This Friday’s joint seminar between the EEO-AGI(S) and Hutton Club was presented by Prof. Sanjeev Gupta with the title of “Curiosity: Sedimentological Adventures on Mars”. The talk enlightened us on the context of NASA’s $2.7bn Curiosity mission and the importance that sedimentology and stratigraphy play in determining whether life has arisen on another planet.
Prof. Gupta’s involvement with the Curiosity mission started through a vocational visit to the NASA site selection for the project where he became involved in a heated debate with physicists over their views on sedimentology and subsequently became part of the project.
The Mars robot used for the Curiosity mission is an extreme engineering feat; the instrument itself is around the size of a Mini Cooper and weighs over a tonne. Technological specifications include seventeen cameras with different purposes, an infrared laser to establish changes in rock type and a range of geochemistry instruments, such as three mass spectrometers for rock composition and atmospheric chemistry. Prof. Gupta stated that each day on the Curiosity mission is treated as if the rover might die tomorrow, which enables the team to achieve the maximum data possible. This includes a ridged daily schedule to ensure that the project runs smoothly. Only two hours in each morning are allocated to determining what scientific data is to be collected. The rest of the day is about collation with engineers on what is realistically attainable and programming the robot to achieve the desired outcome. This is a rigorous process and any errors in the code could be catastrophic for the whole project.
A number of interesting results are now beginning to be acquired from the Curiosity mission, leading the team to new and exciting discoveries. The purpose of the mission in general is about habitability and this is down to finding which rocks exist on the planet’s surface, this is especially hard as they had no map to guide them. The team have acquired a number of in situ observations that point toward fluvial processes carved by ancient Martian Rivers. Building strength against other arguments that the landforms were created by either CO2 or lava flow.
Thus far the Curiosity mission has discovered a huge heterogeneity of rock types and is displaying a whole world on Mars that has never been seen before. Prof. Gupta concluded by stating that the team is now moving on to analyse Mount Sharp and the Gale Crater starting in August 2014. This is an exciting prospect for the mission, as they have no idea what to expect. The stratified nature of the crater has great potential for analysis, which could point to lake deposits furthering their hope of discovering evidence of life on Mars.
— Alison Rourke-McBride
(MSc in GIS at University of Edinburgh)