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07 August 2012

‘It’s a lot of fun to do this!’: Photonics, Mars, and the ‘Mohawk man’



Curiosity is spotted on parachute by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on its descent to the surface. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s hard not to have noticed the glee among those interested in space exploration and in fact science in general this week, following the successful deployment on the ground of the Curiosity rover by NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). If you missed it, check out the video and coverage on MSNBC.

There are plenty of photonic instruments on the Curiosity, from the fancy cameras that are sending back pictures, to the laser rock-blaster that is making smoke for analysis by the (photonic) spectrometer.

Optics and photonics are also making possible incredible front-page images, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, of the lander parachuting to the surface.

The team who has worked for nearly nine years to make the landing and now the mission happen include NASA staff as well as contractors.

One of the latter, Ken Edgett, was a speaker at a Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) briefing Tuesday morning. He is senior research scientist for Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, designers of three of the cameras on Curiosity, and principal investigator for the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) investigation on the MSL.

Like many involved with the mission, Edgett’s excitement was obvious. “It works, it’s awesome, and we can’t wait to open it and see what else we can see,” he said at the briefing.

Specifically, what had worked was that the MAHLI camera had already returned the first color image from Curiosity despite not even being fully deployed on its two-meter robotic arm yet. The photo, showing the north rim of Gale Crater, was taken with the dust cover (and plenty of dust) still in place. MAHLI can focus from 2.1 cm to infinity, and has a transparent dust cover that opens and closes as necessary.

That is exciting. It’s also exciting to ponder just how many ways technology from the mission, as with all space missions, will be spun off for innovations that solve the world’s health, energy, communication, security and other challenges, and stimulate industry in the process.

Individuals involved are happy to use the Curiosity landing as an opportunity to share the important contributions of optics and photonics -- even if they haven’t planned to be in the spotlight.

For NASA’s Bobak Ferdowsi -- dubbed “the Mohawk man” -- the opportunity to promote science has come via a hairstyle.

His distinctive Mohawk haircut was selected for the event by a vote of his NASA colleagues, and was captured in news clips that generated major waves on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Asked about the extensive attention his hairstyle was attracting, Ferdowsi told a WhatsTrending interviewer, "It's a lot of fun to do this ... if my Mohawk helps encourage more kids to get involved in science, that’s great ."

Whatever it takes, the Curiosity landing on Mars is definitely an event worth using as a time to celebrate the contributions of science to making Earth a better place to live.

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