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22 October 2015

Cars on Mars: following Curiosity and getting excited about science

Mars Curiosity Rover scientist Melissa Rice inspires
the next generation with talk of exploring the
Red Planet: see the video on SPIE.tv [23:55].
(Above, Rice at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab
with a model of the Curiosity.)
If it wanted to, NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover could stretch its 7-foot arm up from its 10-foot-high body and slam-dunk a basketball.

Admittedly, it isn’t likely that any of NASA’s Rovers -– cars on Mars, as some call them –- will find any basketball hoops on the Red Planet.

But the space agency’s newest robotic Mars explorer, the Curiosity, has found evidence of ancient lakes, captured images that reveal the composition of rocks on the planet’s surface, and done something many of us have done: taken selfies to post on FaceBook.

Curiosity’s discoveries are far from over. The robot is just now reaching the foothills of the lofty (5.5 km, or 18,000 feet) Mount Sharp, with its mission to scale the peak and report back about what it finds along the way.

That in itself is amazing. On top of that, the telling of that story by scientists such as Melissa Rice, a member of the Curiosity team and a professor at Western Washington University, turns out to be a powerful way to get kids interested in science -- and perhaps to inspire them to pursue careers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

In an International Year of Light event in Bellingham, Washington, USA, this week, Rice told how light-based science and technology are used by the Curiosity Rover, now in its third year of exploration on Mars.

Curiosity uses solar panels to keep its batteries charged, sophisticated cameras not extremely different in concept from those in our ubiquitous smartphones to navigate and record the scenery, and lasers to vaporize tiny bits of rock that other cameras using special filters image to determine how the rocks were formed.

Wrapping up her talk, Rice noted that Curiosity has been such a success that NASA said “let’s build another.”

Now under construction, Mars 2020 is scheduled to land on Mars in 2021. Some of Rice’s students are involved in selecting the landing site, from which the robot will step out on its mission to drill into rocks and collect rocks to be studied on Earth with even more sophisticated experiments than Curiosity’s.

Rice concluded by reaching out to the younger set among the audience of nearly 1,000 who gathered to hear her and to experience the spellbinding laser show by Prismatic Magic that followed.

“Some of you in the audience tonight are the right age to be the first generation to go to Mars” she said, evoking images from the new book and movie The Martian in many minds. “In the 2030s and 2040s, I hope you look back and give us all a wave.”

After the applause died down, a 10-year-old boy was heard telling his father, “That’s definitely on my ‘bucket list.’ I have to go to Mars.”

Images from the laser show:



1 comment:

  1. I wonder what it would be like to finance NASA expeditions rather than cars haha. It is a lovely idea to think about being able to help people find funding to do something that has some solid impact on the rest of the world.

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