LOS ALAMOS (KRQE) – Fans of the planet Mars are likely on pins and needles this weekend as they await the touchdown of the latest robotic rover on the surface of the Red Planet.
However, even the biggest Mars fans might not know that more than 100 New Mexico-based scientists have played and will continue to play an integral role in the $2.5 billion project.
“I am excited,” said Dr. Roger Wiens, leader of a team of Los Alamos scientists that designed and built one of the major components on the latest rover. “We’re right on the doorstep of getting this huge rover on the surface and just starting to play.”
The newest rover – called Curiosity – was launched two days after Thanksgiving and is set to arrive on the surface of Mars late Sunday night after a nearly nine-month journey through space. It was built by Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which built all the previous Mars rovers.
Previous rovers have included Phoenix in 2008 and Opportunity and Spirit, both in 2004. However, Curiosity is much bigger and is designed to send back information for at least two years, far longer than the past rovers, most of which were designed to last about 90 days.
Opportunity continues to send back information to this day.
“Curiosity is almost 10-feet long when its arm is stowed,” Wiens said. “Its mast is seven-feet high and it’s nine-feet wide. So, it’s like a car. It’s like a small SUV.”
At nearly 2,000 pounds, it’s also five times as heavy as the last rover, and includes about 160 pounds of instruments.
After the Phoenix rover detected ice at one of Mars’ poles earlier this decade, Curiosity’s main mission is to look for signs of life. So, in conjunction with fellow scientists at the French space agency, Wiens’ team developed an instrument called “ChemCam.”
ChemCam will fire a laser at rocks or other targets from atop Curiosity’s mast. The colored plume the laser creates will then be analyzed in a spectrometer inside the rover’s body to determine what elements the rock is made of, Wiens said.
“Many of us are very interested in Mars,” he said, “potentially for the future, but also to try and understand, for example, was Mars habitable in the past? If we find organisms or fossils (or) microscopic organisms on Mars from the past, it might tell us a lot about ourselves and what happened on the early Earth as well, especially with regard to life.”
Another team of Los Alamos scientists developed the plutonium-based power source that is guaranteed to provide Curiosity power for at least two years, Wiens said.
“These generators have been used ever since the 1960s on many different missions, including Apollo,” he said.
But in order for those New Mexico-designed devices to work, Curiosity must successfully land first, which is perhaps the most complicated task for the big machine, Wiens said.
“The engineering to get to this spot almost on the other side of the solar system is absolutely fantastic,” he said.
Once Curiosity enters the Martian atmosphere, it will deploy a massive, 60-foot-wide parachute and be slowed further by retro rockts. Then comes one of the most astounding feats of engineering.
“As this thing gets to the ground, they’re actually going to lower the rover on a tether and set it on the ground, then cut the tether and fly away,” Wiens said. “This method is called a sky crane.”
NASA has prepared an animated video of how the landing and exploration are supposed to work, and earthlings will be able to watch the spectacle on Sunday by going to the NASA TV website . Coverage begins at 9 p.m. MDT with the landing between 11 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.
In addition, the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos will host a viewing party beginning at 10 p.m. and lasting until 12:30 a.m. for the landing. The museum also will debut its new Curiosity Mars rover exhibit.
Also online: KRQE.com Mars Rover section