Curiosity Drives Wonder About Mars

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

It took nine months to get there. No traffic.

It was Curiosity, a Mars Science Laboratory rover.

It left Earth in November of 2011 and reached its destination in August of 2012 as part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. It was designed to assess whether the place ever had an environment able to support small life forms called microbes, which is a fancy way of wondering what, if anything, could live (or could have ever lived) there.

One of the fascinating things about the mission — other than, you know, it being Mars — is that Curiosity, which is presently parked in a place called Gale Crater, has to be controlled from Earth.

And that’s where Shaunna Morrison comes in. Along with being a University of Arizona Geosciences doctoral candidate, she has participated in the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission as a payload uplink/downlink lead (PUDL) for the chemical and mineralogy X-ray diffraction instrument, CheMin.

This is a big deal, for this is an advanced robot — the most advanced suite of instruments ever sent to Mars — including 17 cameras, radiation detectors, environmental sensors, spectrometers and a diffractometer. Specifically, the CheMin is used to identify minerals within soil and rocks, to see, ultimately, what secrets they hold.

Morrison’s work, specifically, includes not only operating the diffractometer, but more importantly, analyzing the data. It is just some of what she will discuss with students and teachers during her lecture, called “Assessing the Red Planet’s Habitability using the Rover Curiosity,” at the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) Annual Meeting in Dallas this month as part of the organization’s Applied Science Education Program.

“Geoscience studies earth and earth processes — many of the principles and processes on Earth also apply to other rocky planets,” she said.

And while there are differences between Earth and Mars, obviously, their similarities — especially in terms of rocks and superficial features, she said, may be quite similar.

“In fact, a lot of the terrain on Mars is analogous to early Earth, allowing us a rare glimpse into what our planet looked like billions of years ago. The Mars rovers allow us to analyze martian surface material as we would in a laboratory — we’re able to figure out what rocks and minerals are made of, get important clues about how they were formed and develop much more informed theories on the geologic history of Mars. Orbiters are also crucial in this endeavor as they provide remote sensing data and aerial images.”

Inspiring Wonder

As an education tool for high school students, the operation of the CheMin — the video game nature of it all — would be especially fascinating.

It is, but not for the reasons you think.

“Oddly enough, kids don’t seem to get excited about it,” she said, correcting the characterization, adding that what she does has more to do with coding/programming.

But then she added, smiling, “I don’t tell them that.”

She doesn’t have to, as it turns out, because they seem taken by the enormity and grandeur of it all.

“I find they’re more curious about bigger questions: Is there life on other planets? When will we go to Mars? How is Mars different from Earth (rocks, atmosphere, gravity)?”

The wonder of it all, she said, is, in fact, the main appeal.

“I show them the video of the launch and the entry-descent-and-landing and they go wild for that; seeing the heat shield light up as the atmosphere heats it to glowing temperatures, watching the sky crane lower the rover to the surface and then jettison, they love seeing engineering marvels,” said Morrison.

Terrestrial Benefits

While the serious work of Curiosity is a deeper exploration and understanding of the history and possibilities of life on Mars, and while her command of CheMin will no doubt illicit many questions during the lecture, Morrison talked about the ancillary benefits of the mission.

“I hope to get young people excited about STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] and to convey the importance of such scientific endeavors. Science and NASA space programs have benefited society immeasurably through technological advancement and discovery — without it we wouldn’t have LEDs, LCDs, satellites and most of our high-technology.”

More than just a victory lap, she sees Curiosity as a call to action.

“Getting young people involved in pushing science forward is critical to our future — to the growth and sustainability of our economy and quality of life.”

For her, personally, the study of Mars augments the study of Earth, the study of ourselves.

“Mars interests me most because, in many ways, it provides a snapshot of early Earth, allowing us to address questions about our own planet that would be inaccessible otherwise.”

It’s about being neighborly.

“Being so close, it allows us to compare the differences between our planets and gain more insight into solar system formation,” she added.

There’s a romantic sense to it all as well, and Morrison believes the intrigue comes from the fact that because Mars is our closest neighboring planet, it may some day be approachable.

“We could have a chance at visiting and possibly inhabiting.”

There is something else, too.

“I think big science and lofty goals drive a society forward: it gives us something to work for, something to unite upon and something to dream about.”

It is, as it’s always been, needed.

“Nothing creates peace, prosperity and advancement like a common goal beyond our day-to-day troubles.”

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