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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

New Mars Rover field site selected with aid of UC Davis professor

With the help of a UC Davis geologist, the landing site for Curiosity, the new Mars rover, will be Gale Crater – a giant basin that contains a 5 km high mountain. NASA officially declared this selection in a press conference at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on July 22.

Curiosity, the $2.5 billion rover, will be taking pictures and studying mineral samples from the layered rocks at the base of the mountain.

“These rocks record the environments in Gale Crater through tens to hundreds of millions of years. It’s this long record that was one of the main reasons Gale was chosen,” said Dawn Sumner, professor of geology at UC Davis.

Sumner, who was a co-chair of the Landing Site Working Group for the Mars Science Laboratory mission had to choose between four different landing sites. The selection process began March of 2009 and after months of weekly teleconferences, presentations and discussions, the group ultimately selected Gale for its diverse environments and interesting mineralogy.

Crusta, a real time Mars visualization program developed by UC Davis doctorate student Tony Bernardin, aided in Sumner choosing Gale Crater. The virtual program is very similar to Google Mars but allows for more exact and detailed images.

Anahita Yazdi, a junior aerospace and mechanical engineering major who has worked in the lab since her first-year, helped Sumner establish a computer system that would run Crusta properly. Yazdi hopes to work as an engineer in NASA someday.

“All of the four landing sites were incredible, but in terms of the geological features, Gale is like a novel that you can read the history of Mars. It’s all deposits, and deposits are basically the history of any globe,” Yazdi said.

Curiosity’s two-year trip will partly be spent looking for organic compounds in these deposits and characterizing any that are found. Organic compounds are the building blocks of life and may be evidence of a habitable environment on the red planet. Because the compounds are difficult to preserve in rock, researchers will be using other properties on the stones to try and understand how the compounds may or may not have been preserved.

One such researcher is UC Davis doctorate candidate Amy Williams, who is a member of Sumner’s Mars Science Laboratory. Williams is working on developing an analog model to compare mineralogical bio-signatures potentially formed on Mars to the ones found on Earth. These bio-signatures are formed when microbes alter the minerals they live on, e.g. by dissolving or precipitating it.

When Curiosity lands, the rover will take high-resolution pictures that will be compared to images of the analog system. The analog system is an acid-saline environment in Northern California, chosen for its similarity to Mars.

“If you see exactly the same features, it might be preserved microorganisms. [We] may say, ‘Wow, those look a lot like preserved microorganisms on Earth, we should look at these in even more detail'”, Williams said.

“It’s just plain fun – going to another planet (virtually) and seeing things no one else has ever seen before is exciting!” Sumner said.

The six-wheeled, car-sized Curiosity is set to launch from Florida on the Atlas 5 rocket between Nov. 23 and Dec. 18, and arrive at Gale Crater between Aug. 6 and Aug. 20, 2012. This mission will be the first astrobiology research on Mars since the Viking trip in 1976.

To watch Sumner’s video of the virtual landing site, go to www.youtube.com/crustamars.

EVA TAN can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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