Mars. It may be an ancient playa lake deposit, and it will likely be the mission's first target in checking for the presence of organic molecules.

The area of top scientific interest for Mars Science Laboratory is at the base of the mound, just at the edge of the landing ellipse. Here, orbiting instruments have detected signatures of both clay minerals and sulfate salts. Scientists studying Mars have several important hypotheses about how these minerals reflect changes in the Martian environment, particularly changes in the amount of water on the surface of Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, will use its full instrument suite to study these minerals and how they formed to give us insights into those ancient Martian environments. These rocks are also a prime target in checking for organic molecules.

This three-dimensional perspective view was created using visible-light imaging by the Thermal Emission Imaging System camera on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. Three-dimensional information was derived from observations by the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter, which flew on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. Color information is derived from color imaging of portions of the scene by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The vertical dimension is not exaggerated.
Get more information about Curiosity here - and watch the landing!

You can also find other events in your area related to the landing. I was pleasantly surprised to find an event in Isfahan, Iran for the landing! Adib Astronomical Center in Isfahan is organizing a lecture as well as a broadcast of the landing. Very cool!


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