Last night I attended Future Salon LA hosted by Josie Roman and Peter Voss. Dr. Anita Sengupta of NASA’s JPL spoke on the Mars Science Laboratory Mission. The talk was very informal, and Anita opened the floor to questions during her talk as opposed to asking the audience to hold questions till after. This created a really interactive, discussion-oriented atmosphere, which was relevant as there were some knowledgeable people in attendance.
Anita is a Senior Systems Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She has dealt with the Entry Descent and Landing (EDL) systems for several missions. She spoke last night on the Mars Science Laboratory Mission. This is a very exciting mission particularly because of the size of the 2000 lb rover, which is much greater than previous missions. The larger payload allows for much more scientific equipment to be packed on-board. The rover, Curiosity, will be seeking evidence of organic compounds. Anita stated that we construe the data from images of Mars based on Earth analogues. As we gather more and more info I expect we will be able to construct a greater understanding of how Mars operates in its own right. She showed images of what is thought to be water originating from an underground aquifer. These darkened finger-like projections, which were picked up by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2011 were found closer to the equator, and seem to be a seasonal occurrence, presenting darker and longer in the Spring and Summer, and fading in the Winter.
There are also high levels of methane from an unknown source. The assumption with sources of methane is that it comes from either a biological source, such as Martian cows(!) or geological sources, such as volcanoes. The latter is perhaps a more plausible conclusion.
Much of the talk revolved around Anita’s particular area of expertise. And she talked about testing parachutes in the wind-tunnel at NASA’s Ames Research Center near Palo Alto. They ran into great difficulties when testing with a low pressure environment at super-sonic speeds, experiencing what she described as a jelly-fish effect. I’m going to be honest here. When I saw the mini-parachute they tested, I thought it would make a great skirt! Nylon and Kevlar. I’ll post if I get around to making this. :)
The EDL has a few stages. Here is a CGI video of the proposed landing.
At times, I don’t realize how profound it is that we are sending exploring rovers to the surface of other planets. The fact that all equipment must be sterilized and that we can’t bring anything back from Mars unless we re-visit and re-write international treaties, brings some of that seriousness to the fore. It is a shame that NASA has lost funding lately. There was discussion about this among the guests, and they spoke to the reputation of inflexibility for which NASA known. Now that so much competition is popping up commercially, we may start to see some changes in the tone of the future of space flight.