Cornell astronomers roving Mars with Curiosity

Aug 13, 2012 By Linda B. Glaser
A color image from Curiosity of the wall of Gale Crater, the rover's Aug. 6 landing site.

(Phys.org) -- In a daring feat of technological nerve and skill, NASA landed a 1-ton rover on the surface of Mars Aug. 6. The rolling laboratory is designed to help answer the question humans most want to know about Mars: Is there now or has there ever been life on the Red Planet?

The rover, named , holds equipment designed to look at environments where life might have existed and to assess whether those environments preserve evidence of past life. But none of it would have happened if even one thing had gone wrong with the landing sequence, which according to required six vehicle configurations, 76 pyrotechnic devices, the largest supersonic parachute ever built and more than 500,000 lines of code.

The "seven minutes of terror" before Curiosity landed safely on was particularly nail-biting for the Cornell astronomers who are members of Curiosity's science team.

"The landing site looks as interesting as was predicted, so Curiosity is now ready for an incredibly rich exploration of Mars' history," said Peter Thomas, who -- along with Rob Sullivan, both senior research associates at Cornell's Center for Radiophysics and -- works on the Mars 's camera science team with three instruments: mast cameras ("Mastcam"), a descent imager and a hand lens imager for close-up pictures.

The Mastcam consists of two digital color cameras mounted high on Curiosity's mast. The right Mastcam has a telephoto lens with a three-fold better resolution than any previous landscape-viewing camera on the surface of Mars. According to NASA, its resolution is good enough to distinguish a basketball from a football at a distance of seven football fields, or to read the words "one cent" on a penny on the ground next to the rover. Best of all, combining information from the left and right Mastcams will yield 3-D views of the telephoto part of the scene.

Alex Hayes, joining Cornell's faculty in January and currently an adjunct professor of astronomy, is also a collaborator on the Curiosity mission, working with several members of the various camera teams.

Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy Steve Squyres is now roving Mars with two different missions. He continues as principle investigator for the ongoing Mars Exploration Rover mission and is also working with Curiosity's MSL APXS and SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) instruments, which are designed to measure the composition of Mars' surface.

The APXS, an alpha-particle X-ray spectrometer, will use radiation to determine the elemental composition of samples. SAM is a suite of instruments that can analyze organics and gases from both atmospheric and solid samples.

Students who want to get close to the Curiosity mission this fall should consider taking Squyres' "History of Exploration: Land, Sea and Space," course, co-taught with Mary Beth Norton, the Mary Donlon Alger Professor of American History. At the beginning of each session, Squyres will give an update on both rover missions. He'll have to Skype into the first session Aug. 22 though, as he'll be at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and still living on Mars time.

Explore further: Mysteries of space dust revealed

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Work stopped on alternative cameras for Mars rover

Mar 28, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- The NASA rover to be launched to Mars this year will carry the Mast Camera (Mastcam) instrument already on the vehicle, providing the capability to meet the mission's science goals.

San Diego Team Delivers Camera for Next Mars Rover

Apr 07, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Malin Space Science Systems Inc., San Diego, has delivered the two cameras for the Mast Camera instrument that will be the science-imaging workhorse of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover, ...

Mojave Desert tests prepare for NASA Mars Roving

May 14, 2012

(Phys.org) -- Team members of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission took a test rover to Dumont Dunes in California's Mojave Desert this week to improve knowledge of the best way to operate a similar rover, ...

Next Mars rover nears completion

Apr 07, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Assembly and testing of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is far enough along that the mission's rover, Curiosity, looks very much as it will when it is investigating Mars.

Three generations of rovers with crouching engineers

Jan 20, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- Two spacecraft engineers join a grouping of vehicles providing a comparison of three generations of Mars rovers developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. The setting ...

Explore a room with a Mars view

Aug 05, 2012

(Phys.org) -- On the evening of Sunday, Aug. 5, the focal point of Martian activity here on Earth will be located in the Mission Support Area in Building 230 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, ...

Recommended for you

Mysteries of space dust revealed

2 hours ago

The first analysis of space dust collected by a special collector onboard NASA's Stardust mission and sent back to Earth for study in 2006 suggests the tiny specks open a door to studying the origins of the ...

A guide to the 2014 Neptune opposition season

7 hours ago

Never seen Neptune? Now is a good time to try, as the outermost ice giant world reaches opposition this weekend at 14:00 Universal Time (UT) or 10:00 AM EDT on Friday, August 29th. This means that the distant ...

Informing NASA's Asteroid Initiative: A citizen forum

Aug 28, 2014

In its history, the Earth has been repeatedly struck by asteroids, large chunks of rock from space that can cause considerable damage in a collision. Can we—or should we—try to protect Earth from potentially ...

Image: Rosetta's comet looms

Aug 28, 2014

Wow! Rosetta is getting ever-closer to its target comet by the day. This navigation camera shot from Aug. 23 shows that the spacecraft is so close to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko that it's difficult to ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Smashin_Z_1885
1 / 5 (1) Aug 14, 2012
Why is there an obvious road winding up the hills in the distance?
Kafpauzo
not rated yet Aug 15, 2012
Why is there an obvious road winding up the hills in the distance?

I think it's an ancient riverbed, now completely dry.