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Mars scientist to discus upcoming launch of Curiosity rover

February 22, 2011

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, scheduled to launch in the fall of 2011, will be the largest rover to land on Mars. With advanced capabilities and instrumentation living inside, MSL will examine the austere but stunning Martian surface for evidence of past and present habitability.

Tonight, MSL project scientist John Grotzinger will deliver the Robert S. Dietz Memorial Public Lecture at 5 p.m. at Arizona State University’s Bateman Physical Sciences Building F-wing, room 166, on the Tempe campus. The title of the lecture is “Mars Science Laboratory – One Year from Launch.” Sponsored by ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, the lecture is free and open to the public, though RSVP is requested. Seats may be reserved online at:

Grotzinger, a geology professor at California Institute of Technology, has made significant contributions to NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. In addition to being the project scientist for MSL, he is a participating scientist for the Mars Exploration Rovers and for the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The MSL mission will deliver a long-lived (two Earth years), long-ranging (20 km) mobile geochemistry laboratory named Curiosity to the surface of Mars in the summer of 2012, following launch in the fall of 2011. The Curiosity rover will search for habitable environments, characterize the surface and shallow subsurface geology, and undertake environmental monitoring of the Martian atmosphere.

“Curiosity will be the first mission to kick off the search for signs of habitability and possible preservation of microbial biosignatures in the very ancient rocks of Mars,” says Grotzinger. “It is a major accomplishment that we can wrap up in one rover all of the tools that we would use to address the same question here on Earth – where exploration for biosignatures in ancient rocks is still a major area of frontier research.”

Determining an appropriate landing site for analysis is a fundamental aspect of the MSL mission. “The landing sites that we’re picking all have some morphological, chemical and mineralogical [evidence of water],” states Michelle Minitti, a research associate in the School of Earth and Space exploration in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and assistant director of the Center for Meteorite Studies. Minitti, a co-investigator on the MSL camera team, specifically working with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), is one of several ASU faculty members, researchers and alumni involved with MSL.

MAHLI, one of MSL’s 10 instruments, is mounted on the robotic arm of the MSL and will acquire close-range images of Martian rocks for observation. The close examination of the materials is essential for determining the past environmental conditions that have acted on them. Kenneth Edgett, a SESE alumnus (masters in geological sciences 1990, doctorate in geology 1994), is the principal investigator on the MAHLI team.

MAHLI was created by Malin Space Science Systems, a company started and operated by former SESE professor Michael Malin (1979-1991). Malin is the principal investigator for two other MSL cameras, the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) and Mastcam. Professor Jim Bell, who joined SESE in December 2010, is yet another SESE member involved with MSL. He also serves on the Mastcam team led by Malin.

The Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity) could scratch the Martian surface and try to get a sense of things, but Curiosity can retrieve a sample and put it in various analytic chambers.

The instrument for examining the chemical and mineralogical properties on Mars is called CheMin. CheMin will perform determinative mineralogy using x-ray diffraction, a standard lab technique used for determining the mineralogy of rocks and soils. According to Jack Farmer is a professor in SESE, and a member of the CheMin science team, “Mineralogy provides our best indicator for environmental conditions that prevailed during the formation of a rock. Also, living things require nutrients in the form of elemental building blocks and sources of energy. We can learn about all those things through an understanding of mineralogy. If you can get a really clear indication of what that composition is, you can begin to track the requirements for life and perhaps get an answer to the question, were habitable environments present at the time this rock formed?”

The past and present habitability of Mars will also be addressed by an instrument known as the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), which is essentially an analytical chemistry system. It will be searching for traces of organic compounds and isotopic indicators of climactic change. Meenakshi Wadhwa, director of the Center for Meteorite Studies at ASU, is a co-investigator on the SAM team.

Today, the Martian atmosphere is inhospitable for life at the surface. The suggestion of earlier Earth-like surface conditions supports the notion that life could have gotten started there. But, could life still persist on Mars? Hopefully Curiosity can answer that question.

“If there is present life there, it is probably underground,” says Amy McAdam, a SESE alumna (doctorate in geological sciences 2008) who has worked on MSL’s SAM instrument. The existence of life meters below the surface is more plausible as a result of being better protected from exposure to radiation; also, it will have access to water that it would be denied on surface.

Although MSL lacks the ability to drill deep into the subsurface, where extant life might be present, it will be able to sample the interiors of ancient sedimentary rocks formed at a time when water was present at the surface of Mars.

“The fact that on Earth we routinely find evidence for past habitability and life preserved in ancient rocks, from a time when our biosphere was still young, gives us hope that we will discover such evidence preserved in the ancient sedimentary rocks on Mars,” said Farmer.

The Robert S. Dietz Memorial Public Lecture brings distinguished speakers to ASU for an annual lecture to the general public by leading scientists. Robert S. Dietz was a leading researcher in plate tectonics, planetary sciences, and science in the public interest. The lecture series has featured notable science figures, including NASA astronaut John Grunsfeld.

By Meghan Fern and Nikki Cassis