Soil Science In The News: Mars Science Laboratory

Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity Rover. Photo courtesy of NASA

You may have heard about the successful landing of NASA’s Curiosity Rover on Mars this morning. The Curiosity Rover, also known as the “Mars Science Laboratory” (MSL) is the latest of several unmanned missions to the red planet to study its formation, and the possibility that it could, or previously has supported life.

The landing of the rover on the planet was an amazing feat of engineering in itself. Here’s a video that shows just that:

And here’s NASA’s image of the day that shows one of the first photos of the red planet taken by the rover:

One of the first photos of the red planet taken by the Curiosity Rover. Photo courtesy of NASA.

The President summed it up well in his announcement from the White House today regarding the successful landing:

Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history.

The successful landing of Curiosity – the most sophisticated roving laboratory ever to land on another planet – marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future.  It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination.

Tonight’s success, delivered by NASA, parallels our major steps forward towards a vision for a new partnership with American companies to send American astronauts into space on American spacecraft. That partnership will save taxpayer dollars while allowing NASA to do what it has always done best – push the very boundaries of human knowledge. And tonight’s success reminds us that our preeminence – not just in space, but here on Earth – depends on continuing to invest wisely in the innovation, technology, and basic research that has always made our economy the envy of the world.

I congratulate and thank all the men and women of NASA who made this remarkable accomplishment a reality – and I eagerly await what Curiosity has yet to discover.

Congratulations to the whole MSL team on that great achievement.

However, for soil scientists like me the interesting part is just getting started. The mission of the MSL is to study minerals in the Martian “soil” and on the outside of rocks on the surface. The rover’s targeted (and achieved) landing spot is in Gale Crater, which from my understanding, is one of the most likely spots to observe minerals that formed in water (being that it is on a low spot on the surface of the planet… and water flows downhill).

The yellow oval marks the target landing spot for Curiosity in Gale Crater. Photo courtesy of NASA.

The instruments on the MSL are pretty much the same instruments used by soil scientists and geologists here on Earth, only lighter, smaller, mission-specific, and a lot more expensive!

NASA scientist working with the MSL “arm” and instruments. Photo courtesy of NASA
Scientific Instruments on the MSL. Photo Courtesy of NASA

Measurements taken with these instruments will help geologists and soil scientists identify the minerals present in Gale Crater. Previously-established knowledge of the minerals they find will help determine if there was or is water present on the surface of Mars.

Some instrumentation on the MSL is designed to detect organic molecules – the building blocks of life. From what I understand, the MSL is not set up to “detect life”, but only to see if what is necessary for it to be formed is present on Mars, i.e. water, organic compounds, and climate.

Doug Ming, PhD. Photo courtesy of NASA

I’ve followed the Mars rover missions pretty closely since they started. I gained an even greater interest in them when I heard a talk by Doug Ming, PhD (right) at a Soil and Water Conservation Society meeting in Tucson, AZ. His title is the “Science Operations Working Group Chair” which means he puts together the activities they do on Mars for a given sol (Martian day). At the NCSU Dept. of Soil Science we were lucky enough to host Dr. Ming as our Willie Woltz Lecture Series speaker in 2009 towards the end of the Phoenix mission. It was fascinating to hear about the results of those missions and what kind of mineralogy they’re finding. You could say that Doug Ming, and his team of scientists do soil science that is “out of this world!”

I’m definitely intrigued by this series of missions, and I will post occasionally about them here at ColbyDigsSoil. If you would like to follow the Curiosity Rover here are a few great sources about the mission and how to stay informed:

Mars Science Laboratory website

NASA’s MSL Mission Page

Curiosity Rover on Twitter

NASA on Twitter

A slideshow that describes the MSL mission in detail

News Releases for the MSL

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