Red Rover, Red Rover
Learning more about our next-door neighbor in the solar system
By Dr. Heidi Manning
Early in the morning of Aug. 6, I sat watching NASA TV, waiting for the landing of Curiosity, the Mars rover. It was a complex landing with many stages. Since nobody could communicate with the spacecraft during this landing, everything had to be preprogrammed. The spacecraft had to account for variability in temperature and the pressure of the Mars atmosphere, which would affect its landing.
Success was dependent on all stages working perfectly as designed. And I had a personal reason for wanting it to succeed.
During this academic year, I am on sabbatical and working with the team that developed the rover’s Sample Analysis on Mars (SAM) instrument suite. Like thousands of other scientists, engineers and others – the ability to continue my work was tied to the rover’s successful landing.
In the days leading up to the landing, much was made about its complexity. It was even dubbed the “seven minutes of terror” based on the time it would take for the spacecraft to enter the atmosphere of Mars, descend and land. As I anticipated the event, I tried to keep in mind the words my doctoral thesis advisor told me when we were preparing an instrument for the space shuttle.
A graduate student at the time, I was worried about all the things that could go wrong with the instrument, the satellite that carried it, and the space shuttle that transported the satellite into space and back to Earth. My advisor smiled and said, “If we worried about all the things that could go wrong, we wouldn’t be in this business at all.”
He encouraged me to press on and prepare the instrument the best I could, to anticipate all the possible things that could happen. We had to design and redesign the instrument to make sure everything was as good as it could be. Finally, we had to stop worrying about all the other “what ifs.”
I had to trust that everyone else was also doing their best and working to ensure that the entire project was the best functioning mission possible.
That lesson came back to me as I watched the Curiosity landing. I knew every step of the landing that was supposed to occur. As the NASA engineer confirmed the success of a step, I would think ahead to the next thing it was to do. During the broadcast, I sat in awe as everything went like clockwork. It truly was indicative of all the hard work, planning and reviews that went into developing and preparing this spacecraft.
Each member of the development team had perfected his or her component, and it was all integrated flawlessly. That didn’t happen by chance.
Some people may not know that the launch of the Curiosity mission was delayed two years because NASA didn’t feel it was ready to go. After spending a large sum of money to build this spacecraft, NASA administrators wanted to make sure all the potential problems were addressed before they launched it. They did not want to risk an unsuccessful mission.
The perfect landing was proof that the delay was worth the wait. For me, it was a great example of how a team of people can address a complicated task and accomplish impressive feats.
That teamwork continues even now that Curiosity has landed and the science measurements have begun. There are more than 400 scientists working with 17 cameras and 10 scientific instruments that need to function together. Similar to the complex landing, the daily operations of the rover are a balancing act between the scientific measurements they want to obtain and the safety of the rover. Every day, the whole group weighs in on the planning of the science operations.
My role is to assist in the analysis of data as it comes from Mars. We will be studying the composition of the atmosphere to understand how it has changed over time. We want to better understand what Mars was like when there was liquid water on its surface.
The SAM instrument will also look for organic molecules, in particular, amino acids, the precursors to life. We want to know if these molecules exist on the surface of the Red Planet.
Together, these measurements will provide important pieces in the puzzle and help to determine whether Mars was once habitable, the ultimate goal of the Curiosity mission. As we study the data, we may better understand how life on Earth began and address the age-old question of where we came from.
Photos: NASA/JPL-Caltech / Submitted