Who said that scientists aren’t creative types? On Tuesday, July 12th, the Academites enjoyed a presentation by NASA scientist and science-fiction author, Geoffrey Landis. Dr. Landis is a NASA researcher who works towards developing advanced concepts and technology for future space missions. Although this is a broad and daunting field of study, Dr. Landis’ main area of expertise is solar power.
Dr. Landis’ presentation focused on the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) and their incredible adventures. As anyone can guess, it takes a lot of very careful research, design, and engineering to put a rover on another planet. One of the biggest difficulties in doing so is that we are truly exploring a new planet, unsure of what to expect or encounter. Martian dust is one of these unknown encounters; no one was certain how much dust would accumulate on a vehicle. This became a pressing issue with both of the rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, because they are solar powered. In response, Dr. Landis designed an experiment to measure the accumulated dust on the solar panels and its effect on power generation. The results of this experiment provided extremely useful data, and helped to allow NASA engineers to gauge rover lifespan and work proactively to extend it.
The original timeline for MER provided scientists 90 days of guaranteed research. This means that the main objectives of the mission would be accomplished in that time span and any continued research would be added value, or in other words, “gravy.” Spirit and Opportunity, like a motivated student, didn’t stop at the bare minimum though, they have gone (and one is still going) above and beyond expectations! Some may call it luck, especially after the “hole-in-one” landing that Opportunity had in the Eagle crater, but it wasn’t entirely good fortune that kept the rovers alive. It was the intellect and perseverance of NASA engineers.
A Martian year is approximately two years on Earth and during that time, it experiences much harsher seasons than here on our planet. During Martian winters, insolation (the magnitude of solar input) is at an all time low. This obviously poses a problem to the two rovers, as they might run out of power and die. To cope with the lesser amount of available energy, NASA engineers strategically positioned the rovers on the sides of craters so that they could maximize their solar energy input. This is just one example of the clever problem solving that the MER operations team exhibited. A better known story is how scientists at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) carefully escaped Martian sandpits. By recreating the Martian landscape here on Earth with special sand simulant, scientists were able to test different scenarios prior to using them on the actual rover. Little did the Academites know that they would get to see the room where all of this testing was performed in just a few short days! Ultimately, Spirit became stuck and couldn’t free itself, leading it to become a “Stationary Research Platform” and then eventually die from lack of power.
Despite losing its sister rover, Opportunity continues to trek the Martian surface seven and a half years later. Opportunity is currently on a “road trip” to the Endeavor crater, an impact crater many times larger than any we have explored. At its rate of about 200 meters/day, NASA has predicted an Estimated Time of Arrival of September 2011, just around the corner!
Dr. Landis finished his presentation with information on JPL’s current flagship mission, Curiosity. Curiosity is a Mars rover with a similar design as those in MER, but much larger and with new instruments. By December 2011, Curiosity will have launched and is scheduled to land in the summer of 2012. This new NASA planetary exploration mission further captivated the Academites and many other audience members, leaving an abundance of great questions that were thoroughly answered by Dr. Landis.